Archbishop Reflects on Clergy Sexual Abuse Scandal

By Bruce Schreiner
July 22, 2006

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Written in an ancient language from the center of Catholicism, the framed letter in his office symbolizes Thomas C. Kelly's longevity as Roman Catholic archbishop of Louisville.

"You will notice that my name is fading out," said Kelly, his self-deprecating wit intact while gazing at the Latin words from the pope a quarter-century ago, signifying Kelly's appointment to the Louisville archdiocese.

Kelly recently turned 75, and under church law that starts a process that eventually will lead to the appointment of a new spiritual leader for an archdiocese spanning 24 counties with more than 200,000 Catholics.

Kelly will stay on as Louisville archbishop until a successor is appointed, a process that he has said could take up to 18 months.

"We've had a lot of difficult times and we've had some glorious moments as well," said Kelly, reflecting on a legacy that includes restoration of the Cathedral of the Assumption, preservation of a strong Catholic school system and a wrenching clergy abuse sex scandal that shook the church and city.

In an interview on Friday, Kelly said the downtown cathedral's revitalization during his tenure "has been a great joy." He takes pride in a Catholic school system he said has maintained high standards and been "a great ministry."

On public policy, he has been an advocate for the poor and opponent of abortion and the death penalty. He defends the rights of immigrants, including the influx of Hispanics, many of them Catholic, to seek a better life in this country.

"There's a lack of respect for people who aren't us, as it were," he said.

Kelly also dealt publicly with his addiction to alcohol and painkillers years ago while coping with severe back pain following surgery. He said his decision to seek treatment inspired others to get help for their substance abuse.

Still, for all his ministries, Kelly realizes that his handling of the priest abuse scandal will play prominently in his legacy.

The Louisville archdiocese agreed in 2003 to pay $25.7 million to settle with more than 240 victims of sexual abuse by priests or other church workers. Many of the abuse cases occurred before Kelly's arrival in Louisville.

The settlement was one of the largest single payouts in a string of sex-abuse settlements across the country. It put a financial strain on the Louisville archdiocese that prompted staff reductions and higher parish assessments.

And it weighed on Kelly, as the archdiocese was inundated with claims that a few priests had been sexual predators with young parishioners as their prey.

"I think I wept for four years at the pain," Kelly said Friday.

Kelly professed a clear conscience for his response, but said, "What I was guilty of was not understanding the depth and range of the problem."

"We seemed to get a new roster everyday of people coming forward," he said. "I'm glad they did. I'm glad they got some help from us."

Kelly said he considered resigning amid the tumult, but decided it was his duty "to do the best I could to heal the situation."

"I feel that I behaved responsibly to the need of the time," he said.

"It seems to me that a bishop has to bite the bullet and go through that. I know that many people were quite unhappy with me, but from my own viewpoint I worked hard on this and I've done the best I can."

Kelly offered to meet with each victim; only a handful agreed to do so. He said the sessions were "about as painful as anything you can ever think of."

Sue Archibald, who has headed The Healing Alliance, a Kentucky-based advocacy group for clergy-abuse victims, said Friday that Kelly's response seemed to lack a human connection, but instead was "hierarchal and clerical."

"I wish he could have done more to aid in the healing of the victims, because the monetary settlement was only a beginning," she said. "Many of the victims in Louisville still have an open wound."

Archibald said the scandal seemed to take a toll on Kelly.

"He looks like he's been through a battle. He looks tired," she said.

Michael Turner, who as a 13-year-old was molested by a Louisville priest three decades ago, said he thought Kelly followed Vatican orders in the case.

"As a businessman ... he did his job in handling it. As a spiritual leader, he failed dramatically," said Turner, an active member of The Healing Alliance and the lead plaintiff in the lawsuits that began against the archdiocese in 2002.

Kelly has his defenders as well. The Rev. William Fichteman, pastor at the Cathedral of the Assumption, said Kelly "got a worse rap than he deserved."

"No one has shown that a single child was put in danger because of something Archbishop Kelly did or did not do with a priest who was suspected," he said after a recent midday Mass at the cathedral.

Episcopal Bishop Edwin Gulick Jr., a weekly breakfast partner with Kelly and other church leaders for years, watched the archbishop cope with the crisis.

"I think the pain of the victims was an enormous burden for him," he said.

In the aftermath, Kelly said, the scandal "kind of flattened us out financially" and "from the (public relations) point of view, it was a disaster."

Stricter policies on sexual abuse adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops a few years ago "are the best that we can do," Kelly said.

Still, he said the abuse arose from "a problem of evil that does not go away. You can contain it, and I think we have done well, but you can't ever promise that nobody is ever going to be afflicted this way again."

The archbishop said the loss of any parishioners following the scandal was a "source of great regret," but said those abandoning the church usually do so because of a complex set of reasons.

"We always have got our door open for them to come back," he said.

Turner no longer attends regular Mass and views the church differently.

"All your life, if the bishop came to the church, that was royalty," he said. "I don't feel that way anymore, and that's a shame."

Looking ahead, Kelly said he'll request a yearlong sabbatical once his successor is named, and plans to devote much of the time to prayer. He'll return to Louisville, and will work in some type of ministry if his replacement agrees.

Parishioners also are preparing for the day when Kelly will no longer be their spiritual leader in the archdiocese.

"I think he's been an excellent leader overall," said Richard Miller, 73, following a recent Mass at the downtown cathedral. "Not without faults, like all of us, but a good and holy man, I believe."


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