RELIGION IN THE NEWS
Winter 2006, Vol. 8, No. 3

Table of Contents
Winter 2006

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Blogging on the Religion Beat

Libert, Equalit, Islam

Religion and the Supremes

Intelligent Design On Trial

Special Supplement
Secularism:
A Symposium

After Katrina

Winning Hearts and Minds in Kashmir

No Peace for the Church

Tokyo's Dr. Phil

Letters to the Editor

Contributors

 

 

No Peace for the Church
by Andrew Walsh

January marked the fourth anniversary of the Boston Globe's landmark investigation of the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by Catholic clergy and, even more pointedly, the hierarchy's failure to treat that abuse as criminal. The Globe series turned the abuse story, which had convulsed a number of dioceses episodically since the mid-1980s, into the greatest crisis ever endured by the Catholic church in America, unmatched in impact, scope, and duration.

Indeed, notable episodes are still unfolding in the saga. But, four years out, these episodes have largely receded to local, rather than national, stages. Last fall, Philadelphia and Los Angeles occupied the spotlight. And, as in most places in the nation, the legal process, rather than journalistic crusading or even new developments within the church, is now driving the story.

The biggest uproar took place in Philadelphia, where District Attorney Lynn Abraham released a slashing 418-page grand jury report - similar to previous blasts in Massachusetts and Long Island - on abuse and cover-up in the archdiocese on September 22.

"The leaders of the Philadelphia Archdiocese - including two former archbishops - actively concealed sexual abuse by priests for decades, but no criminal charges can be brought against the church or its priests because of the constraints of state law," the Allentown Morning Call reported in a page one story on September 22.

Over 40 months of work beginning in 2002, two Philadelphia grand juries heard more than 100 witnesses testify, including Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua, archbishop from 1988 to 2002, who testified 10 times for a total of 27 hours. The report, issued by grand jury number two, said that witnesses made accusations against 169 priests who had served in eastern Pennsylvania since 1967, and identified 63 priests by name, often with very graphic accounts of the accusations made against them. Along the way, more than 30,000 pages of archdiocesan records were gathered, continuing a characteristic trend of using access to internal church records as the basis of charges in the sex abuse scandal.

What stands out about the Philadelphia grand jury is the fury directed at the top leadership of the church: "Grand jurors have evidence the Cardinals Bevilacqua and Krol, and their aides, were aware that priests in the diocese were perpetrating massive amounts of child molestation and sexual assaults. The Archdiocese's own files reveal a steady stream of reports and allegations....In many cases, the same priests were reported again and again."

The archdiocese's lawyers responded to the report with a 76-page rebuttal, calling the grand jury report a "vile, mean-spirited diatribe against the church," and a "sensationalized, tabloid-like presentation of events that transpired years ago, which is neither fair nor accurate." The report was, the lawyers said, "nothing more than an attempt to convict in the court of public opinion those whom it does not indict in a court of law."

One archdiocesan lawyer, William Sasso, told Inquirer reporter Kitty Caparella on September 22, that the report was "incredibly biased and anti-Catholic." For his part, Cardinal Justin Rigali, who was transferred to Philadelphia from St. Louis in 2003, took a softer line in his initial response, expressing '"deep regrets and sincere apologies' to young victims who were 'violated' and 'humiliated,'" Caparella wrote.

"The archdiocese acknowledges and completely repents mistakes that were made in the handling of some cases," Rigali told the Inquirer's David O'Reilly on September 23. "What we can't accept is the inference that there was any intentional, unlawful, or criminal behavior on the part of officials of the archdiocese."

That, however, was the crux of the matter. As on Long Island, the rage of prosecutors in Philadelphia was driven by their sense that during the 1990s, long after priestly sexual abuse became a public issue, the hierarchy was crafting more sophisticated strategies to prevent external scrutiny of their policies for investigating and resolving charges against priests.

In Philadelphia, the grand jury report argued that Cardinal John Krol, who served as archbishop from 1961 to 1988, covered up priestly misconduct because he was "intent on avoiding what the church called 'general scandal,' transferring priests and pressuring victims not to go to the police," the Inquirer's Craig R. McCoy reported on September 22.

McCoy went on to note that, according to the report, while Bevilacqua "shared his predecessor's obsession with public relations," he also "had an abiding interest in limiting the church's legal exposure during years when the abuse problem was beginning to spawn lawsuits elsewhere."

"Of the two cardinals," McCoy wrote, "the report portrayed Bevilacqua, who holds a degree in civil law from St. John's University and a doctorate in canon law from Rome's Gregorian University, as the more sophisticated in his orchestration of the cover-up."

Under Bevilacqua, the archdiocese's approach to the investigation of charges against priests was to restrict investigations and to mislead complainants. "The jury contended that Bevilacqua had his staff cripple the church's investigatory process, shutting a case down as soon as a priest denied assaults and deliberately refraining from interviewing victims and church staff or seeking to corroborate accusations," McCoy wrote.

The report accused the archdiocese's secretary of the clergy, Monsignor William J. Lynn, whose staff was charged with investigating clerical misconduct, of orchestrating Bevilacqua's campaign to limit the impact of potential legal action against the archdiocese. McCoy reported that the grand jury was "initially incredulous" that Bevilacqua had praised Lynn's work. "It became apparent to the grand jurors that Msgr. Lynn was handling the cases precisely as his boss wished."

"To protect themselves and their aides from negative publicity or expensive lawsuits - while keeping abusive priests active - the cardinals and their aides hid the priests' crimes from parishioners, police, and the general public," the National Catholic Reporter quoted the grand jury report in its October 7 issue. "Under Bevilacqua and Lynn, the report said, "the only 'investigation' conducted after a victim reported being abused was to ask the priest if he did what was alleged. If the accused priest, whose very crime is characterized by deceit and secretiveness, denied the allegation, archdiocese officials considered the allegation unproven."

The report said that the cardinal told the grand jury, the Reporter continued, "that when assigning or promoting priests, he disregarded anonymous or third-party reports of sexual crimes against children that were contained in priests' files." His staff "never truly investigated these reports - no matter how serious, how believable, or how easily verified."

Rigali responded at two levels, first by telling the Inquirer and other journalists that, since 2002, the archdiocese has taken "extraordinary" steps to ensure the safety of children, including reporting all allegations to police, following the new national Catholic bishops' protocol of permanently removing from ministry all priests found guilty of any sexual misconduct with children, and mounting a massive training program for everyone involved in ministry.

In a letter to all Catholics in the archdiocese, he also defended Bevilacqua stoutly. "The report is unjustifiably critical of Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, Cardinal John Krol and others who worked in the administration of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. In every single case of abuse reported to archdiocesan officials, action was taken based on the best medical information available at the time."

The archdiocese's lawyers complained in their document of a "gratuitous attack" on Cardinal Krol, developed by "reading between the lines of archdiocesan documents and speculating on the cardinal's underlying motives, undeterred by the fact that the Cardinal Krol is no longer alive to defend himself."

"Perhaps the cruelest treatment of any archdiocesan witness is reserved for Cardinal Bevilacqua," it said. "The report takes excessive liberties with the facts, places unwarranted interpretation on the written documents, tortures Cardinal Bevilacqua's live testimony and ignores much of what he said to cast him in the role of a leader insensitive to children and preoccupied with issues of legal liability....The view of Cardinal Bevilacqua is so distorted and so unfair that those who know him and were influenced by his ministry cannot help but be offended."

The rebuttal went on to emphasize that accused priests "were removed from their current assignments and required to undergo psychological treatment and evaluation before decisions were rendered regarding their further treatment or future ministry." Any mistakes that were made were "the result of human error - not criminal intent - and a society-wide misunderstanding of the nature of these disorders."

The bulk of the grand jury report, however, catalogued a long series of cases in which repeatedly accused priests continued to be recycled into positions of authority. The Inquirer's McCoy reported on September 22 that Bevilacqua had many times promoted, and even honored, the Rev. Albert Kostelnick, "even though the church had received a constant stream of abuse allegations against him, including an eyewitness account from a fellow priest." The grand jury said that Kostelnick had at least 18 victims - the largest number of allegations documented involving a single priest.

The grand jury report's catalogue of charges and descriptions was brutally graphic, crafted explicitly to puncture bureaucratic posturing and denial: "We should begin by making one thing clear, when we say abuse, we don't just mean 'inappropriate touching' (as the Archdiocese often chooses to refer to it). We mean rape. Boys who were raped orally, boys who were raped anally, girls who were raped vaginally."

Lay response to the report was dramatic, with headlines like "Among Catholics, sadness and fury," "Some angry at church, others at D.A.," "Prof Sees 'Disaster' for church here," and "Their faith in God, not in men, unshaken." Over the following weekend, homilies on the report by local priests were widely reported. And by the following week, the Inquirer was reporting that Catholic audiences were responding coldly to Rigali.

"Crowd members lash out at cardinal at Villanova" was the headline on an Inquirer story covering a speech by Rigali at Villanova University on the 40th anniversary of a document of the Second Vatican Council. Frederick Cusick reported that the first questioner, a lay woman named Judy Grady, noted that "Rigali had mentioned 'human dignity' 37 times in his speech" and "wanted to know how that squared with his support of 'criminal cardinals who have protected oral and anal rape.'" A series of hostile questions followed until organizers intervened to restrict discussion to the Vatican Council document.

On September 28, Inquirer reporters David O'Reilly and Jim Remsen reported that several priests had challenged Rigali's defense of Krol and Bevilacqua at a private meeting of 300 archdiocesan priests. One priest reportedly told Rigali he had chosen "the wrong time to defend the indefensible."

Rumbling under the discussion was unhappiness with Pennsylvania criminal and civil statutes, which have relatively tight statutes of limitation on prosecuting crimes against children, or even on pursuing civil remedies. Among the chief public justifications of the grand jury report was the desire of prosecutors to get the time limits extended.

California is one place where, in the wake of the abuse scandal, action was taken to reopen civil liability. A 2003 law gave plaintiffs an additional year to files civil suits against institutions that failed to protect them from knowing predators, even decades after the assaults. A huge wave of litigation has followed.

On October 12, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles released to the Associated Press summaries of 126 personnel records of priests accused of molesting children and adolescents -  something, the Los Angles Times pointed out, Mahony had been promising to do "for more than two years." The skepticism of journalists and victim advocates was captured in the day's headline: "Records Release Is Criticized: Critics dismiss as a PR ploy the disclosure by the L.A. Archdiocese of documents on priests."

"I urged Cardinal Mahony to provide the fullest possible disclosure of evidence of sexual abuse by clergy," District Attorney Steve Cooley said in a printed statement quoted by the Los Angeles Daily News on October 13. "Despite two court rulings, Cardinal Mahony continues to claim 'confidentiality privileges' that no court has recognized."

"What we're looking for is evidence and investigative leads, not institutional mea culpas," Cooley said.

Mahony's lawyers took a less aggressive approach than Rigali's, with J. Michael Hennigan telling reporters, "We have a church that is embarrassed, contrite, ashamed of what happened in the past." Church officials are now, Hennigan told the Daily News's Rachel Uranga and Rick Orlov, "strongly committed to reform."

The Times' Jean Guccione and Sandy Banks noted that same day that the Los Angeles archdiocese might end up paying out the largest civil judgments of any diocese in the United States, because of the re-opening of civil liability in California. They reported that the total paid out by the church in California has already topped $250 million, including a $100 million settlement to 90 people in Orange County.

And, in a separate story double-bylined with Doug Smith, Guccione used a Times study reaching back to 1950 to track the extent of the sexual abuse crisis in southern California. "Molestations have occurred at roughly 100 parishes," they wrote. "But because the accused priests moved around the archdiocese on average every 4.5 years, the total number of parishes in which accused abusers served is far larger - more than three-fourths of the 288 parishes."

Guccione and Smith noted that the parishes included neighborhoods "both rich and poor, suburban and urban, some predominantly white and others with African-American or Latino majorities." The study did not "support the contention made by some critics of the church that problem priests were dumped into poor, Latino or African-American communities."

On November 9, the Los Angeles archdiocese got some good news from California Superior Court when Judge Haley J. Fromholz ruled against four insurance companies seeking to avoid paying claims against the archdiocese on the grounds that Cardinal Mahony had withheld information about clergy abuse allegations. Fromholz found no evidence that Mahony had done so -  thereby, in the view of many, opening the door to serious settlement talks with plaintiffs.

But then, on November 17, the Times published a long story by Paul Pringle considering the roots of a misconduct scandal at the archdiocesan seminary, St. John's in Camarillo. The school had, according to Pringle, "produced a disproportionate number of alleged sexual abusers as it prepared men for a life of ministry and celibacy."

Pringle reported that about 10 percent of the 625 St. John's graduates ordained as priests of the archdiocese since 1950 have been accused of molesting minors, and that in two classes - 1966 and 1972 - a third of the graduates were later accused of molestation. A long string of former students, some of whom were later involved in litigation against the church, painted a picture of "a licentious atmosphere at St. John's that might have accommodated a range of sexual behavior, especially in the years before the 1990s."

Even as archdiocesan officials denied "that the seminary was in any way responsible" for later problems, J. Michael Hennigan, the archdiocese's lawyer, told Pringle that "there were a couple of years at that seminary where lightning struck." Hennigan said he doubted "we'll ever figure out why."

Down the coast, meanwhile, the Diocese of San Diego was litigating to get the state law reopening liability overturned, while up the coast, the Archdiocese of San Francisco was trying to settle its own large abuse case load. And in courts around the state, a series of high profile trials of alleged abusers was beginning, including one against former Los Angeles priest Michael Edwin Wempe, whose lawyer admitted that Wempe had abused 13 boys in the 1970s and 1980s as part of a legal maneuver to limit damaging testimony about older abuse cases.

Elsewhere, it was a crazy quilt of legal developments.

In Kentucky, the Diocese of Covington, a tiny and unprosperous jurisdiction, agreed to set up a $80 million fund to compensate hundreds of victims of abuse, the largest single settlement to date in the scandal.

In Connecticut, the Archdiocese of Hartford announced a $22 million settlement with 43 victims. At the same time, the Hartford Courant was making progress in its legal battle to force the Diocese of Bridgeport (former see of Cardinal William Egan of New York) to release its internal records about priestly misconduct.

No legal event had more potential significance, however, than an August ruling by the federal bankruptcy judge handling the Chapter 11 filing of the Diocese of Spokane, Washington. The assets of a Catholic diocese, declared Judge Patricia Williams, can be liquidated to pay victims of sexual abuse by priests.

"We are going to see a surge in claims, to put it a bit crassly," Peter Borre, cochairman of the Council of Parishes, a lay group helping parishes of the Archdiocese of Boston oppose mandatory closing, told the Boston Globe on August 29. "Sexual-abuse victims and their attorneys will now see much larger sums of money available for settlement. Everything within the diocese is now potentially on the table if it comes to Chapter 11 proceedings."

So American Catholics, and indeed all Americans, are still waist deep in this Big Muddy. When is enough, enough?

Editorializing on October 5, the Pittsburgh Post Gazette went out on a limb to oppose reopening civil liability in child abuse cases. "The child abuse scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church in America seems never to stop casting its long shadow, even though church leaders are well past condoning the grave errors that allowed it to occur," the paper began.

"At first reckoning, the indignation expressed by advocates for those abused seems justified. The crimes were so shocking that emotionally, it is hard to entertain the idea that pursuit of justice should ever stop. But when rationality returns to overrule emotion, the idea of respecting a statute of limitations is not so crazy or profane."

In the face of the truculence of the Philadelphia archdiocese, however, or the PR moves of its Los Angeles counterpart, public opinion seems to be: Enough is not yet enough.

   

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