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Catholics speak out on church and abuse

Most polled say sex cases should go directly to police


The following story was reported by Linda Matchan, Efrain Hernandez and James L. Franklin of the Globe staff.

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Catholics faults church on abuse
hile they say their faith in the church remains undiminished, many Massachusetts Catholics surveyed for a Globe poll nonetheless have harsh words for church authorities' handling of charges of sexual abuse by priests.

These men and women from across the state say they were acutely aware of sexual abuse charges because of recent cases involving priests in Shelburne Falls, Hingham, and, most notably, the Fall River Diocese, where former priest James Porter has been accused of abusing scores of children and young people when he served in three parishes in the 1960s. Porter, who now lives in Minnesota, recently admitted in a statement that he "sexually abused a number of children" while in the priesthood.

Despite evidence of pedophile tendencies, Porter was later permitted to work in churches in Minnesota and allegedly in New Mexico, where he is accused of molesting more children.

A total of 401 men and women over 18 who identified themselves as Catholics responded to last week's random telephone survey conducted for the Globe by KRC Communications Research of Newton. Nearly two dozen of the respondents who agreed to discuss topics in greater detail were later interviewed by Globe reporters.

Most of those interviewed blasted church officials for covering up the problem, and a majority said they thought abuse charges should be taken directly to police because of the church's past failures to conduct adequate internal investigations.

"Priesthood is based on trust and they pretty much blew it," said Joseph P. Gulla of Billerica.

"It's clear that in the past they did try to cover the problem up," said Robert L. Crowley of Millers Falls. "They swept it under the rug and sent the priest off to counseling."

Respondents offered a variety of explanations for why they believe church authorities tried to keep sexual abuse cases secret.

"I think they did cover up . . . because they see they already don't have enough people going to church," said Melissa M. Jones of Lee.

A Saugus woman, who asked that she not be identified, speculated that publicity about abuse charges "would be a huge embarrassment, and I think they want to cover up for that reason."

"We know a lot of priests and nuns, and know there are lots of hard- working people in the church," said Mary, a woman from the Forest Hills section of Boston who asked that her real name not be used. "It's a shame they covered up the problem, because it makes everyone look bad."

The overwhelming majority of Catholics surveyed, 72 percent, said that they have not lost confidence in the church as an institution as a result of the sexual misconduct by priests.

A New Bedford man, however, said his family has not attended church since hearing charges concerning Porter. "It definitely has affected us," said the man, who asked that his name not be used.

And a Boston man said the recent publicity had an impact on him, partly because he knew of several people, including cousins in Maine, who once were sexually abused by a priest. "They never really talked about it until they were much older," he said. "Most people don't dare to say anything about it. It would hurt their parents and hurt their family."

But many others maintained that despite their disappointment over how the church has handled the matter, their faith has remained unshaken.

"I'm a devout Catholic and, no matter what any of them do, it doesn't affect my belief in my religion," said a Fall River woman.

Her sentiments were echoed by many.

"This hasn't affected my faith," said Robert B. Dillon of Pittsfield. "Even though priests are representatives of Christ, they are not Christ. They are human, and all the human frailties are there."

The Globe poll found that a strong majority of Catholics, 65 percent, want church officials to take such cases directly to police, with only 19 percent agreeing that the church should handle the matter internally. A majority of those interviewed said they believe charges should be brought to police, either directly by victims or their parents or by church officials as soon as they see there is substance to a complaint.

"It should be reported to police authorities. A crime is a crime, regardless of who committed it," said Tony Ferreira of Rochester.

"If they handle it internally, all that will happen will be verbal chastisement and a transfer to another parish, and I don't think that would be a satisfactory solution," said a Saugus woman.

Yet a sizable minority of those interviewed said they thought there is a role for church officials in handling abuse allegations.

Virginia Barnes of Harwich Port said she was confident church officials "are smart enough to know how to handle church affairs" and when a case should be handled by police.

"If there is any harm or threat to any of the alleged victims, then church officials . . . should be mandated to report it" to law enforcement officials, said Charles Rudack of South Boston.

The church has its own laws and is capable of handling less clear-cut cases, Rudack said. "If the church investigates and finds probable cause but no hard facts, probable cause should be sufficient to take disciplinary action, such as 'we'll send you for therapy.' "

Many of those interviewed felt strongly that priests should never return to ministry if abuse charges are proved.

"I'm not convinced that treatment programs solve the problem," said Crowley of Millers Falls. "I think the temptation is always there."

Offenders "should be right out" of the priesthood, said a Fall River woman who requested anonymity. "If they come back at all, it should be an office job or dusting the furniture," she said.

"I don't think they should be put in that kind of authoritative position again, over children especially, just like I don't think a rapist should be locked in a room full of women," said a Boston man who asked not to be identified.

Barnes of Harwich Port said priests should be returned to ministry but not with children. "If you have a pyromaniac, you don't hand him a book of matches," she said. "We've got to use some common sense."

Most Catholics interviewed said that the church should pay for treatment for priests. "So many priests take a vow of poverty. Under the circumstances, the church should see to it that priests are taken care of," said Charlotte, who lives in a community near Boston and asked that her name not be used.

"This is like any other illness, and the church tries to take care of its own," said Dillon of Pittsfield.

Despite the Catholic Church's centuries-old requirement that priests be unmarried, 73 percent of those polled maintained that priests should be allowed to marry.

"It would give them a better understanding of the problems families have," said Crowley.

"I'm not sure why they don't allow marriage anyway. It might help them to understand the lives of people in their ministry," said Mary of Forest Hills.

A New Bedford man suggested that if priests were permitted to marry, "it would increase the number of people who would consider becoming a priest."

But others were strongly opposed to married priests. "Christ wasn't married, and I think their job is too hard. They wouldn't have time to be a good father or a good husband," said Barnes. "A priest is a priest 24 hours a day, every day, even on a day off."

Most who were interviewed rejected the idea that celibacy is connected with sexual abuse. "I just think that some people are sick and maybe they should never have entered the priesthood to begin with," said Josephine Phipps of Franklin, N.H., who is spending the summer in Scituate.

"A priest who didn't want to be celibate wouldn't need to be abusive," said a Fall River woman who asked that her name not be used.

But Crowley said he fears the Catholic Church's opposition to marriage for priests inadvertently increases the risk of abuse. The church, he said "is attracting the wrong type of person because of the policy, people who are not mainstream but fringe people."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 7/27/1992.
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