National News

 U.S. Headlines



As Scandal Keeps Growing, Church and Its Faithful Reel

By Laurie Goodstein and Allessandra Stanley
NY Times, March 17, 2002

By Tuesday, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland, Me., has promised to turn over to local prosecutors a file containing all accusations of sexual misconduct involving its priests. The district attorney wants to see every accusation ever made against a living priest.

"Even if it was triple hearsay, let me decide," said Stephanie Anderson, the district attorney of Cumberland County, who said she would follow their transfers from parish to parish in search of victims new and old. She wants to track the history of every priest accused of sexual misconduct.

"It is my belief that if these people victimize once, they generally do not stop," Ms. Anderson said.

The sexual abuse scandal engulfing the Roman Catholic Church, far from being nearly over, has only begun. Across the country, in an effort to restore credibility, many dioceses are volunteering to turn over their records to prosecutors. The publicity is emboldening more people to step forward with accusations of sexual abuse. The news media daily are exposing new cases of priests accused as pedophiles and new reports of cover-ups.

Already, the scandal has traumatized the church's faithful, demoralized the clergy and threatened the hard-won moral authority of its bishops. It has brought down a bishop, removed dozens of priests and tarnished the nation's pre-eminent prelate, Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston. But the real extent of the impact on the church's life, status and future is only now becoming clear.

From schools of theology to dining- room tables, a growing number of Catholics are questioning the bedrock on which the church is built — the all-male, celibate priesthood. Parishioners are calling for open dialogue and debate about a tenet that Pope John Paul II has said is closed for discussion.

In a startling step, the official Catholic newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston said in an editorial on Friday that the Catholic Church must now confront questions and commission studies about whether the celibate, unmarried, all-male priesthood should be continued.

Cardinal Law, who is considered a conservative Vatican loyalist, said on Friday night that the editorial was not intended to question the church's position on clerical celibacy but to reflect issues raised by others because of the scandal. No church leaders expect any immediate change in a doctrine that has served the church for centuries. But the practical effects of the scandal are evident.

The church is at risk of losing some of the legal protections that have shielded it from criminal prosecution in the United States, and its moral authority on issues like social justice and family values is also in peril.

Financially, a church widely perceived as wealthy is scraping to pay multimillion- dollar settlements to the victims of its priests. Insurance has not been sufficient to cover the settlements. So some dioceses have been forced to borrow from one another, beg from major donors or sell property — sometimes bartering away beloved churches and schools.

"People are wrong to think the Vatican can just write a check," said Mark E. Chopko, general counsel of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who emphasized that each diocese is financially independent. "No bishop wants to shut down Catholic Charities to pay off settlements."

The most serious danger to the church, and the most difficult to measure, is disaffection among believers. Many Catholics say they could no more leave their faith than leave their families. But distrust of the church hierarchy could drive some to abandon the church.

Peggy Morales, who lives in East Harlem, sends her children to parochial school and attends Mass on Sunday, said she was having second thoughts about a weekly habit ingrained since childhood.

"I always said going to church was setting the right example for my kids," she said. "Now I am just so glad my son has never been an altar boy."

For the future of Catholicism, another ominous aspect of the scandal is that it could further deter men from joining the priesthood of a church that is already struggling with the shortage of clergymen.

Last week, in an East Harlem church, Cardinal Edward Michael Egan ordained Andris Alexis Moronta as a priest, one of God's representatives on earth. "A priest," the cardinal intoned, must act as "a mirror held up to divinity."

Cardinal Egan, delivering his homily last Thursday in St. Paul's Church, where fresh carnations masked cracking plaster, did not allude to problems in the priesthood. But although the ordination of a new priest untouched by scandal was a joyous event, some parishioners could not entirely forget the church's disgrace.

"We are going through this terrible thing," said Carmen Perdomo, who was moved to tears when the new priest prostrated himself on the church floor as a symbol of his renunciation of worldly sin. "But you just have to take it out of your mind and pray that God will help them from straying."

The career of Father Moronta, 28, illustrates the church's inability to recruit priests in the United States: He is a Dominican who was sent to an American parish as a missionary. Although raised in New York, he is a Dominican citizen who studied for the priesthood in Argentina. He is ministering to a Brooklyn parish as a missionary of his Argentine order.

After his ordination, well-wishers hugged him and nuns kissed his palms in a sign of respect. Moments later, Father Moronta said: "I am aware that this is a difficult time to be a priest. My testimony shows that there are young people who are willing to give up everything to bring people to God."

Silent Strategy Evolved

Many church leaders admit they are stunned at the ferocity of this scandal because they thought it was a problem they had already laid to rest.

The issue first surfaced in 1985, when The Times of Acadiana, a weekly newspaper, reported the case of a Louisiana priest, Gilbert Gauthe, who confessed to molesting dozens of children and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The American bishops studied the problem and in the early 1990's issued policy recommendations called "Restoring Trust."

After more cases of priests with multiple victims emerged in Dallas; Santa Fe, N.M.; Fall River, Mass.; and Santa Rosa, Calif., many dioceses adopted the recommendations. They called for removing priests accused of abuse from service, sending them into treatment and providing victims with counseling and pastoral care. The issue faded from the public view.

Behind the scenes, however, victims were still coming forward. Quietly, insisting that confidentiality was necessary for the victims and the accused, church lawyers settled what plaintiffs' lawyers estimate were as many as 1,000 lawsuits, paying victims anywhere from a few thousand dollars to millions each. In what many bishops have now acknowledged was a grave mistake, the church also quietly reassigned many of the priests to new parishes.

"Any bishop who made this mistake before 1985 I think is forgivable because there was great ignorance and naïveté," said one priest and church scholar who, like many, spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But in 1985 when the Louisiana case blew up, that had to be the beginning of the wake-up call.

"The farther away you get from that, the more incompetent, stupid or immoral the bishops are for not dealing with this thing. Even just in the interest of retaining your insurance, if you're told that trampolines and high dives are a risk, you get rid of trampolines and high dives."

Questions about the church's handling of the abuse issue, which had been the subject of articles in several local newspapers in the late 1990's, resurfaced nationally this year.

In January, The Boston Globe disclosed that Cardinal Law had shifted the Rev. John J. Geoghan Jr., 66, who was accused of molesting children, from parish to parish.

Internal church documents showed that from the mid-1980's and into the 90's Cardinal Law and his top aides were aware of the problems of Father Geoghan, who was eventually accused of molesting more than 130 children over 30 years. In February, he was sentenced to 9 to 10 years in prison for fondling a 10-year-old boy. After the church's role in protecting Father Geoghan became known, the cardinal gave local prosecutors the names of more than 80 priests accused of sexual abuse over decades.

Within weeks, bishops across the country began purging their dioceses of priests who had been serving despite accusations of child abuse. Since January, at least 55 priests in 17 dioceses have been removed, suspended, put on administrative leave or forced to resign or retire.

They include at least 6 priests in Philadelphia, 7 in Manchester, N.H., 2 in St. Louis, 2 in Maine, 1 in Fargo, N.D., and as many as 12 in Los Angeles. There are 194 Catholic dioceses in the nation.

Most of the priests removed had been involved in old cases, but new accusations have come to light recently. On Long Island, the Rev. Michael Hands, 35, pleaded guilty on March 7 to having sex with a 13-year-old boy in 1999 and 2000 at the St. Raphael Rectory in East Meadow.

In Florida, the scandal recently claimed its second bishop. Anthony J. O'Connell, the bishop of Palm Beach, resigned on March 8 after The St. Louis Post-Dispatch disclosed that he had molested a student at a seminary in Missouri in the 1970's. The diocese in Missouri had paid the accuser $125,000 in a confidential settlement in 1996. Despite that, in 1999, the Vatican promoted Bishop O'Connell to Palm Beach to heal that diocese, where the previous bishop had been forced to resign the year before amid accusations of sexually abusing children.

A vivid sign of upheaval within the church was the editorial on Friday in The Pilot, the official newspaper of the Archdiocese of Boston. The editorial urged church leaders to study whether priestly celibacy rules had any link to the sexual abuse of minors. While dissident Catholic thinkers have long questioned the Vatican's adherence to celibacy and its refusal to ordain women, the latest call for a discussion of change was coming from the church newspaper published by Cardinal Law.

"These questions have taken on a deeper intensity in more Catholic minds than prior to these sexual scandals," Msgr. Peter V. Conley, the paper's executive editor, wrote. "Even if our present woes in the archdiocese were suddenly to disappear, these questions have taken on an urgency and will not slip quietly away."

Differences Over Cause

Liberal and traditional Catholics, long at war over such issues as abortion and divorce, are now clashing over the causes of the scandal.

Some argue that sexual abuse in the church grows out of fundamental flaws in Catholicism. "The division of body and soul is a mistaken model," said Eugene Kennedy, a psychologist and former priest, who wrote, "The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality."

Mr. Kennedy added: "The church uses sexuality to control people in a punitive atmosphere. If flesh is evil, you cannot teach celibacy in a healthy way."

Others argue that the abuse was made possible by a church that had become too lax. "These cases are the detritus of the sexual revolution," said Mary Ann Glendon, a Harvard law professor who serves on two Vatican commissions. She said that 1960's culture pressured priests to explore their sexuality. "We need a reaffirmation of clerical self-discipline," she said.

All sides agree that the church is in danger of losing the moral credibility in speaking out on political as well as social issues, including the death penalty and the status of Jerusalem. "If the church does not respond vigorously to this scandal, then the authority the hierarchy has to teach morally will vanish," said R. Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at Notre Dame. "It won't just be a crisis, it will be all over but the shouting. There will be no moral credibility for the bishops to speak about justice, truth, racial equality, war or immigration if they can't get their own house in order."

Answers From the Vatican

The answers can come from only one place, Rome. But the Vatican's resistance to public action has become part of the controversy. In interviews in and around the Vatican last week, concern was expressed that the Vatican appeared to be promoting a policy of silence that some critics compared to Pope Pius XII's failure to speak out forcefully against the Holocaust during World War II. Pope John Paul has vehemently condemned clergymen who prey on children, but the Vatican has not led efforts to uproot the abuse.

In fact, when the pope issued rules in January requiring local bishops to report sex abuse accusations directly to Rome, they were buried in a voluminous report, published in Latin, about a bishops' conference. Part of the reason the Vatican has kept its distance is that it has seen sexual abuse as largely an American problem, church officials say. That perception may change.

In John Paul's native Poland, the archbishop of Poznan, Juliusz Paetz, was accused in the news media this month of molesting seminarians. Archbishop Paetz, 67, a former Vatican prelate appointed by the pope to his present job, denied the accusations but has remained a center of attention because of events in the United States.

In Austria, grass-roots pressure forced the retirement in 1998 of the archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, after he was accused of molesting seminarians. He denied the accusations but his replacement, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, said they were true, and apologized on his behalf.

In a financial settlement reached this year, the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland agreed to pay the equivalent of $110 million to compensate thousands of victims of molestation in church-run schools and child care centers over most of the last century.

French prosecutors have aggressively pursued abuse cases among priests. In recent years, about 30 priests have been convicted for pedophile acts and 11 are in prison. In September, the bishop of Bayeux- Lisieux, Pierre Pican, was given a three- month suspended sentence for not reporting a pedophile priest in his diocese to the civilian authorities. Still, even with problems of abuse appearing in Europe, the Vatican's approach is halting.

Msgr. Piero Monni, an expert on pedophilia who has led the Vatican's campaign for the last decade against tourists who travel abroad to find children for sexual exploitation, argued that the church had the moral authority to fight pedophilia. He is the author of "The Archipelago of Shame: Sexual Tourism and Pedophilia," which was published this month. In an interview in Rome last week, he said, "The airplanes filled with sexual tourists heading for Thailand or the Philippines are not filled with priests."

Financial Threat Looms

In Boston now, some Catholics are threatening to withhold donations, and the diocese is talking about selling churches to help pay for settlements that plaintiffs' lawyers say could total $100 million.

But the financial fallout in Dallas, where in 1996 a jury ordered the archdiocese to pay $119.6 million in damages to sexual abuse victims, illustrates both the church's financial resilience, and the price it may pay in the goodwill of lifelong Catholics.

The Dallas diocese negotiated a reduction of the judgment to $31 million with the plaintiffs. Insurance covered only $20 million, forcing the diocese to raise the remaining $11 million, said Bronson Havard, a spokesman who is a deacon of the church.

Like many Catholic dioceses, Dallas owned surplus property it could mortgage or sell. No parishioners protested when the diocese sold two empty lots. But its most valuable unused property, in a fast-developing downtown neighborhood, was an abandoned school called St. Ann's that many Hispanics in Dallas considered sacred.

"This was the spiritual center of the community," said Councilwoman Veletta Forsythe Lill, who represents the Dallas district that includes the school. "It was really the center of Hispanic life for Mexican immigrants who had come to Dallas in the 20's and 30's following the Mexican revolution."

Parishioners protested, formed a Save St. Ann's group, and tried to persuade the City Council to designate the site a historic landmark. The battle lasted about a year and a half, but in the end the diocese sold the property, raising $4 million to help pay the sexual abuse victims, Mr. Havard said.

"The sex abuse case made the sale more bitter," Ms. Lill said. "Some in the community felt that the failings of the diocese pushed the church into the sale."

The diocese of Dallas paid all its debts by 2000, Mr. Havard said. In diocesan fund- raising campaigns each year since the settlement, parishioners have come through with contributions that exceeded the goal by several hundred thousand dollars, raising $4.8 million last year, he said.

"We never lost financial support from the faithful," Mr. Havard said.

One clear financial impact has been on the ability of the church to buy insurance.

Before the spate of claims involving sexual misdeeds, dioceses were able to obtain liability insurance of as much as $50 million. As it turned out, many of those policies provided scant protection, said Michael Sean Quinn, a lawyer in Austin, Tex., who has handled many cases around the country involving misconduct by clergymen.

Insurance companies, Mr. Quinn said, often declined to cover the cost of multimillion dollar settlements, saying the actions were deliberate and not covered by insurance. In recent years, industry experts said, insurances companies have further reduced their risk by raising prices and limiting the coverage.

"If you can buy it at all," said one broker, "it might be for a million or, at most, $5 million in coverage. And the deductible could be as much as $500,000."

Prosecutors Moving In

Until recently, the church has managed to keep most of the legal cases involving sexual abuse by priests out of court. While there have been a handful of well-publicized trials, the bulk of the cases have been civil suits that have been settled quietly, with the evidence placed under court seal.

Few cases were referred to prosecutors.

But in Portland, Boston and Philadelphia and elsewhere, prosecutors are taking a more assertive approach, demanding records and declaring their intention to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

"There will be false charges, too, but that doesn't mean a witch hunt," said Linda A. Fairstein, who until last year was chief of the Manhattan district attorney's sex crimes unit. "In New York and many other states there are now specialists who can distinguish false from true. The police and prosecutors should be doing the investigations, not the clergy."

About half the states exempt church officials from laws that require schools and therapists to report sexual abuse. Now, legislators and judges in some of those states, like Massachusetts, are calling for the removal of those exemptions.

New York exempts priests from its mandatory reporting law. Legislatures in Pennsylvania and other states are considering extending the statutes of limitations to make it easier to prosecute sexual abusers.

Jeffrey R. Anderson, a St. Paul lawyer for hundreds of people who contend that they have been abused by priests, said, "The abuse won't stop until a bishop hears the clang of a prison door behind him."

Many priests untainted by the accusations say they are being punished. "You're sort of implicated in it because you're a priest," said a respected church official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Rev. Carmine Funaro, a Capucin friar at the Church of Our Lady Queen of Angels, which runs a parochial school in Manhattan, expressed sadness over what has been lost. "People are understanding but I feel so stiff," Father Funaro said. "We have to be standoffish so people won't say, `He touched my child.' " Father Funaro said clergymen had been warned by church leaders never to be alone in a room with a child.

Msgr. Philip Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York, which works with parishes across the country, said a nurse at a hospital recently asked, "What is the most urgent problem facing the church today?"

Monsignor Murnion said he replied: "I think the most basic question is, where is God? Then I said, there is this more immediate problem of this sexual abuse scandal and the need to restore trust."

The nurse, he said, told him: "That's what I really was asking about. I don't think you can even think about where is God until you've answered that."

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests