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Spotlight Report

Bush adviser optimistic that scandal can be overcome

By Mary Leonard, Globe Staff, 4/23/2002

WASHINGTON - Jim Towey, President Bush's adviser on faith-based issues, said yesterday that the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church can weather the current crisis by continuing to acknowledge the gravity of sexual abuse by priests, show sorrow for causing families grief, and take steps to prevent it from happening again.

''I have great respect for the Holy Father and I have not lost confidence in the church,'' said Towey, a Catholic who once worked in one of Mother Teresa's AIDS missions. ''The things the church is addressing need to be addressed. The Lord is pruning the branches right now, and hopefully, it will add to the church's fruitfulness.''

Towey, who spoke reluctantly and for the first time on a subject the Bush administration has largely sidestepped, said he was, like all Catholics, ''broken-hearted'' by the scandal and deeply troubled by the misconduct of priests entrusted with the care of children.

''As the father of four sons, I would be very happy if the Lord called any or all of my sons to the priesthood,'' Towey said. ''But also as a father of four sons, when you see any priest violate the trust, you feel those kinds of sins are despicable.''

Bush tapped Towey on Feb. 1 to head the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and steer through Congress his crippled plan to give religious charities greater access to federal social-service grants and contracts. Towey said he does not think the Catholic Church scandal will make the public more wary of aiding social ministries, but said he was unsure about the long-term impact on donations to Catholic charities.

''It's too early to tell,'' Towey said. ''I tend to think that within the Catholic Church, people aren't going to take this out on the poor, even if they are mad. What good is it to them to hurt Catholic Charities' homeless program and drug program and different ministries that lift up the poor?''

Catholic Charities in Boston has reported a 10 percent drop in donations in the last month and predicted cuts in social service programs. In a Boston Globe and WBZ-TV poll conducted earlier this month, 31 percent of Boston-area Catholics said they were now giving less money to the church because of the scandal.

Towey said it is difficult to determine whether a recent dampening in charitable contributions nationally is the result of the scandal, a shift in giving after Sept. 11, or a slowdown related to the recession. Legislation introduced last month in the Senate and endorsed by Bush would add funds for fighting poverty and give tax deductions to non-itemizers for their charitable contributions.

Towey predicted that a bipartisan bill, co-sponsored by Senators Joseph Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, and Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, could emerge from the Senate Finance Committee within two or three weeks and come to a vote on the Senate floor before Memorial Day.

''We are very optimistic that the president's initiative is going to get its day in the Senate and pass,'' said Towey, noting that legislation to spur charitable giving had already passed the House.

A Democrat and former Senate aide, Towey was inspired by Mother Teresa. In 1985, he became one of her full-time volunteers, and later, her legal counsel for a decade. While the deceased nun had prayed for priests and had had a friendship with Cardinal Bernard F. Law, Towey said, ''her heart would have gone out to the families wounded by the sins of these handful of priests.''

Towey said Catholic clergy and volunteers ''show that the church has tremendous vitality, and that is why I am not discouraged at all.''

Mary Leonard can be reached by email at

This story ran on page A12 of the Boston Globe on 4/23/2002.
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