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Two sides spar on clergy abuse

Extent is one issue at Minn. meeting

By Linda Matchan, Globe Staff, 10/11/1992

In 1992, the Rev. James R. Porter case in Fall River brought the problem of clergy abuse into the open.  
Coverage of the Porter case
INNEAPOLIS -- Against the backdrop of the sexual abuse case involving former Massachusetts priest James Porter, advocates for religious leaders and abuse victims clashed here this weekend over the extent of sexual misconduct by the clergy.

Patrick J. Schiltz, an attorney whose Minneapolis firm represents Porter's family and dozens of other accused clergymen, maintained that the Porter case had "skewed" the public's perspective on clergy sexual abuse and, as a result, American churches have overreacted to the problem.

"I want to make people understand that the idea that churches are still perpetuating the activities of abusive priests is very rare," Schiltz told more than 400 doctors, lawyers, clergy, and victim advocates at a national conference here sponsored by the Walk-in Counselling Center of Minneapolis.

Schiltz was strongly challenged by Jeffrey Anderson, a lawyer who represents Porter's alleged victims in Minnesota and New Mexico in a civil lawsuit and who is acknowledged to have handled more suits nationally against the Roman Catholic Church over the issue of sexual abuse of children than any other attorney.

"I'm in the business of holding the church responsible for the sins of the fathers," Anderson said, "and I can tell you that when sexual abuse occurs, the mentality of the church is they deny, they minimize, and they blame."

The Catholic church, Anderson added, has been sued in virtually every state. He contended that the church has paid out millions in damage claims stemming from sexual abuse cases.

The debate between the two lawyers underscored the deep divisions surrounding the issue of sexual abuse by the clergy.

Schiltz said the Porter case, involving allegations that he was transferred from parish to parish despite accusations that he had sexually abused children, "imputes upon the church this evil intent."

"But this is rare," Schiltz said. More common, he said, is a priest "victimizing in secret. Bishops get snookered by the same sickness as victims. The bishops see these priests, who are often charismatic, and think, 'He's such a good pastor,' and really want to believe he can be helped, and that the abuse is a one-time thing."

While Schiltz does not represent Porter, accused of sexually molesting scores of children in the Fall River Diocese during the 1960s, he has had extensive national experience representing accused clergy and said he has handled or been consulted on at least 350 such cases nationally.

"The errors that bishops make are overwhelmingly made because of ignorance and lack of knowledge," Schiltz said. He also challenged the stereotype that most clergy involved in sexual misconduct are uncontrollable pedophiles.

"The typical scenario is an adult male pastor counseling an adult female," he said. "Both are unhappy in their marriage or have personal problems and over a period of time begin a sexual relationship that both believe is consensual, God's will, and beautiful."

In an interview, Anderson challenged the notion that the Catholic church and other denominations have largely curbed the problem of sexual abuse by the clergy and said that the problem srill runs deep in many churhes.

"The institution's pattern has been to refuse to acknowledge they have a problem," Anderson said. "They deny and therefore tolerate wrongdoing out of loyalty to the church and a desire to protect the image of the church. Porter is just another manifestation of a phenomenon I have been talking about for seven years."

Anserson said that he had sued the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis at least 50 times in sexual abuse cases involving clergy. He acknowledged some "meaningful" steps that a few Catholic dioceses have taken recently to address and eliminate the problem of sexual misconduct.

Earlier this month, the Diocese of Fall River released proposed guidelines for handling future abuse cases, which, among other recommendations, calls for prompt reporting of abuse charges to civil authorities.

Last month, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, the second-largest Catholic diocese in the United States, announced a new policy that would include the installation of a telephone hot line to handle complaints of sexual abuse and the formation of an independent board to investigate priests accused of molesting children.

Authorities at the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis are likewise revising its sexual abuse policies and have initiated a vigorous educational policy to teach clergy and other church personnel about the dynamics and consequences of sexual misconduct. At this weekend's conference, diocesan officials released a new videotape they produced, entitled "Understanding the Sexual Boundaries of the Pastoral Relationship," which spells out the subtleties of harassment and abuse and emphasizes that such conduct "poisons the church."

Anderson maintained, however, that such steps are only a beginning. "Formulating policies is a start. . . . but the real infirmity here is not that particular archdioceses are doing something but that other dioceses are not doing it uniformly," he said.

"If Cardinal Bernardin effectuates his policy, it is meaningful, but the country still lacks a national policy effectively outlawing . . . sexual abuse by clergy.

"Where is the United States Conference of Bishops?" he said. "Where are the 186 other dioceses besides Chicago and Minneapolis, all of whom don't do anything until me or someone else sues the hell out of them?"

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 10/11/1992.
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