Bridgeport Bishop Plays Leading Role in Crisis

Associated Press, carried in The Advocate [Bridgeport CT]
June 14, 2003

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. -- Soft-spoken Bishop William E. Lori becomes animated, his hands in motion, as he discusses the issue that has rocked the Roman Catholic Church and catapulted him to national prominence.

Lori has been in constant motion, locally and nationally, in dealing with the church's sex abuse crisis. He has removed 11 priests since he took over the Diocese of Bridgeport in March 2001; created a sexual misconduct review board to investigate complaints before such boards became national policy; is in mediation to resolve additional claims of abuse by now-inactive priests; and announced a new set of measures last week that include background checks of all employees and volunteers.

"I think Bishop Lori is the right man for the right time in our diocese," said the Rev. Walter Orlowski of St. Matthew Church in Norwalk.

A year ago Lori also stepped onto the national scene as he helped develop a new church policy to deal with sex abuse.

Meeting in Dallas, America's Roman Catholic bishops adopted a policy that would have allowed church leaders to pull priests out of their jobs as soon as they were accused.

Vatican officials expressed concern that the approach denied priests due process. Lori was one of a handful of church leaders on a joint U.S.-Vatican commission that revised the plan, which bars guilty clerics from public ministry.

The new policy enables the church to respond openly and decisively to the crisis, Lori said in an interview in his office last week. It also is leading to "safe environment" programs to prevent, identify and respond to abuse, and to independent audits of the performance of each diocese in dealing with the issue, he said.

"This is a massive education effort and a massive prevention effort on the part of the church that I think is a model," Lori said.

Critics say the revised policy gives too much discretion to bishops, whose negligence helped foment the abuse crisis.

The revisions "gutted what was already an inadequate document," said Mark Serrano, a board member of Survivors Network of Those Abused By Priests.

"He (Lori) shares a responsibility in that," Serrano said.

Critics acknowledge, however, that Lori has acted quickly to remove priests accused of wrongdoing and enacted reforms in the Bridgeport diocese.

Given the prominent role he played nationally and the actions undertaken in his diocese, some observers think Lori is destined for higher office.

"I wouldn't be surprised at all if he became an archbishop in five to 10 years," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a national Catholic weekly magazine. "He's smart, he's articulate, he has a good record in dealing with sex abuse cases."

Lori would not comment on his prospects to fill a vacancy left by the resignation of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law - who was at the center of the abuse scandal - or other positions.

"I don't have any idea about my future," Lori said. "All I know is the Holy Father has asked me to serve the Catholic Church in Fairfield County. That is where all my love and energy is."

Despite the challenges facing the church, Lori said he sees a revival in the diocese. He cited substantial interest in vocations; at a recent meeting 50 young men expressed interest in the priesthood.

But some members of Voice of the Faithful, a church reform group, say Lori has taken a hard line against the organization. He has banned local chapters from meeting on church property, so the Catholic groups meet at Protestant churches in Fairfield County.

"It's just absurd that we have to meet in these other churches," said Joseph O'Callaghan, chairman of one local chapter.

Lori would not comment specifically on Voice of the Faithful, but said he receives substantial input from lay people throughout the diocese. In the past Lori has linked Voice of the Faithful with a group called We Are Church, which has urged the church to eliminate the celibacy requirement for priests and supports allowing women to be priests.

Critics also point to the diocese's appeal of an effort by newspapers to obtain documents from a confidential settlement of abuse claims. The settlement was reached just before Lori became Bridgeport bishop.

"Hiding documents goes to the core of the spirit of the Dallas charter," Serrano said.

Lori said he could not comment on pending litigation.

"I've been exceedingly transparent," Lori said.

Ruthann Slossar, who lives in Bridgeport, said her two sons were abused by a priest and were part of the settlement. One of her sons died on Mother's Day in 2000 of a drug overdose; she said she blames his troubles on the abuse.

"I think Bishop Lori is doing the best that he can, that he is allowed to do," Slossar said.

But she said she remains skeptical of the church. She suggested Lori's 11-member review board needs a 12th member - a survivor of abuse who could play the role of a famous doubter.

"Sometimes I wonder where Thomas is," Slossar said. "Shouldn't one of them be on that board?"


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