Abuse Panel's Critics Say Diocese Puts Priests First
Alleged Bias Prompts One Resignation from the Committee Set up by the Church in Orange

By William Lobdell
Los Angeles Times [California]
Downloaded February 23, 2003

A key reform by the Orange diocese of the Roman Catholic Church is coming under fire from victim-rights advocates, who say a committee set up to protect minors from clergy abuse is stacked with insiders who put the interests of priests ahead of those who are molested.

Despite promises to attend to their needs, "Victims are still feeling left out, as though their experience of having been abused just doesn't matter," said Mary Grant, the Southern California director of Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "We who've been abused within the Orange diocese have had similar experiences when we've gone to church officials or reached out to help other victims."

The latest sign of dissent came in December with the resignation of an abuse victim -- one of two appointed by church officials -- from the Sexual Misconduct Oversight and Review Board.

The 33-year-old molestation victim said she quit the committee because it was "a public-relations sham preoccupied with protecting the good name of the priests." (The Times does not name victims of sexual abuse without their consent.)

Church officials said they were surprised by the resignation. "The whole group felt sad [she quit]," said Shirl Giacomi, chancellor of the diocese. "And they wished she would have talked to them" about her concerns before she left.

Diocesan officials disputed her claims, saying that the fledgling board has retained all the powers of its predecessor and that its final makeup isn't set.

Until recently, diocesan committees in Orange and elsewhere that reviewed sexual abuse allegations and other clergy misconduct were made up of top church leaders and their aides, including psychologists and attorneys.

In April, however, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ordered dioceses to form new review boards with majorities made up of laypeople who are not diocesan employees. The committees offer recommendations to their bishops, who have final decision-making authority.

A variety of laypeople has been added to the Orange board since June, including two sexual abuse victims, a retired judge who is a children's rights advocate, a retired police officer and a retired U.S. attorney. However, eight of the board's 13 members are clergy, diocesan employees or people who have done business with the diocese.

Church officials say the board is making the transition to a lay-dominated committee whose chair will be a member of the laity.

The woman who resigned said the committee was so dominated by members of the church hierarchy and those close to it that she believed voicing her concerns was fruitless. Discussions often focused on concerns that the scandal could tar priests and how best to keep sensitive information away from plaintiff attorneys and the news media.

"The whole thing was put together to have a nice cover in place," the woman said. "I just didn't feel like my voice was necessary."

She said she decided to resign partly because the Diocese of San Bernardino asked her in December to write a first-person account of her experiences, including how she came to forgive the church. A diocesan official offered to ghostwrite the story for her, she said.

"I just felt like I was being used," said the woman, who has hired a lawyer to explore a possible suit against the church. "I decided I needed to do something to protect myself. No one else was going to protect me."

Her resignation illustrates the difficulty the church is having integrating its traditional top-down management structure with a style that relies more heavily on the laity. Last year, all five lay members of a sexual abuse panel in Richmond, Va., resigned after their bishop reinstated a priest who had been accused of molesting minors. The prelate said he found no evidence of wrongdoing.

"It is not surprising at all that she is resigning from this committee," said Irvine attorney Katherine K. Freberg, whose clients have been paid $6.4 million by the Orange and Los Angeles dioceses to settle molestation claims. "The Orange diocese has had a sensitive-issue committee in place for years that has allowed known pedophiles to remain in ministry."

But Orange officials point out that Bishop Tod D. Brown always followed his committee's recommendations, which have led to the ousters of several priests in the last two years.

Leaders of the survivors network say the bishops who lead the 194 dioceses in the United States generally have been leery of placing independent-minded victims on their boards.

"My hunch is every bishop feels it's risky to put a victim on his board," said David Clohessy, the network's national executive director.

Clohessy said the resignation in the Orange diocese was remarkable because the board member didn't have ties to victim organizations. "We've seen painfully few profiles in courage on these committees," he said. "She had incredible courage to serve and incredible courage to step down."

In Orange, the few board members who would comment on the resignation said they respect their colleague's decision but wish she had stayed.

"I believe [those] serving on the board are people of integrity, and we have to trust their integrity until proven otherwise," said Sister Kathleen Marie Pughe, board member and principal of Our Lady of Guadalupe School in La Habra. "It all comes down to working together."

Msgr. William P. McLaughlin, who serves on the board, said the woman who resigned was "totally respected and we miss her."

"To have a victim on the board, he or she has to be more than a token person," said McLaughlin, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach. "And she was a working member of the board. Intelligent, thoughtful, authentic."


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