The Truth Remains Key Issue

By Andrew Tilghman
Times Union [Albany NY]
April 20, 2003

Roughly half of Capital Region Catholics say the Albany Diocese has not been truthful about the extent of sexual abuse by clergy and want Bishop Howard J. Hubbard to be more open and aggressive in rooting out pedophiles from the priesthood, according to a Times Union poll conducted by Zogby International.

Fewer than a third of Catholics surveyed said they think local church leaders have been forthcoming about the problem, while 25 percent endorse Hubbard's current leadership style.

Yet, while many were critical of Hubbard, about 80 percent of those surveyed said he should keep his job.

Overall, the poll suggests many people in the pews believe the bishop and local church hierarchy have not managed the 15-month-old scandal as well as they would like.

"I think he should be more open and more aggressive," said Sharri Porcelli, a 32-year-old mother from Colonie, echoing the sentiments of many other churchgoers in the four-county region. "It would make him look better. It would seem that he's not trying to hide anything."

The poll, along with numerous interviews with its participants, paints a picture of church laity coming to grips with revelations of crimes and confidential payments to victims. More than $2.5 million has been paid out in the past 25 years, and 10 priests have been removed from the ministry in the past 12 months, two announced just last week. One in five of those surveyed said they know an accused priest or a victim.

Most Catholics react in complex ways to the sexual abuse crisis roiling the church here and in dioceses across the country.

The laity distinguish between the Catholic faith, which they overwhelmingly maintain, and its leaders, whom some now distrust. They see a difference between the bishop, whom they like and support, and his management style, which they have begun to question.

"I'm trying to separate the person from the job," Darryl Green, a 40-year-old father from Clifton Park, said of Hubbard. "Looking at him on a personal level, I think he is for the most part a good guy trying to do the right thing. On the other hand, as far as his job, my response is 'Sure, I'm not happy and thrilled with some of the things he has done.' "

About 40 percent of those surveyed said they attend Mass weekly, roughly the same percentage who said Hubbard and the diocese have done a good or excellent job in the past year.

The general opinion of Hubbard, who was the youngest bishop in the country when he was ordained 26 years ago, has remained somewhat stable. Half of those surveyed said their view of him has not changed during the past year.

Many expressed serious concerns about the fallout from the scandal. Most said they fear donations to the Bishop's Appeal will fall this year; half predicted the church would be weakened in the long run.

But many Catholics also said they believe a church that has lasted nearly two millennia will survive the current criticisms and court battles -- and about 20 percent said they expect the church to become stronger.

"Things are changing. This is going to make them examine what they are doing," said Roger DelSignore, a contractor from Monroe in Saratoga County.

About 10 percent said the scandal has affected their church attendance or faith in church teachings. Twenty-eight percent said their confidence in church leaders has been shaken.

Shock and disappointment rippled through the 14-county diocese last year, as more than 400,000 Catholics learned about sexual abuse that took place decades ago and saw the removal of six priests.

The scandal took on new dimensions earlier this year, with revelations of a $150,000 payment to a victim from a Catholic Charities bank account last summer, three new lawsuits and the removal of four additional priests. Many Catholics say they have begun to question last year's promises of openness and transparency.

Rose Spadaro, a 77-year-old widow, goes to St. Mary's Church in Albany once a week and sends $50 to the diocese every month. She has few complaints about the diocese's handling of sexual abuse by priests, and she empathizes with Hubbard and what she sees as his reluctance to heap more scandal on an already difficult situation.

"Of course there are a lot of things you know about and you don't particularly want it known by other people -- that happens all the time," Spadaro said. "I think he's trying his best, the poor guy. What's he going to do? He's only one guy, and he's getting snowballs thrown at him."

Others said they believe that not all problems have come to light, and that this painful period will end only after Hubbard and the church hierarchy "come clean."

"I'd like to see him open up the records," said Judy Bryan, 41, of Ravena, a registered nurse who said she attends Mass once every few months. "If he doesn't want to make it public, then I think what he should do is have a panel appointed, and not have all Catholics on it. And one of the people should be law enforcement."

There remains a widespread perception that abusive priests were more common in Boston and New York City, and that church leaders in those dioceses did not react as well as those in Albany.

"Albany has been trying to deal with the situation much better than they have," said Douglas Mercado, 59, a retired state worker who said he goes to St. Catherine of Siena Church once a week. "I know there were some priests who were shifted from one to the other, but comparatively speaking, it (the Albany Diocese) has done pretty well."

That feeling is reflected in the poll results. About 18 percent of Capital Region Catholics said Hubbard should retire or resign. In a similar survey of the Boston Archdiocese, where more than 200 priests have been accused of sexually abusing children, 65 percent of Catholics last year called for Cardinal Bernard Law to resign. He later did so.

When provided with the poll results, Hubbard issued a statement on Saturday.

"I know that in the past I did not handle these matters with the transparency and accountability which are proper and necessary. I have apologized for that, and I do so again. I hope that as a community we can find ways to bring healing to the lives of all who have been affected by this scandal: the victims and their families, the many priests who have never offended and the wider church community." the bishop said.

Not all of the negative response toward the church's leadership can be attributed to the ongoing scandal.

Karen Codner, a 56-year-old mother, attends the diocese's only Tridentine Mass, a service conducted in Latin, at St. Peter's in Troy. She said sexual abuse by priests reflects a broader problem within the church at large.

"You shouldn't tolerate priests like that -- we didn't before. The church now is just too liberal, too open and too permissive," she said in explaining her negative view of church leaders.

Feelings about the scandal are often intertwined with long-standing theological or cultural issues within the church, said Gerald Fogarty, a religion professor at the University of Virginia who specializes in the history of American Catholic laity.

"I think you could get these same numbers from almost anywhere in the country," Fogarty said Friday after he reviewed the poll results. "It's a division that already existed in the church; it's liberals and conservatives."

Increased questioning of church leaders also reflects a cultural shift from urban immigrant communities to a suburban middle class, Fogarty said.

College graduates in the survey were more skeptical of the diocese, with those who think the diocese has been truthful outnumbered by a ratio of 2-to-1 by those who think otherwise.

"These are no longer ignorant lay people; they are educated lay people. They are demanding that they be taken seriously because of their expertise," he said.

Men who participated in the poll tended to be more critical of Hubbard, with nearly one in four calling for his resignation compared with about one in eight women.

People living with children younger than 17 were also more distrustful of the local church hierarchy. Twice as many said they did not believe the diocese was truthful compared with those who did not live with children.

When asked about Times Union's coverage of the scandal, Capital Region Catholics who said the newspaper has handled the issue fairly outnumbered by a ratio of 2-to-1 those who said the newspaper has sensationalized or exaggerated the problem. A sizable number, nearly 34 percent, said they are not sure.

Many poll respondents interviewed afterward found it much easier to point out disappointments during the past year than to offer up alternative solutions for the church leaders.

Patricia Maloney, 62, of Albany, who said she attends Mass at the Church of the Blessed Sacrament almost every Sunday, told a pollster she would like to see Hubbard be "more open and aggressive." In an interview, however, she said "aggressive is not the right word," and struggled to articulate her feelings.

"What could be done? I just don't know. I pray about it daily. I pray for the bishop daily. I pray for the entire problem throughout the country," she said.


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