Poll Shows Disapproval in Lipscomb Leadership

By Sam Hodges
Mobile Register [Mobile AL]
April 13, 2003

Mobile Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb faces widespread disapproval from Catholics and non-Catholics alike for his supervision of priests with a history of sexual misconduct, a new Mobile Register-University of South Alabama survey shows.

More than a third of those contacted last week in Mobile and Baldwin counties said Lipscomb, 71, should resign.

But the survey also found that Lipscomb enjoys somewhat stronger support among fellow Catholics than among south Alabamians generally. And stalwart Catholic supporters aren't hard to find.

"Should he step down? No way," said the Rev. Gregory Lucey, a Jesuit and president of Spring Hill College in Mobile, where Lipscomb is a trustee. "I look at his whole ministry and say he has made a wonderful contribution to this community in innumerable ways and to the church nationally with his work on various projects."

The current controversy over Lipscomb's leadership erupted last month when he met with parishioners at St. Peter's Catholic Church in Montgomery to inform them that their priest, the Rev. J. Alexander Sherlock, had resigned after admitting to sexual abusing three "older teenagers" in the early 1970s.

Lipscomb has offered differing accounts of what he knew about Sherlock's past before transferring him in 1997 from Mobile's St. Pius X Catholic Church to the Montgomery church.

Earlier this month, Lipscomb dismissed another priest, the Rev. Arthur C. Schrenger of Mobile, who the archbishop said has confirmed two instances of misconduct with minors "prior to 1985." Lipscomb has turned over documents and other information to Mobile District Attorney John M. Tyson Jr., who is conducting an investigation into further reports of sexual misconduct by Catholic clergy in the area.

All these developments have received widespread media attention and have alarmed local Catholics, causing fears that a major church scandal -- like the one that forced the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston -- might be in its infancy here.

"It's what everybody's talking about. There's not a Catholic I know in Mobile who is taking this lightly," said state Rep. Jim Barton, R-Mobile and a member of St. Pius X Church.

In his 22nd year as leader of the Mobile Archdiocese, Lipscomb faces questions of whether he got tough on sex offenders under his supervision only after a strict new church law forced his hand.

"He should resign because he screwed up," said Mark Belenchia of Hattiesburg, Miss., organizer of the Mississippi chapter of the support group SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests). "How can he be an effective leader of anything?"

If there's an organized local movement to push for Lipscomb's resignation, it is keeping an extremely low profile. But last week's random telephone survey found that 46 percent of adults in Mobile and Baldwin counties disapprove of Lipscomb's supervision of local priests accused of sexual misconduct.

Only 24 percent voiced approval for Lipscomb's leadership.

"He can't take much comfort in that. That's a very low number," said Keith Nicholls, the University of South Alabama political science professor who conducted the survey.

Thirty-seven percent of respondents said Lipscomb should resign. Thirty-two percent were sure he should stay on.

Lipscomb did not return calls seeking his comment on the poll results.

The low numbers bode ill for Lipscomb, given that the Mobile controversy is so recent, said David Clohessy, national director of SNAP.

"The beginnings for a real shakeup are definitely there, if sentiment turns in to action, if people withhold contributions and stop going to Mass," Clohessy said. "That was the tipping point in Boston, when there was a grass-roots upsurge of activism and skepticism on the part of the laity."

But the poll asked respondents to identify themselves as Catholic or non-Catholic, and fellow Catholics proved to be more supportive of Lipscomb.

Thirty-six percent of Catholics said they back Lipscomb's handling of the sexual misconduct controversy, compared to only 21 percent of non-Catholics.

A slight majority of Catholics -- 51 percent -- were sure Lipscomb should not resign. Only 28 percent of non-Catholics agreed.

Nicholls cautioned that the number of respondents identifying themselves as Catholics was small. If only Catholic responses are considered, the poll's 5 percentage point margin of error goes way up, he said.

But Barton said his discussions with fellow Catholics in Mobile lead him to believe Lipscomb does have a reservoir of good will and support from which to draw, after so many years of leading the local church.

In recent news stories, Barton was quoted as saying Lipscomb should consider stepping down if he covered something up. On Friday, he said he has concluded Lipscomb was following church "protocol" in not dealing more decisively with offending priests, and should be given a chance to continue under the church's strict new law.

But Barton added that further revelations of sexual misconduct by local priests will cause him and others to reevaluate.

"I don't know how much more this archdiocese can take," he said. "Bad news is tough. Lots of bad news is real tough."

The poll found overwhelming support, from both Catholics and non-Catholics, for the removal of priests known to have committed a single act of sexual abuse of a minor. Only a small percentage felt the Catholic church generally had dealt well with the problem of sexual misconduct by priests.

The poll did not ask if the Catholic church should consider allowing women or married men to serve as priests. One expert said that it will take more than the scandal of pedophile priests to persuade the church hierarchy to expand eligibility for ordination.

"There are parishes throughout the world where the Eucharist is not available on a daily basis, because there is no priest," said Patout Burns, professor of Catholic studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn., and a former Spring Hill College professor.

"If the bishops will not end the celibacy requirement or the gender requirement for ordination in order to provide the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist, on a regular basis to the Catholic faithful, they will certainly not do it to solve this problem."


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