Laymen Say Bishop Cut Deal in '97 to Go

By Brooks Egerton
The Dallas Morning News
January 26, 2003

Five and a half years ago, reeling from weeks of embarrassing testimony about cover-ups and the largest clergy abuse judgment in history, Dallas Catholic Bishop Charles Grahmann cut a secret deal to resign.

It wasn't Pope John Paul II forcing his hand, however. It was a group of influential laymen threatening to publicly denounce him – a group that today, concerned about resurgent scandal in the diocese and the bishop's refusal to yield to his Vatican-appointed successor, is finally talking.

This is not the way things ordinarily work in the hierarchical Catholic Church. "Telling a bishop what to do is very contrary to our mentality spiritually," says the group's leader, D Magazine publisher Wick Allison.

But that appears to be happening here and around the country: Lay people are organizing by the thousands, concluding that the men who managed them into moral and financial crisis cannot manage them out of it. Witness last month's events in Boston, where parishioners – openly backed by some priests – called successfully for the resignation of the nation's senior Catholic prelate, Cardinal Bernard Law.

In Dallas, though, events took a less public path. Mr. Allison's group of businessmen and corporate lawyers say they began pressing Bishop Grahmann in August 1997, starting with a meeting at the Tower Club, high above downtown. In addition to Mr. Allison, those present included lawyers Daniel Hennessy and William McCormack, investor Mike Maguire and James M. Moroney Jr., retired publisher of The Dallas Morning News and former chief executive officer of its parent company, Belo Corp. In recent interviews, they all confirmed various elements of the following account but largely deferred to Mr. Allison for elaboration.

A jury had recently concluded that diocesan leaders conspired to conceal the Rev. Rudolph Kos' predations, and it assessed the church a penalty of nearly $120 million. Four things, the lay group said in a series of communications with the bishop's office, now had to happen, and three quickly did:

The bishop dropped plans for an appeal. He fired Randy Mathis, the defense lawyer who had taken the Kos case to trial in the face of much damning evidence. (Mr. Mathis continues to represent the diocese in other abuse lawsuits.) And he removed the pastor of All Saints parish, the Rev. Robert Rehkemper, who had blamed parents for letting Mr. Kos molest their children.

But Mr. Allison and other members of the group say Bishop Grahmann dug in his heels on the fourth point, his resignation.


Mr. Allison says stormy telephone negotiations ensued between him and Bronson Havard, the bishop's spokesman and adviser, and eventually produced a compromise. Almost immediately, said Mr. McCormack, "Wick called me and said he had agreement from the bishop. He said it's a done deal."

To get to this point, Mr. Allison says, he had to pull out what he calls the group's atom bomb: a plan to deliver a condemnation of the bishop, to be signed by several dozen major lay leaders, to local media and the Vatican Embassy in Washington.

Under the compromise, the bishop would not quit immediately, as the group had sought. He would keep his job for several months, then depart in a way that could be presented as unrelated to the Kos case.

Mr. Havard, told late Friday of Mr. Allison's account, was silent for several seconds.

"I don't want to comment on that," he said at last. "I have nothing to say."

Nor would he respond when asked whether the Vatican had asked Bishop Grahmann to resign. He would not make his boss available for an interview, in keeping with the bishop's long-standing refusal to take reporters' questions about his handling of abuse cases.

Successor named

Mr. Allison says his group became concerned when Bishop Grahmann failed to leave after a year but weren't sure how to proceed given that controversy had subsided. They took heart when the Vatican sent Bishop Grahmann a successor, Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante.

That was three years ago.

It's extraordinary for a bishop to remain in power for more than a year after a coadjutor arrives, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, an internationally known expert on American prelates and author of Inside the Vatican. Bishop Grahmann – who was a coadjutor himself for the first half of 1990 before he took over from Bishop Thomas Tschoepe – has said he intends to stay until he hits the mandatory retirement age of 75.

That's in 2006.

"Obviously you've got a serious problem," Father Reese said, "a real mess."

Mr. Havard would not discuss his own assertion, made to Mr. Allison and others, that the Vatican's U.S. ambassador had imposed a successor by mistake.

"Bronson blamed the papal nuncio," Mr. Allison said, adding that the spokesman's reasoning was that the diocesan leader had asked only for an auxiliary, or assistant, bishop to help him manage a rapidly growing population. Bishop Grahmann suffered some health problems that came to light after the trial, Mr. Havard noted, suggesting that this may have led the ambassador to wrongly conclude it was time for change.

Archbishop Gabriel Montalvo, who as ambassador nominates this country's bishops, declined to comment.

Father Reese, editor of the Jesuit magazine America, questioned Mr. Havard's explanation. "This guy's not a lightweight," he said of Archbishop Montalvo, who previously headed the academy that trains Vatican diplomats. "I'd have doubts that the nuncio would make that kind of mistake."

Vatican's reluctance

He said that only the Vatican may be able to fix the Dallas situation, "and the Vatican is very reluctant to do that except in the most extreme circumstances." Church leaders are highly sensitive to appearances, he said, and strive to maintain public reverence for the office of bishop.

"This is not just a branch office where the CEO in Rome fires people whenever he wants," Father Reese said. He acknowledged that the Vatican now might be more hesitant than ever to act, for fear of the "domino effect" – the possibility that Boston's Cardinal Law was merely the first American diocese leader to fall because of abuse-related controversy.

Bishop Galante said he could not comment on his situation. Although he speaks nationally as a representative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he quit doing local interviews last fall after tangling publicly with Bishop Grahmann.

At the time, he said he had been unable to persuade Bishop Grahmann to remove the head priest at Dallas' cathedral, who was accused of grabbing a man's genitals during a blessing.

The priest, the Rev. Ramon Alvarez, acknowledged "inappropriate contact" with the man. Grahmann aides called the encounter consensual and let Father Alvarez, who previously was the No. 3 staff member at diocese headquarters, stay on the job while undergoing counseling. Diocesan policy says that sexual misconduct with children or adults "will not be tolerated under any circumstances."

The Cathedral Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe now boasts average Sunday Mass attendance of about 11,000, the second-highest in the nation after St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York. Many of the parishioners are Hispanic immigrants, whose influx has made Catholics the Dallas area's largest religious group.

Bishop Grahmann has come under renewed scrutiny this month, when The Dallas Morning News reported on another priest who deals with large numbers of poor Latinos.

For more than a decade, the bishop has barred the Rev. Justin Lucio from parish work but has let him run a nondiocesan ministry that spends large sums to benefit its leaders while charging needy people millions for immigration aid. Father Lucio has denied any wrongdoing. Bishop Tschoepe had earlier removed him from parish work after sexual misconduct allegations. The diocese maintains that the allegations were unsubstantiated, although the priest admitted in a 1991 deposition that he sometimes handled Hispanic parishioners' genitals when they had health concerns.

Speaking out

Mr. Allison, the magazine publisher, said he is opening up about the 1997 deal because of how the diocese has reacted to the reports and The News ' recent editorials calling for Bishop Grahmann to quit. The bishop has kept the accused priests in good standing, and Mr. Havard has questioned whether The News should comment on diocesan affairs.

"That," Mr. Allison said, "is what drove me over the edge."

Before granting an interview, he wrote about the private deal in the current issue of D. In a column, he recalled how The News used to editorialize against the Ku Klux Klan, which terrorized not just blacks but also Catholics. He also noted that Mr. Moroney – who is father of James M. Moroney III, current publisher and chief executive officer of The News – is helping fund renovation of the cathedral.

"The bishop would have us think The News is part of a secular media opposed to the church's mission," Mr. Allison wrote. "But that's not the case, as the bishop knows full well."

His group's goal then is its goal now, Mr. Allison said: to bring new leadership and new hope to the Catholic Diocese of Dallas. They want not to usurp authority, he added, but "to restore the authority of the church to which we are devoted."



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