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Spotlight Report

Grim audience hears accounts of abuse, call for reform

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 6/14/2002

DALLAS - In an extraordinary display of emotion and anger, four victims of clergy sexual abuse and two prominent Catholic laypeople told a spellbound group of 300 bishops yesterday that merely passing a new child protection policy is not enough.

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The victims, often speaking through tears, took the unprecedented opportunity of addressing almost all of the nation's bishops - and, via television, the nation itself - to share directly with church prelates the pain they have felt as a result of being abused by priests and often shunned by church officials. And the laypeople, an academic, and a magazine editor, told the bishops directly what many laypeople have been saying for months: that the current crisis demands broad church reform.

The bishops were attentive. Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, whose own failure to remove abusive priests from ministry has been roundly criticized, sat with his eyes closed and his face grim as he heard victims share their stories and laypeople share their criticism.

''Father Jose violated my innocence, ruined my adolescence, and deeply wounded my self-confidence, self-esteem, and sexual response,'' said Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher of Juneau, Alaska, who described being abused in Oregon, starting at the age of 5, by a seminarian her family had befriended. ''I have suffered from chronic depression and anxiety since the abuse, depression and anxiety so severe at times that I have contemplated suicide. It is only through the divine mercy of God and the support and love of my family and friends that I am alive today.''

Rohrbacher, like the other victims, demanded that the bishops adopt a policy removing from the priesthood any priest who ever abused a minor. The bishops had initially proposed allowing previous one-time offenders to continue as priests with restricted ministry.

''The priesthood lost me, but kept the perpetrator,'' said Michael Bland of Chicago, a former priest who was abused at the age of 15 by a priest. Bland said he dropped out of the priesthood because his religious order seemed not to believe him; his perpetrator still has a church job. ''Perhaps he is not saying public Mass or allowed to be alone with minors, but he has the privilege of choosing to wear the collar, being called father, or baptizing, marrying or burying his family. The church has taken care of him.''

David Clohessy of St. Louis, the national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, who says he is a victim himself, passed around to the bishops a photograph of a young man who killed himself after being abused by a priest.

''Hold out for real change,'' Clohessy said. ''Real change is what will make this church a safe place for everyone.''

The harshest critique was delivered by R. Scott Appleby, an associate professor of history at the University of Notre Dame and the former director of the school's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. Appleby told the bishops he felt duty-bound to reproach them, because ''your attitudes and behavior ... have given scandal to the faithful, especially to the young.'' He said some bishops ''have behaved atrociously'' and that laypeople believe that ''some members of the hierarchy, including those at the center of the storm, remain unrepentant and even defiant, blaming the culture, the media, or their ecclesial opponents for the disgrace that has been visited upon them.''

''They are saying ... that this scandal is only incidentally about the terrible sin and crime of the sexual abuse of minors ... that the underlying scandal is the behavior and attitudes of the Catholic bishops ... even now, after all the sorry revelations to date,'' he said. ''They are saying what months ago would have been unthinkable - that the church is not safe for the innocent, the young, the vulnerable - that it is morally bankrupt.''

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, the editor of Commonweal, a Catholic magazine, told the bishops they need to allow a greater role for laypeople in the nation's largest religious denomination.

''Whatever the causes of the scandal, the fact is that the dam has broken,'' she said. ''A reservoir of trust among Catholics has run dry. This scandal has brought home to laypeople how essentially powerless they are to affect its outcome - and virtually anything else to do with the church.''

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A40 of the Boston Globe on 6/14/2002.
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