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A Diocese in Bankruptcy

Covering up a sexual-abuse crisis

By Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea
San Diego Tribune - March 2, 2007

Earlier this month, Bishop Robert Brom issued a “pastoral statement," warning San Diego Catholics that their diocese might declare bankruptcy. Perhaps Brom hoped that area Catholics would not realize that “pastoral" and “bankruptcy" are oxymoronic terms when discussing the sexual-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

What is a pastor? Theologian Richard McBrien says that pastors focus more on people than on rules, are guided by the wisdom of experience and respond to the needs of flesh and blood individuals. Bishop Brom's bankruptcy does not seem to fit the pastoral bill.

The people most in need of focus in this situation are the alleged survivors of sexual abuse by priests. Their church hurt them and their loved ones deeply; healing is long and difficult and can be derailed by additional stressors, especially those levied by the abuser or, in this case, the abusers' protectors.

In addition to financial settlements, and often in the end more important to survivors, is the release of documents that convey information about the depth and breadth of sexual abuse in a diocese. It is those documents that allow survivors to help other survivors validate past abuse and perhaps, for the first time, begin to heal.

We have seen that Bishop Brom, along with other bishops of America, will go to extreme measures in order to continue to keep documents about sexual abuse in their domains forever enshrouded in secrecy. Bankruptcy accomplishes that.

In the process, concern for those harmed by sexually abusive priests pales in comparison with an ecclesiastical insistence on preserved power and prestige. These men cling to legal rules and strategies, and implement the unspoken rules of clerical omerta. Where is the pastoral focus on people rather than rules here?

Much wisdom has been accumulated since the Catholic sexual-abuse crisis exploded into the public square in 2002. Unfortunately, most of it seems to have been gleaned by survivors and their advocates who truly have become sadder but wiser about the church's intention to stonewall their efforts to obtain social justice through the release of documents.

Bishops such as Brom are cunning, hunkering down in bunkers of bankruptcy maneuvers, engaging the legal opportunities to hide that which is dearest to them -- their secrets. They seem to have learned nothing about the value of honesty, openness and integrity in the last five years and have not, as a group, fulfilled the promises made at their seminal Dallas 2002 meeting -- vows to be transparent about sexual abuse.

In Dallas, they heard the voices of victims but, if they were moved, most recovered their equilibrium quickly. At the meeting right after Dallas and at every meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops since, victims have been banned from speaking and from having direct contact with bishops. Where is the wisdom of experience with pain and suffering, betrayal and despair, harm done and healing sought here?

Flesh and blood individuals other than survivors also need pastoral care and integrity from their bishops. All Catholics need once and for all to know the truth, all the truth, about clerical exploitation of the young.

Catholics can forgive almost anything -- reconciliation is stamped into their DNA. Catholics know they have to confess all their sins to priests to obtain absolution. In turn, Catholics of San Diego and elsewhere must be told everything by their priests and bishops before they, as lay people, can grant absolution for the crimes committed against the young, and therefore against all Catholics.

And Catholics are not stupid. They know that if the Diocese of Portland paid more than $14 million in legal fees during its bankruptcy proceedings, bankruptcy is not about money. It is about secrets and about preserving secrets at any cost. Where is the response to the needs of flesh and blood individuals here?

When a diocese or a bishop has been morally bankrupt for a long time, financial bankruptcy may be just a blip on the ecclesiastical radar screen. But, for survivors and for all Catholics, another bankruptcy in a long series of betrayals still hurts.

Bishop Brom, we assume, has read the Gospels. He may want to reread Matthew 5:41: and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give them your cloak as well: and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Or, in San Diego, hand over the documents and reclaim a pastoral heart.

Frawley-O'Dea is the author of “Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in The Catholic Church" (Vanderbilt University Press, 2007).