Bishop Accountability
 
  Public Expects More Candor about Sex-Abuse Scandals

By Shirley Ragsdale
Des Moines Register
January 17, 2004

Last week three of Iowa's four Catholic bishops released reports on the scope of sexual abuse by clergy in their diocese over the past 50 years.

The bishops are probably wondering why they're not hearing more applause for their efforts. Compared with the Catholic Church's record of secrecy on the subject, reporting the breadth of priest abuse is a significant about-face.

There is no cheering in the streets because Catholics and the public expected more.

When the country's bishops met in Dallas 18 months ago, they promised a new level of candor, honesty and accountability. Most of Iowa's bishops still have more to do to fulfill that promise.

Iowa's bishops' efforts to come clean with the faithful vary widely - from a diocese being commended for openness by national auditors to one labeled by a victim's group as the most uncooperative diocese in the country.

The Des Moines diocese was commended in a national report by independent auditors hired by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The auditors were to evaluate how well the country's 195 dioceses were implementing and following new policies to prevent and deal with sexual-abuse allegations against priests and church employees.

Sixty-eight percent of U.S. dioceses received some sort of commendation, but Des Moines was cited for "the excellence and extent of Bishop Joseph Charron's communications policy and practices, which ensure openness and transparency when dealing with issues related to sexual abuse of minors."

In September 2002, Charron appointed a board, largely of lay people, to investigate new and old allegations. A year later, he publicly identified three priests, summarized the allegations against them, and began the process to have them removed from the priesthood.

Many Catholics said they found the process painful, but cathartic.

Auditors also praised Bishop Charron's use of pastoral letters and the diocese newspaper to keep parishioners informed.

Contrast that with the Davenport diocese, where the bishop appears clueless about the concept of transparency and diocese attorneys thwarted an audit of its policies by insisting on being present during auditors' interviews with church leaders and employees.

Lawyers too cautious?

Diocese lawyer Rand Wonio said, in hindsight, the diocese's lawyers may have been overly cautious.

They thought legal counsel would provide "a comfort level" for employees, who were "fearful of doing or saying the wrong thing," he said. "We were just being cautious lawyers at the time."

The Davenport diocese is now nationally known as the only diocese in the U. S. where the independent auditors left because they were unable to verify whether or not it had adopted the mandated policies. Additionally, Davenport is one of only a few dioceses that has not submitted to the national bishops group a confidential survey of abuse allegations in its records since 1950.

The only thing that Davenport diocese Catholics know about the scope of abuse is what they've read in newspapers about 10 abuse lawsuits filed in the past year or so. Plaintiffs in those lawsuits have named five priests, including Monsignor Drake Shafer, the diocese's top administrator. They allege that abuse occurred in four decades, from the `50s to the `80s.

Iowa's two other diocese fall somewhere in between those extremes.

Archbishop Jerome Hanus of Dubuque, on Dec. 29, released a troubling report on the extent of sexual abuse in his archdiocese. The bishop reported that from 1950 to 2002, accusations were made against 26 priests, 18 of whom are dead. Of the eight living, one was dismissed from the clerical state five are of advanced age one was sentenced, served time and is currently on parole one was removed from all pastoral offices. Currently there are no criminal proceedings against any accused priests, but civil proceedings are pending against a "couple" of priests, the archbishop said.

Hanus gave a statistical snapshot, but he provided no names.

Hanus has said the identities of priests against whom "credible accusations have been made are a matter of public record," which means a newspaper report or court record somewhere bears the names. Although the bishop has the information at his fingertips, Catholics or the press have to dig it out.

And I tried. An old article in the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reported that the Rev. Timothy DeVenney, pastor at Columbkille parish in Dubuque, pleaded guilty in 1997 to fondling several boys and was sentenced to prison. At present, he is on parole.

In a 2002 Telegraph-Herald interview, Hanus said he had removed DeVenney and Allen Schmitt from parishes because of allegations of sexual abuse. The allegations against Schmitt were about 20 years old. When confronted by the bishop, he admitted the sexual misconduct.

Hanus said a third priest, Michael Fitzgerald, was removed even though there was no credible allegation of misconduct.

A victims' advocate Web site says Fitzgerald was caught in a law enforcement e-mail sting targeting men trying to contact teenaged boys over the Internet. The bishop said publicity connected to the incident made it impossible for Fitzgerald to function as a pastor. Fitzgerald was killed Oct. 2, 2001, in a traffic accident, according to diocese records.

No names released

But who were the other priests? Who are the priests named in pending litigation?

Sioux City Bishop Daniel DiNardo also released a summary of the scope of child sexual abuse by clergy over the past 50 years. Since 1950 the diocese received 33 allegations of sexual abuse against 10 priests. Of those 10 identified with credible allegations, six have died, one left the priesthood, one is in a supervised setting and two have had their priestly duties suspended and are subject to further canonical penalties.

He did not name them.

From civil lawsuits filed in 2003, we know that the Rev. George McFadden has been accused of sexually abusing boys and girls. News stories report allegations against the Rev. Gerald Hartz, former superintendent of Sioux City Catholic schools. According to DiNardo, the allegation could not be confirmed and misdemeanor charges were dropped.

At the very least, DiNardo should have named the priests he suspended and plans to have removed from the priesthood, just as Bishop Charron did.

In earlier interviews, Hanus and DiNardo have said they are not convinced that naming the priests accused of sexual conduct is the right thing to do.

Both were especially concerned for the reputations of deceased priests, who could not defend themselves against the allegations. Both have said they support victims who may make the names public.

Victims advocates contend that in spite of the scandal, the bishops protect their predecessors' bad decisions and pedophile priests because they still fear bad publicity, losing parishioners, power and money.

"The sad truth is, old habits die hard," said David Clohessy, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "Fundamentally the bishops don't understand what parents do, that Job One is protecting the kids. To do that you've got to know who is a molester or a predator. People need to know who the bad guys were and where they are. When it comes to child sexual abuse by clergy, ignorance is dangerous."

Other U.S. bishops are being more open. This week the Orange County, Calif., diocese released the names of 15 priests, dead and living, who were found to have credible allegations of child abuse against them.

I believe all of Iowa's bishops will be vigilant in exerting a zero tolerance policy on child sexual abuse from now on.

Even the Davenport diocese used its new policy to address the case of the Rev. Richard Poster, who has pleaded guilty to charges in connection with child pornography that diocese employees found on a computer he used.

But if Iowa's bishops truly want to put the scandal to rest and receive the thanks of the faithful, they must open their records, name names and assign responsibility for the past wrongs done to the victims and their families.

Regardless of the cost to the reputations of dead bishops and priests, or the dioceses' financial bottom line.

 
 

Any original material on these pages is copyright © BishopAccountability.org 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.
     
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