News: Catholic Crisis

Reformers say abuse scandal isn't over

May 2, 2007 at 2:06 pm
Graham Lienhart

Thomas P. Doyle, a former priest who worked at the Vatican Embassy, warned U.S. bishops in 1985 about a coming crisis over sexual abuse by priests.

Even as public awareness grows about the widespread sexual abuse of children by some Roman Catholic priests, the church hierarchy continues to deny the full extent of the problem and lobbies state lawmakers for legislation to limit its potential liability, according to church reformers.

Worse yet, the church often employs high-powered, expensive attorneys to try to intimidate abuse victims.

Some Catholic leaders try to discredit abuse allegations by stating the accusers merely want money. The number of accusations proven false, though, has been miniscule, says Patrick J. Wall. A former Benedictine monk and priest, Wall was so disturbed by systemic efforts to cover up for pedophile priests that he now serves as a senior consultant to a California law firm handling several abuse cases.

The litigation process is rigorous and challenging and usually filters out people who are lying, he says. Wall cites one instance in which a female victim was asked about the length of a priest's penis during a deposition. When the distraught woman said she couldn't remember, the priest's attorney asked, "Do you want me to go get a ruler?"

"A civil litigation is ugly, and most people won't pursue it," Wall says.

Bankrupt in more ways than one
The church's defiant and pompous attitude about the systemic abuse prompted the formation several years ago of Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), a nonprofit group of Catholics nationwide trying to make the church acknowledge the claims of victims and force structural changes that will prevent such abuse and cover-up from happening on a similar scale again.

Several hundred people gathered April 28 on the Xavier University campus for a convention held by VOTF's Cincinnati chapter. Its purpose was to help people better recognize the signs of abusive relationships and work toward implementing effective strategies to pierce the church's shroud of secrecy.

"The more embarrassing and debilitating the corruption is, the more the institution is going to circle the wagons," says Thomas P. Doyle, one of the keynote speakers. Doyle, a Dominican priest who formerly worked at the Vatican Embassy, wrote a 1985 report to U.S. bishops that warned about the impending crisis of pedophile priests.

Some high-profile settlements and convictions have occurred since that time, including the 2003 conviction of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati for failing to report the sexual abuse of children by priests over a 20-year period. The archdiocese agreed to establish a $3 million fund for victims. As part of the settlement, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk pleaded no contest to the charges — part of a deal with prosecutors that prevented the case's being heard by a grand jury.

Last year a judge approved an $85 million settlement between the Diocese of Covington and hundreds of people who were abused by priests or other church employees over the past half-century.

Perhaps the best-known case is the Boston Archdiocese settlement, which agreed in 2003 to an $85 million settlement with more than 500 people. The settlement followed a $10 million payout one year earlier to 86 victims of the notorious Rev. John Geoghan, a former priest who died in prison.

The costliest settlement was the 2004 deal reached with the Diocese of Orange County, Calif. Church leaders there agreed to pay $100 million to abuse victims. Six dioceses — including Tucson, Ariz.; Davenport, Iowa; Portland, Ore; and Spokane, Wash. — have filed for bankruptcy to protect them from abuse lawsuits.

Doyle calls the bankruptcy filings disingenuous, noting the church has the financial assets to cover any losses. For example, he estimates the Los Angeles Archdiocese spends between $500,000 and $800,000 each month in attorney fees to fight lawsuits filed against it. Rather, the church uses the legal tactics that it does to prevent further damaging revelations from coming to light, he says.

"It was a way to keep the secrets secret," Doyle says.

Pilarczyk won't write
VOTF members don't want to break from the Roman Catholic Church, and they support its teaching authority, including the traditional roles of bishops and the Pope. But the group believes sexual abuse by clergy and the response of bishops — which they say often has protected the abusers and forsaken the abused — have caused great suffering and damaged the church's moral authority.

Christy Miller is familiar with the brusque attitudes of many church leaders. Miller, a survivor of childhood sexual abuse by a priest, says many victims would be willing to forego monetary compensation if they received an acknowledgement and apology for the abuse, but few leaders are willing to do so. She notes that Pilarczyk wouldn't meet with any victims unless his attorney were present.

"Many people don't want any money, they want a letter of apology," says Miller, who is now co-leader of the Cincinnati-Dayton chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "He won't do it because, if he writes that letter of apology, it's an admission of guilt."

Wall says many victims don't want money but change their minds either due to the church's indifference to their plight or as a punitive means to pressure the church to change how it treats abusive priests.

The Pope and other church leaders first became aware of the growing problem of pedophile priests in the 1940s, Wall says. They responded by founding the Servants of the Paraclete in 1947, which operates facilities that offer services and counseling to priests and brothers "with personal difficulties." Since the flood of lawsuits were filed against the church in recent years, letters by Paraclete officials dating to the 1950s were uncovered that recommended priests found to have engaged inappropriate sexual activity shouldn't ever be returned to service.

The Rev. Gerald Fitzgerald, Servants of the Paraclete founder, described the nature of the problem in a telling September 1957 letter to a New Hampshire bishop. He wrote, "From our long experience with characters of this type, and without passing judgment on the individual, most of these men would be clinically classified as schizophrenic. Their repentance and amendment is superficial and, if not formally at least sub-consciously, is motivated by a desire to be again in a position where they can continue their wonted activity. A new diocese means only green pastures."

Despite the warning, however, many such priests simply were moved to new parishes in subsequent decades, where they offended again and again.

Although the statute of limitations for filing child sexual abuse charges varies from state to state, Wall advises victims that it's never too late to file a police report. That's because it's important to officially document allegations against specific priests and create a paper trail to help others who might be abused in the future.

"The reason you want to do a police report is there's a public record," Wall says. "And if there's a public record, the kids of the future have a chance." ©