Diocese Mismanages Moral Crisis

Albany Times Union [Albany NY]
March 9, 2003

For the Albany Roman Catholic Diocese and its 500,000 parishioners, the nightmare created by the sexual abuse of children by a few priests keeps coming back to haunt and hurt.

Despite repeated claims and tons of wishful thinking to the contrary, the diocese seems no closer to leaving the scandal behind almost a year after purportedly coming clean over its problem priests.

A fair question to ask at this point is, why is this so? Why is the diocese perpetually in the news in an awful, negative way over ancient abuse cases?

The diocese would tell you it's the fault of forces other than itself. Namely, some sort of conspiracy by an over-zealous attorney representing a number of those who say they were abused, John Aretakis, and the Times Union, notably reporter Andrew Tilghman, intent on spreading old, sensational stories.

In a word, "scandal-mongering," as the official diocese newspaper, The Evangelist, put it in a Feb. 20 editorial.

Well, the answer to this unfair charge is simple enough. Mind you, I don't speak for this newspaper; I just work here. But the newspaper didn't make up a single one of those stories, depicting events that may be old but hadn't seen the light of public disclosure. Nor did the Times Union create a single one of the victims.

It might seem to the fair-minded that the diocese is attempting to artfully deflect by shooting the messenger.

Deflect from what should also be obvious: that the diocese actually is suffering from two recurring nightmares. The first being the sexual abuse scandal itself. The second being the consequences of an incredibly artless strategy for dealing with the evolving scandal.

Whoever is calling the shots for the diocese is doing a remarkably lousy job. The diocese's strategy from the beginning seemed to be to define the scope of the scandal as a public relations problem and a legal problem. Protect the corporation and its assets, protect the leadership. What seems to have been lost are the spiritual problem, the credibility problem, the pastoral problem. The diocese is not behaving like a repentant sinner, but like one looking for a loophole into heaven. So "coming clean" meant giving the media, the public and the faithful a bare and therefore deceptive minimum of information about sexual abuse problems and priests involved.

When Aretakis presented new victims and when Tilghman wrote about problem priests we hadn't heard about before, public reaction each time has been like having a scab ripped off.

Take the revelations in newspapers about the Rev. Dozia Wilson. What was the diocese thinking? That none of this would eventually see the light of day?

Nearly a year ago, after the first horrible sexual abuse revelations were spilling out of the Boston Archdiocese, a leading member of the Albany Diocese told me privately that Cardinal Bernard Law, the Boston spiritual leader, had to go. He was finished. "Because he's lost his position of moral authority," I was told.

I'm not suggesting Bishop Howard Hubbard is in the same place. Not at all. But the woeful strategy employed by the diocese to manage the current crisis has certainly eroded the moral authority of the bishop. The faithful are badly shaken, and the diocese had better wake up to this. On March 29, a symposium, "Trusting the Clergy? The Churches and Communities Come to Grips with Sexual Misconduct," will be held at Siena College. Guest speakers include Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul/Minneapolis, originally from this area, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Committee on Sexual Abuse. Bishop Hubbard will be on a panel.

Considering how badly mired in the sexual-abuse crisis the Albany Diocese finds itself, what comes to mind is the biblical prescription, "Physician, heal thyself." Contact Fred LeBrun at 454-5453.


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