Bishops Still Trying to Restore Faith, Trust

By Andrew Tilghman
Albany Times Union [Albany NY]
June 15, 2003

Albany -- As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops prepares for this year's annual meeting in St. Louis on Wednesday, Catholics and other observers say profound progress has been made restoring the trust of the laity and putting painful problems in the past.

But some bishops are still struggling with the 18-month-old sexual abuse scandal, trying to balance their role as spiritual leaders with the responsibilities of running powerful institutions with financial and legal liabilities.

"I think we are kind of muddling through, trying to figure out how to deal with some of these very difficult cases," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Catholic scholar and editor of the Jesuit magazine America.

During the past year, the more than 400,000 Catholics in the Albany Diocese and upward of 60 million nationwide have seen well-known priests removed, lawsuits filed, and newly created lay organizations calling for change in the way the church is run.

At this week's three-day conference, bishops are expected to make only brief public remarks about progress in implementing the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which includes the zero-tolerance rule for priests known to have abused a child.

But behind closed doors, the bishops are likely to discuss several developments, such as the unprecedented agreement last week between an Arizona prosecutor and Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien, Reese said. O'Brien turned over some administrative authority to other church officials in order to avoid prosecution for endangering children.

During the year, the scandal has brought into focus questions about separation between church and state. Across the country, allegations against priests have spilled into civil and criminal courts, and church attorneys have mounted vigorous defenses, often on First Amendment grounds.

Fallout from the scandal has occupied much of Bishop Howard Hubbard's time and energy. After removing six priests in June 2002, the bishop suspended seven more due to recent accusations and lawsuits.

The diocese has not indicated whether the six priests initially removed have decided whether to leave the priesthood entirely, or to live a life of "prayer and pennance" in a monastic setting, in accordance with national rules. For the seven priests removed this year, investigations remain open.

The diocese is facing four lawsuits in civil court and Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney is probing potentially criminal allegations that an Albany priest stalked a man to prevent him from filing a sexual abuse complaint.

The lawsuits are in the early stages, and it is unclear whether they will cost the diocese in the form of judgments or settlements, or just with massive legal bills.

Attorney John Aretakis, who has filed the four lawsuits, has fueled the local scandal, placing victims' allegations on the public record and criticizing the Albany Diocese's handling of recent complaints.

Aretakis accused state Supreme Court Justice Joseph Teresi of favoring the church, after which the judge removed himself from cases involving the diocese. Teresi said he did so because he had become a focus of attention, but he denied that he was biased.

During the past year, the Albany Diocese has hired Theresa Rodrigues as victims assistance coordinator to work with those who contact the church. The diocese also has implemented a training program to help employees recognize warning signs of sexual abuse. Last month, it began a $35,000 advertising campaign urging victims to contact the church.

Officials said this week that costs related to the scandal, including legal fees, counseling and other assistance to victims totaled $230,000 since June 2002. That's in addition to the $2.5 million paid out during the past 30 years.

Several dioceses made large financial settlements and others -- most notably Boston -- have discussed possible bankruptcy court action. In May, the Diocese of Manchester in New Hampshire agreed to pay $6.5 million to 61 people who said priests sexually abused them.

Money also has emerged as a key issue for some Catholics upset by the scandal.

"They want the financial councils to be more than just in name. They want to know how the money is spent," said Eileen Flynn, author of "Catholics at a Crossroads." "Nowhere in the Bible does it say that the bishop has carte blanche over the money that comes in."

According to a Times Union poll of Capital Region Catholics in April, many Catholics expressed concern that the scandal would take a toll on parishioners' donations. However, contributions to this year's Bishop's Appeal fund-raising drive are up slightly compared to a year ago, according to Ken Goldfarb, a diocese spokesman.

The national review board created after Dallas has commissioned a survey by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City to determine the extent of sexually abusive priests and the number of victims to come forward since 1950.

"It is going to shed a lot of light in a lot of dark corners and I think -- as the Bible says -- the truth will set us free," said William R. Burleigh, a retired media executive who sits on the 11-member review board.

"There are people, large numbers of Catholics who are angry and embarrassed and disillusioned and I think what we are doing will be restorative," Burleigh said.

The Times Union poll found half of Capital Region Catholics believe Hubbard should be more open and aggressive in handling priests accused of sexually abusing children.

In a letter to Catholics in this week's Evangelist newspaper, Hubbard said: "I assure you that we continue to learn from the mistakes of the past and are committed to doing everything possible to make the protection of children and young people, healing for victims and their families, and the removal from ministry of any clergy or church personnel who have abused their position of sacred trust an urgent priority for our Diocese." Timeline

June 14, 2002 -- U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Dallas adopts Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, requiring zero-tolerance for priests who sexually abuse children.

June 28 -- Bishop Howard Hubbard removes six priests for credible allegations of sexual abuse.

Oct. 10 -- Lawsuit accuses Albany Revs. John Bertolucci and Kenneth Doyle of trying to prevent a sex abuse victim from filing formal complaint.

Nov. 13 -- Bishops in Washington, D.C., approve formal zero-tolerance policy, loosening some requirements for reporting suspected abuse to the government.

November -- Albany Diocese announces hiring of new Victims' Assistance Coordinator, Teresa Rodrigues.

Dec. 13 -- Cardinal Bernard Law resigns as archbishop of Boston.

Jan. 19, 2003 -- Capital Region sex abuse victim discloses he received $150,000 from Albany Catholic Charities in summer 2002.

Feb. 2 -- The Rev. James Kelly, former principal of Keveny Academy in Cohoes, is suspended after a lawsuit accuses him of sexually abusing a teenager while working at Boys Town home for troubled children in Nebraska.

Feb. 3 -- Oregon judge temporarily bars Diocese of Baker from transferring assets to parishes after victims of sexual abuse allege an scheme to avoid liability.

Feb. 10 -- Long Island grand jury accuses Diocese of Rockville Centre of trying to silence victims, cover up crimes and avoid scandals.

Feb. 13 -- The Rev. Edward McDonagh cleared of sexual abuse allegations in Boston and resumes parish post.

Feb. 20 -- Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, led by Archbishop Harry Flynn, says sexual abuse by priests cost $3.1 million over 14 years, with $700,000 paid from collection plate contributions.

Feb. 27 -- Church records made public detail how prelates in Albany and Boston transferred the Rev. Dozia Wilson, who had been accused of sexual misconduct, between parishes.

April 2 -- Diocese of San Bernardino, Calif., sues Archdiocese of Boston, accusing it of transferring a known sexual abuser without disclosing his past.

May 8 -- Schenectady County District Attorney Robert Carney launches investigation into allegations that an Albany priest stalked a man to prevent him from filing a complaint of sexual abuse.

June 2 -- To avoid criminal charges, Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien admits he allowed priests accused of molesting minors to keep working with children.


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