Bishops Get Mixed Reviews in Sex Crisis
Jersey Prelates Attack Scandal Differently
By Jeff Diamant
June 18, 2003
One New Jersey bishop, Paul Bootkoski of Metuchen, has won praise for settling old sex-abuse claims and letting some victims help review cases against other priests.
Another, Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, has drawn scorn from a victims group for not meeting with it and for banning a lay reform group from church property.
A year ago, faced with the worst crisis in the history of the Catholic Church in America, the nation's bishops approved the "Dallas Charter" to help them deal with the once-unimaginable: priests sexually abusing parishioners.
How the five Roman Catholic bishops in New Jersey have shouldered the task in the past year differs as widely as the dioceses themselves. The struggle to satisfy victims and disgruntled laity while also protecting accused priests' privacy -- and keep some control over the fervor for reform -- hasn't been easy anywhere in 195 dioceses nationwide.
"There's a mixed record so far," said Claire Noonan of Call to Action, a liberal Catholic reform group, of the national effort.
"Some bishops seem to be complying and doing their best to do outreach to victims ... and have a compassionate and honest response to this scandal. In other places, stonewalling and secrecy seems to be continuing," she said.
American bishops will meet in St. Louis beginning tomorrow, a year after the national conference in Dallas, which was dominated by the sex abuse scandal.
Victims and lay groups criticize Myers more than other New Jersey bishop.
Myers angered aspiring church reformers in October when he banned Voice of the Faithful, a reform group begun after the scandal. Myers called it "anti-Catholic."
VOTF's stated goal to help shape structural change in the church caught the critical eye of Myers and a few other American bishops, who contend it provides cover for dissenting agendas such as the ordination of women.
In April, Myers criticized Kathleen McChesney, hired by bishops to monitor reforms, for meeting with VOTF. Her "decisions and the conduct of her office leave more than a few Bishops for whom she technically works in a state of perplexity," Myers wrote.
Myers also has angered the main victims group, which has asked to meet with him several times, said Buddy Cotton, who heads the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in New Jersey.
Myers wrote to SNAP that he has already met with victims, understands their pain and does not need to meet with SNAP.
SNAP also has complained that the Newark Archdiocese has been uncooperative when asked to furnish the name of an accused priest's current parish. Other dioceses give SNAP this basic data, he said.
Archdiocese spokesman James Goodness acknowledged the information is available in the archdiocese directory. "They would be welcome to purchase one," he said.
Goodness said the Newark Archdiocese has had a lay board reviewing allegations against priests for 10 years, offers counseling to victims and puts priests on administrative leave while investigating claims.
Cotton acknowledged the archdiocese has the best written policy on sex abuse of any New Jersey diocese but said it is implemented poorly. At SNAP meetings, victims regularly complain the archdiocese is slow to return calls and that they feel ignored unless they press for responses, Cotton said.
Victims groups and advocates consistently praise Bootkoski for his dealings with victims.
In January, Bootkoski became the first bishop in the nation to name a SNAP member to a diocesan review board. He has met with SNAP.
"We feel it is very important to have an ongoing dialogue with that organization," said Ron Rak, the diocesan general secretary. "It is only through dialogue that we can learn from one another."
Victims and their lawyers have praised Bootkoski for his diocese's January agreement to pay $800,000 to 10 parishioners who said priests abused them in Middlesex and Hunterdon counties. Eight victims' claims did not meet statutes of limitation and likely would have been dismissed in court.
Bootkoski also personally apologized to the victims.
"The bishop felt it was most important to reach out to victims in matters where their claims had been determined to be credible," Rak said. "And the bishop felt the resources of the diocese should not be spent on extended litigation to any of these individuals."
OUTREACH IN PATERSON
Measured praise for the Paterson Diocese, headed by Bishop Frank Rodimer, focuses on his meetings with SNAP and his efforts to talk to people at churches where parishioners have accused priests of abuse.
"SNAP is very proud of Bishop Rodimer," Cotton said. "He is a shining example of how ... outreach should be implemented."
Like Metuchen, the Paterson Diocese has put a victim on its diocese response team.
SNAP's praise for Rodimer comes despite his admitted missteps involving a former Mendham priest, James Hanley, who several core SNAP members say abused them at St. Joseph's Church.
And Greg Gianforcaro, a lawyer who represents 27 people who say priests abused them, has criticized the Paterson Diocese's investigative procedures that do not allow board members to ask victims questions at hearings.
Follow-up questions spur victims to share essential details that might not otherwise come out, he said: "Every other review board I've been has found it extremely necessary to ask questions."
Diocese spokeswoman Marianna Thompson countered, "We do not wish to take upon the role of interrogator. You have to consider that it would make some victims very uncomfortable."
IN SOUTH JERSEY
Victims groups had no criticism of Trenton Bishop John Smith and offered mixed views of Camden Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio.
DiMarzio agreed in March to pay $880,000 to 23 plaintiffs who had battled the church in court for about nine years.
SNAP officials say the diocese often works with them, but national SNAP spokesman Mark Serrano said he worries the Camden Diocese victims' support group improperly gives the diocese access to information that could be used against victims in lawsuits.
Andrew Walton, spokesman for DiMarzio, countered that victims had asked for a support group, and that no notes are taken at group meetings.
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