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Catholics struggle with delay

By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff, 11/22/1992

First of two parts

 The series
Part One
Catholics struggle with delay

Part Two
Catholics watching for change

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

ore than 500 priests crowded into the gymnasium at St. John's Seminary in Brighton on Oct. 23 to discuss the draft of a sexual abuse policy for the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. But there was more comment about news coverage than about protecting victims of abuse by clergy, according to a priest who attended one of two such sessions last month.

"One guy complained that it was just like in Germany when the Nazis crushed the church," said the priest, speaking on condition he not be identified.

"Another priest said we have to go back to the personnel files and make sure any 'false accusations,' anything that would be misinterpreted as incriminating, goes to the shredder," the priest said. "It was Custer's Last Stand."

Like victims and parents who cannot believe anyone as trusted, respected and even loved as their parish priest could abuse a young person, the Roman Catholic Church itself is struggling with denial and delay in facing the problem of sexual abuse.

For the better part of a decade, well-publicized clergy sexual abuse cases have confronted church leaders with the need for response: in Lafayette, La., beginning as early as 1983, then in Minnesota and Newfoundland in the middle and late 1980s, followed by cases in New Orleans, Milwaukee, California and Chicago in the early 1990s, and then a spate of Massachusetts cases beginning last year and culminating in the most notorious, the scores of accusations against former Fall River priest James Porter in at least six states.

But despite the damage to victims and the hurt felt by the vast majority of clergy who have never violated their vows, there has until now been little policy debate among the bishops who are ultimately responsible for the discipline of the nation's 53,000 priests and pastoral care for 58 million American Catholics.

In Washington last week, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops reiterated voluntary guidelines for action that critics say pay more attention to perpetrators than to victims and emphasize response to accusations rather than prevention.

Victims of clergy sexual abuse who protested outside the conference asked the bishops to stop acting "as a legal obstacle that projects an image of protecting errant priests at all costs." They asked that bishops join as a body to express concern for victims, that they "equalize and harmonize" sexual abuse policies that vary by diocese, that they set an annual day of prayer for victims and that they begin a regular dialogue with victims.

In a brief, 372-word resolution, the bishops recommended dioceses adopt policies that provide prompt response to allegations, remove clergy where charges are supported, report abuse when required by law, reach out to victims, and inform the community of abuse when appropriate.

The recommendations do not deal with preparing priests to live celibate lives; neither do they address educating other church workers and parishioners on how to support priests in their calling or how to watch for warning signs of abuse.

"We have been wounded even further by church officials following those very policies," said the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests in a statement. "The policies are not working. Many of the policies are just too limited and legalistic."

The bishops did adopt a separate statement on the formation, or religious training, of priests, which alludes to the difficulties of living celibate lives today. But the 202-page document makes no explicit mention of sexual abuse, clergy living conditions, or screening out sexual behavioral problems.

"Ours isn't a national church, and there is no such thing as a national policy on sexual abuse," said Bishop Raymond A. Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., a member of the administrative board, the steering committee of the bishops' conference.

"Neither the Vatican nor the bishops think the conference has the authority to enact binding rule on dioceses in this area," said Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and political scientist. As a result, the bishops' conference is "a very weak body to deal with problems like this," Father Reese said.

But the unwillingness to take joint action is a notable lapse for a hierarchy that has used such an approach on other tough problems.

For the good of their church the bishops have taught their people about subjects as complex as nuclear weapons and economic policy and have agreed on national policies for observance of holy days.

The US hierarchy arguably has had time to act, according to critics within the church, whether by adopting effective diocesan programs or seeking special powers for their conference. By 1985, top church leaders already knew the problem of sexual abuse was widespread, affecting 100 of the nation's 188 dioceses, according to Rev. Thomas Doyle, then a canon lawyer on the staff of the Vatican Embassy.

Beyond the psychic price the church has paid, there have been material incentives to act.

Plaintiffs' attorney Jeffrey Anderson says legal judgments against the church over sexual abuse cases have already hit $300 million. Potential total liability, say journalist Jason Berry and Doyle, could reach $1 billion nationally.

Yet many diocesan policies to deal with the sexual abuse are still in development. Church officials say that substantially all of the nation's dioceses now have policies, but have not made public the number that do. Victims' groups complain that existing policies tend to keep much of the decision-making in the hands of clergy, are applied only when victims finally bring their cases to church attention, and often ignore preventive measures.

All four Massachusetts dioceses have faced new abuse charges this year; Worcester published a policy just last month and Boston, Fall River and Springfield are still in the process of developing theirs.

Boston's policy, due by the end of December, will have cases investigated first by a priest or a nun, then reviewed by a panel of laypersons, including legal, medical, psychological experts and victims. If charges are substantiated, accused priests will be removed and sent to treatment. Case-by- case decisions will be made on returning them to ministry.

But other US dioceses allow victims to take their initial complaints to lay investigators and guarantee that if abuse charges are substantiated, offenders will not return to ministry.

Conference leaders say they have asked the Vatican for a special provision that would allow bishops to dismiss sexual offenders from the priesthood. That currently requires a lengthy canonical trial unless the individual requests laicization.

Some dioceses have been praised for adopting comprehensive policies, including Chicago, St. Paul-Minneapolis and Seattle.

But even the models have blemishes. The Chicago Archdiocese adopted one of the most influential policies in September, praised for involving laypersons in handling new abuse charges and paying attention to screening and training of seminarians. But Chicago acted after local news organizations publicized cases that individual victims and lawyers had brought to church officials as long ago as 1983. And church officials there are fighting to avoid giving prosecutors records of past cases.

Boston's Cardinal Bernard F. Law said before last week's meeting he had heard no bishop ask the conference to act as an intermediary on the abuse problem. "The conference can't take on the responsibility of an individual diocese," Cardinal Law said.

However, there were signs last week that public opprobrium and a sense of pastoral responsibility were heating up discussion.

Fall River's Bishop Sean O'Malley, who has had to live with the aftermath of the James Porter case, tried but failed to convince the conference during an executive session to mandate bishops to act on sexual abuse in their dioceses, according to the Associated Press. A church spokesman in Fall River said he could not confirm the report, adding that Bishop O'Malley had not yet returned to the diocese.

And during debate on a resolution embodying the current voluntary standards, some bishops urged appointment of a panel of bishops to deal with victims when the local bishop cannot, to provide for outreach to parishes that have witnessed abuse, and to care for families affected by the problem. But Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati discouraged any changes, arguing that "if we start amending, we never stop."

Many priests and bishops say they are personally surprised by the incidence of abuse, and they clearly have difficulty discussing the problem.

"This pedophilia thing just blew the mind of a lot of bishops. A lot of bishops felt they had nothing like that in their dioceses," said a former conference president, Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis.

Although victims, lawyers and outside experts say priest pederasts should face the same criminal and liability standards as other offenders, many church leaders want to treat clergy sexual abuse as a family matter.

For example, Cardinal Law said the Boston policy will require reporting abuse cases to civil authorities only when compelled by the law, as in the case of priests who are school counselors.

One reason for all the attention to abuse in the Catholic Church "may be because we live out our life as a community of faith, very much like a family," Law said. "My hope is that we can evolve a policy that can effectively deal with the issue without gearing it into a legal mode."

Church leaders have even considered ways to avoid complying with legal requirements. In his new book on the abuse problem, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," Berry, the journalist who broke many of the abuse stories in daily papers in Louisiana and for the independent weekly, the National Catholic Reporter, details how bishops in 1985 considered, and apparently rejected, removing incriminating evidence from church files, or even sending personnel files to the Vatican Embassy in Washington to see if diplomatic immunity could keep records from victims' attorneys.

The bishops' slow response on sexual abuse by clergy has produced a crisis of confidence among Catholic opinion leaders, left and right.

Clergy sexual abuse is "a symptom of the overall collapse of hierarchical, institutional Catholicism," argues unabashed liberal Eugene Kennedy, professor of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and a former priest.

' "The bishops have reacted on the model of Bhopal: There are a thousand dead in a chemical accident and we have to try to defend the corporation and protect it financially and legally," said Kennedy.

For Catholics on the right, the pederasty crisis confirms some of their worst fears. The disclosures of sexual abuse "show the breakdown of discipline within the church and the failure in many cases of the local bishop to govern his priests and to handle this kind of bombshell properly," said Al Matt, publisher of the Wanderer, a conservative weekly that has long criticized US church leaders.

Slowly bishops are edging toward action. They asked their committee on priestly life and ministry to make recommendations for further action when they meet next fall.

One member of the panel, Bishop Daniel P. Reilly of Norwich, Conn., said Friday they "would try to put more flesh on recommended actions" contained in last week's resolution.

They will also pay more attention to issues of recruiting and training priests, Bishop Reilly said. "There is some concern that we have to be proactive rather than just reacting to the sexual abuse problem, and we are trying to meet those demands."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 11/22/1992.
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