Still an Unhealed Wound
Abuse Victims: Church Isn't Doing Enough to Remedy Hurt

By Carol Eisenberg
Newsday [Long Island NY]
June 15, 2003

Richard Tollner says he's still waiting for Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre to fulfill his promise to do right by the victims of sex abuse by priests.

Unless you count Murphy's Christmas note to him expressing sorrow that he had been hurt by one of the bishop's men, Tollner said no one in the diocese has offered support. Just the opposite: He said he's been treated indifferently at best since he stepped forward with a 25-year-old allegation about improper sexual advances by Msgr. Alan Placa, then a top diocesan official in charge of investigating priest sex abuse complaints.

Tollner tells how one diocesan investigator inquired whether he was physically aroused during the alleged groping incidents, and repeatedly called him "Bob," rather than "Richard." Another told the 44-year-old Rensselaer businessman how "damaged and traumatized" Tollner was.

"This has been harder for me than I expected," he said, "and I'm still waiting for a decision from the church one year later. This is what you call responsive?"

As the nation's Roman Catholic prelates gather this week in St. Louis, one year after they sought to end the worst crisis in the church's history with a tough new policy to weed out molesters, complaints of sex abuse continue to mount: More than 400 accused priests are now suspended from ministry, pending investigation of approximately 1,000 complaints, church officials said last week.

But as with Tollner's complaint, few cases have reached a determination of the accused priest's status. The result: Wounds continue to fester, and both alleged victims and priests hang in limbo.

Many lay Catholics say they are braced for further revelations about bishops' cover-up of abuse from pending grand jury reports, as well as the hundreds of lawsuits still to be settled.

Further uncertainty was introduced late last week with a public exchange of insults between Frank Keating, the blunt-spoken chairman of the Catholic lay group appointed to monitor the bishops, and Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony. A day after Keating likened unnamed bishops who were not cooperating with his group to "La Cosa Nostra," Mahony said he was considering calling for Keating's ouster, saying the chairman is "off the wall." Such a move would raise questions about the independence of the watchdog group.

"It's still very much a crisis ... at least in part because things have not been resolved," said R. Scott Appleby, a professor of religious history at the University of Notre Dame.

"I think the bishops ... got the message that sex abuse is a serious issue and needs to be dealt with in a transparent and accountable way. But they need to demonstrate progress, and unfortunately, progress takes time."

Victims take a harsher view. Despite the bishops' high-minded statements at last year's meeting in Dallas, they contend some church officials are still using hardball tactics - fighting against the release of documents to prosecutors and to compel sex abuse complainants to disclose their identities, attempting to subpoena therapists, and lobbying against extensions to statutes of limitations.

"The problem is, the bishops promised to turn over a new leaf, but their lobbyists, lawyers and staff members apparently didn't get the message," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Fundamentally, they still treat us as the enemy."

"I don't see any real change," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a victims' advocate since he co-wrote a 1985 report warning bishops they needed to do more about abusive priests. "What they've done is an insult to the people of God."

None of the three New York City-area prelates agreed to be interviewed for this story. But through their spokesmen, they said they are committed to fulfilling the promises they made in Dallas. They ticked off accomplishments including lay review boards, training programs for all employees who work with children, including priests, and new codes of conduct. And they noted that translating an ambitious set of policies onto the canvas of 195 separate power centers has been a Herculean endeavor, an assertion backed by other participants in the process.

"We're working very hard, but making these changes doesn't happen overnight," said Pamela Hayes, a New York City attorney who is a member of the national lay review board overseeing the bishops. "But people should be assured that we are making real progress."

Yet the situation is likely to become more charged in the months ahead as the national review panel releases report cards on every diocese, and as many cases of accused priests go to closed-door church trials - particularly if some of those panels find insufficient basis for a priest's permanent removal.

"Based on some of the cases I've been shown, I think that if some of these priests petition Rome, they will win," said the Rev. Robert Silva, president of the National Federation of Priests' Councils based in Chicago.

All of which is to say that as the bishops gather, much remains unknown about how conflicts over transparency and accountability will be resolved.

Going into the meeting, for instance, several powerful prelates, including New York Archbishop Edward Egan, have declined thus far to respond to a national statistical survey, commissioned by the lay review board, to gauge the scope of the abuse problem. Most cite confidentiality and liability concerns. A spokesman for Egan declined to elaborate on the cardinal's reasons.

Similar issues by Mahony led to the public dustup last week with Keating, a former governor of Oklahoma.

"I think that some bishops have legitimate concerns," said William Burleigh, chairman of E.W. Scripps Co. and another lay group member. "But there are also good answers to those concerns. I think that once the bishops hear those good answers face to face, they will be convinced to answer the survey."

Keating's remarks produced outrage not only among many prelates, but among several members of his own watchdog panel who said they worried that his remarks were compromising the group's effectiveness.

Keating could not be reached Friday, but his spokesman said he stood by his comments. The former federal prosecutor and FBI agent seemed confident in an interview earlier in the week that the bishops would cooperate with the survey after they discussed their concerns with its authors in St. Louis.

The survey writers "are adamant that there will be no problem with confidentiality," Keating said, "and so we are equally adamant that there will be no changes to the questionnaire."

What is clear even before Keating's group begins drawing up report cards is that the charter's translation by the nation's 195 prelates has been vastly uneven. A small number, led by Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore, have taken last year's pledge of transparency and accountability to heart, and disclosed the names of all priests credibly accused of sexual abuse. But the vast majority - including all three New York City-area prelates - have not produced such lists, disclosing the names of accused priests only in response to reporters' direct questions.

Moreover, some prelates (including the three in the metropolitan area) have cooperated with prosecutors, while others have withheld files and information, claiming First Amendment protections. And some have removed every priest against whom there was any credible allegations, while some have been far less aggressive.

Many victims and lay groups say that they expect bishops to disclose the names of every priest who has been permanently removed from ministry, at the minimum. "If this church is ever going to heal, it's got to err on the side of more disclosure, rather than less," said James Post, president of the lay reform group Voice of the Faithful.

Yet few bishops have committed to divulging names, reportedly because of concerns about confidentiality for priests. Murphy, for instance, has said he will not disclose names except to members of directly affected parishes. Egan has said he will disclose the names of only those priests who are permanently removed from ministry. Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Daily has not yet made a decision.

"If no one knows their backgrounds, what's to prevent a priest who's been removed from helping out at a summer camp, or tutoring kids struggling in school, or coaching baseball," asked Clohessy of SNAP. "I just can't imagine how the bishops would live with themselves if one of these men were arrested next week or next month or next year after having molested another child."

Keating said he shares those concerns, and notes that a growing list of states maintain registries of molesters.

"If the church makes a decision that an individual priest is a threat to young people and to his office, certainly people in the larger community should be informed," he said.

While unpopular with some bishops, that approach wins applause from victims and many lay Catholics.

Tollner, the upstate man waiting for resolution of his abuse complaint, said he is heartened by Keating's stance and has hope that the man he has accused will someday wind up on such a list.

But even if that should come to pass, Tollner said he is unlikely to trust a church hierarch ever again.

"It's a shame," he said, "because they're driving people away. And it's not just the victims. They're not giving the parishioners closure on this either."


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