Richmond's Catholic Bishop Meets with Lay Reform Group Members

Associated Press, carried in Daily Press [Virginia Beach VA]
June 14, 2003

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- Local members of a national Catholic reform movement that has been shunned by church officials elsewhere met with Bishop Walter F. Sullivan for the first time last week.

Organizers of South Hampton Roads Voice of the Faithful talked with Sullivan about supporting victims of sexual abuse by clergy, encouraging priests of integrity and increasing openness in a sometimes secretive church.

The group talked with Sullivan Thursday at his home in the Sandbridge area of Virginia Beach.

"He was very open, he was very warm and greeting. He listened to everything we had to say," Helen Pipcho, one of the group's organizers, told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper.

Seven bishops, including those in Boston and Long Island, N.Y., have rebuffed Voice of the Faithful by refusing to let the group meet in Catholic churches under their jurisdiction.

Sullivan did the opposite.

"I told them they were very welcome in our parishes. They're not the enemy," said Sullivan, who is awaiting a decision from Pope John Paul II on how long he will continue serving as bishop. On Tuesday, Sullivan turned 75, the age at which Catholic bishops can be required to retire.

Voice of the Faithful was created last year by Massachusetts Catholics upset by revelations that church officials had repeatedly covered up sexual abuse by priests. The group, which now has 181 chapters around the country, wants lay Catholics to have a greater say in church issues.

The movement spread to South Hampton Roads last year after the Diocese of Richmond admitted that two active priests had sexually abused boys in the past. Sullivan expelled the pair, along with a third priest who was subsequently accused of abuse.

But the bishop refused to eject the Rev. John Leonard, who allegedly abused boys at a Richmond-area Catholic boarding school he headed in the 1970s. Diocesan investigators had called the accusations credible and recommended that Leonard receive in-patient psychological therapy.

Sullivan's handling of the Leonard case--including his decision not to get input from a diocesan sexual-abuse board--disillusioned many Catholics.

Some of those parishioners started Voice of the Faithful chapters which now meet at, but are not sponsored by, Church of the Holy Spirit in Virginia Beach and Church of the Resurrection in Portsmouth.

While Sullivan was hospitable, he did not agree with everything the groups' organizers said Thursday.

He questioned their assertion that mistrust created by the sex scandal has led many local parishioners to withhold donations or even leave the Catholic church.

"We certainly don't have the situation of Boston, where there's great disillusionment," Sullivan said.

The bishop also rejected the suggestion that he issue a letter disclosing every known case of clergy abuse in the diocese and the amounts paid by the diocese to aid victims and settle prospective lawsuits.

Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, did that last fall with a mass mailing in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.

"His letter was a sincere apology, not a backhanded attempt at 'We're sorry,"' Pipcho said, referring to Keeler. "Why couldn't that be done in our diocese?"

In Sullivan's view, Keeler's letter was meant to bring closure to the abuse scandal in the Baltimore archdiocese, but failed.

"It left a bad taste in the mouth of many people," he said.


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