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  Scandal Lingers As Bishops Meet
Catholic Leaders Likely to Assess Handling of Sex-Abuse Cases

By Tara Dooley
Houston Chronicle Religion [Houston TX]
June 19, 2003

As the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gathers today in St. Louis for a three-day meeting, sex abuse appears only as a whisper on the public schedule.

In contrast, the meeting that ended June 15, 2002, was devoted to what was called "a crisis without precedent in our times," a cascading scandal that rocked the church and the faith of some who believed in it.

The bishops this week are lined up to discuss training for deacons and religious education standards, but the shadow of the national sex-abuse crisis may well loom over the proceedings. While bishops have worked to put the past behind them, the task of assessing programs implemented in the past year remains.

Last year's conference resulted in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, setting out new rules and establishing a national oversight effort to gauge the extent of past abuse and check compliance with new guidelines.

Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of the Galveston-Houston Diocese said he expected discussion this week of a national survey meant to determine the extent of sexual abuse in the church, though it was not officially on the agenda. The bishops last year called for the survey, overseen by a national review board of prominent lay Catholics. The board commissioned John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City to conduct the survey, which was recently sent to dioceses nationwide.

Some bishops are balking at the survey, which they say is too broad and would require records searches back to 1950.

Auditors from an independent firm also are expected to check nationwide compliance with the charter's new rules. Fiorenza said the Galveston-Houston Diocese would welcome the auditors and expects them in September.

"We took very seriously the charter established last June and set out immediately to implement it," he said in an interview last week. Among the steps taken by the Galveston-Houston Diocese in compliance with the charter:

In July, Fiorenza wrote a letter to seven priests who already had been removed from active ministry for sex abuse, informing them that they could no longer celebrate Mass in public, present themselves as priests or wear their "black and whites." The diocese has declined to name the priests, but two, Monsignor Charles Shoppe and the Rev. Jesse S. Linam, became known after victims came forth with allegations. A lawsuit against Linam was filed but later dismissed.

Dominican Sister Maureen O'Connell was appointed victim-assistance coordinator for the diocese in July. The diocese does not keep records of the calls she has received. Monsignor Frank H. Rossi, diocese chancellor, said the "fewer than a handful" possible victims have received ongoing counseling after contacting O'Connell's office.

A sex-abuse awareness and prevention program for priests, deacons, all church employees and volunteers who work with children and teens was started in March. The program, developed by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group, includes a three-hour workshop on sexual predators, spotting abuse and intervention. Diocese officials estimate that more than 20,000 employees and volunteers will have participated by year's end; about 2,000 have already completed training.

In March, the diocese began requiring criminal background checks on all church volunteers who work with young people. They have required similar checks on employees since 1999. Diocese officials are deciding whether to do criminal checks on priests.

An 11-member diocesan review board was appointed in July to examine allegations of sexual abuse against priests in active ministry and determine their fitness to continue. The board included mental health professionals, lawyers, a doctor, parents and a former appellate court judge. After a review board member died, he was replaced by a parish priest.

"In terms of being prepared to deal with the issue, I think the bishop has usually been at the head of the leadership line," said M. Jean Kitchel, a member of the review board and chairwoman of the University of St. Thomas philosophy department.

In the course of the year, the board heard two cases and made recommendations to Fiorenza. Acting on their advice, Fiorenza decided to keep a priest -- already out of ministry for violations that had nothing to do with sexual abuse -- out of active ministry. In the other case, the priest remained in active ministry, an outcome that has angered and disappointed one local family.

"It's like they cracked open all the hurt, and there is no place to go with it," said Carol LaBonte, whose son filed the complaint, which alleged abuse took place about two decades ago, when he was 16.

The parents of seven children, Carol and Stephen LaBonte say the promise of the charter prompted them to speak out about the abuse of their son.

Last July, with his son's permission, LaBonte sent a letter to diocese chancellor Rossi. He told Rossi that his son had been sexually molested by John Keller, a priest and family friend who had once worked at their parish.

The son, now an adult and interviewed on condition that his name not be used, claims the priest gave him alcohol, invited him into bed and "put his hands down my pants."

Keller has said through a diocese spokeswoman that he does not wish to discuss the claims with the media.

The case was considered by the review board and Keller underwent a psychological assessment, diocese officials said. Fiorenza talked with Keller and said "there were obvious differences" in the stories. In a March letter to Prince of Peace church, where Keller now is pastor, Fiorenza concluded that Keller "had not engaged in an act of sexual abuse and that he should remain in ministry."

"The allegation was not substantiated," Fiorenza said last week. "That was the advice that came forward from the review board after carefully investigating."

The LaBontes' son said the diocese is paying for his counseling. But he and his parents think the review board misjudged the allegation.

"Nobody expected anything from the diocese," Stephen LaBonte said. "The statute of limitations (to file a lawsuit) had passed. ... It was, `Let's get this thing cleaned up once and for all.' I don't think it was cleaned up."

The LaBontes question how faithfully the rules and spirit of the charter have been followed.

Keller was never removed from active ministry during the investigation, an indication to Stephen LaBonte that diocese officials never seriously investigated his son's complaint, he said.

According to Rossi, the charter's rules -- which comply with specific Catholic church law -- do not require that a priest be removed from ministry unless he is found to have sexually abused a minor.

And, Fiorenza said, "We did not think there was sufficient evidence to remove him at that point."

No other allegations have been brought against Keller, Rossi said. "There had never been any indication of any inappropriate conduct on the part of Father Keller before this complaint was raised," he said.

Carol LaBonte questions why she and her husband were never interviewed by the review board, especially since her husband's letter to Rossi initiated the investigation.

Members of the review board would not comment on any specific cases because its work is considered confidential. But J. Michael Solar, a lawyer and chairman of the board, said the group takes its task seriously.

"This is a very serious, a very focused and thoughtful approach to addressing specific complaints that are brought to us by members of our diocese," Solar said.

If they had to do it over again, the LaBontes said, they would have reacted differently two decades ago. Stephen LaBonte, a permanent deacon at Christ the Good Shepherd Catholic Church, said he regrets his silence. "I kept the secret. You can't say, `The bishop is the problem, he is the secret-keeper,' if you do not speak up."

 
 

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