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  Church Struggles with New Openness

By J. Michael Parker
San Antonio Express-News [San Antonio TX]
June 22, 2003

A year ago, Catholic bishops returned from their historic conference in Dallas with two goals: to protect children and to deal more openly with sexual abuse issues.

The new national Charter for Protection of Children and Young People, mandated in Dallas as a blueprint for every diocese, is consistent with what the Archdiocese of San Antonio says it has done for years. By all appearances, the archdiocese is correct.

Today is the deadline for Catholic dioceses to submit their statements of compliance with the new charter.

But getting information from archdiocesan officials has often been difficult.

Much of what's known about their handling of past sexual misconduct allegations has come through lawsuits, arrests, court papers and other secondhand sources.

"Keeping all this information behind closed doors is a mistake," said Russell Shaw, former press secretary of the U.S. Catholic bishops' conference. "It's injurious to (the bishops') own interests and those of the Catholic community."

Last week, as the bishops met for three days in St. Louis, they faced more criticism about secrecy after spending a day in executive session.

Whatever their intentions last year, last week's events illustrate that moving to the sunlight of public scrutiny is easier said than done.

The Catholic Office of Child and Youth Protection asked bishops to fill out a survey on sexual abuse in the church. Kathleen McChesney, who heads the office, said the information was never meant to be made a public diocese-by-diocese accounting of past cases.

Still, only 135 of the country's 195 dioceses sent in the survey. San Antonio has not, waiting until after a discussion at last week's bishops' conference.

Some tell, some don't

Though some church officials said their pledges of openness refer only to informing civil authorities promptly and cooperating with their investigations, the archdioceses of Chicago, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Seattle and some small dioceses revealed the amount of their spending on abuse cases, the Associated Press reported.

Most, including San Antonio, haven't, and many American Catholics are asking why. But that's their problem, says Monsignor Lawrence Stuebben, vicar general of the San Antonio archdiocese.

"We're not going to talk about every accusation that came in 15, 20 or 30 years ago," Stuebben said. "I don't see us printing some kind of list. The national review board isn't even asking for this."

The San Antonio archdiocese has received sexual misconduct complaints on at least 22 priests since 1986. Eight have been removed from ministry for sexual abuse. A ninth, who kissed a 27-year-old man on the lips, was ordered to counseling and to be monitored by a therapist.

The most recent accusation was a lawsuit filed in May charging a priest with molesting a boy in 1978. The priest, now in the Diocese of Victoria, denies the allegation.

The archdiocese has paid at least $4,455,000 in four settlements since 1986, not including a confidential settlement sealed by court order in the case of Father Federico Fernandez.

And then the lawyers

Even when the courts don't insist on confidentiality, church lawyers and insurance companies sometimes do.

"You don't want others to know what you're getting because someone else might come and expect the same amount," attorney Charles A. Schmidt said.

Lawyers also sometimes insist on a settlement, even if the accused is believed to be innocent.

"As a matter of principle, you might decide it's worth going ahead and taking it to court," Schmidt said. "But you never know what's going to happen with a jury. With a settlement, you know what you're getting."

Deacon Pat Rodgers, director of communications for the San Antonio archdiocese, said rank-and-file Catholics rarely ask about past cases and settlements.

"They want to know what we're doing now to see that children are protected in the future," Rodgers said.

Care for victims

Michelle Stiller, care program coordinator for Alamo Children's Advocacy Center, agrees. She said it's not often healthy for recovering victims to make public past cases or even the accused perpetrator's name.

"They often have mixed feelings," she said. "Part of them might be angry and wanting to take action against the offender, but they also may have an allegiance to that person. It's not always a clear-cut call for them."

Every public mention of sexual abuse reopens the wounds, she said.

The new charter forbids confidentiality agreements except when the victim's family requests one for a serious reason.

Shaw said he understands whatever concerns bishops may have about the limits on confidentiality, but, "I favor full disclosure. Against the background of this scandal, the bishops should be bending over backward to be open and candid."

Rodgers, a longtime San Antonio radio broadcaster, said, "My own media background says, 'We have to get out there and tell our story.' But when we make statements to the media (during a trial), some attorney can take our quotes out of context."

However, the archdiocese now says its policy will be to inform the news media when an allegation against church personnel is substantiated and action is taken against them.

Also, its statement of compliance with the new charter is to be made public on Thursday and will be published in Today's Catholic, the archdiocesan newspaper. In a reversal of previous plans, members of the new policy review board will be named publicly.

And Rodgers is crafting a new communication policy in accord with the charter.

In line with that, three new allegations that didn't involve priests have brought more comment from the archdiocese than most previous cases. Two of the cases did not involve litigation, and Rogers outlined what happened in each case, when the archdiocese learned of it and what action was taken.

Rodgers said the adjustments from the existing policy focus on preventing future situations where abuse can occur.

"We didn't need to do as much as some other dioceses did," said auxiliary bishop Patrick Zurek. "We were pretty much there already."

Only 1 case

Archbishop Patrick Flores said in only one case - the first, in 1986 - did he fail to report an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor to law enforcement officials, and that was at the insistence of the child's parents.

A San Antonio Police Department spokeswoman quoted sex crimes detectives as praising the archdiocese's cooperation in criminal cases involving church personnel.

"They've always involved us in training their people," said Stiller, of the Children's Advocacy Center. "That's a really big step because sometimes church communities look only to internal resources."

Still, the archdiocese never had a review board to ensure that it consistently follows its own policy or to suggest improvements. Now, it will.

Argument continues

Under the old policy, a 12-member crisis intervention committee, mostly lay men and women, has investigated allegations and recommended action to Flores, as it will continue to do.

But Houston attorney Douglas Sutter, who won a $330,000 settlement from the archdiocese in February and has another lawsuit pending this fall, claims that Flores didn't do nearly enough to prevent misbehavior in the past.

He's asked a Vatican City court to remove Flores for not monitoring priests or correcting questionable behavior.

Flores said he doesn't have the resources or personnel to monitor employees 24 hours a day.

"We haven't had a police force in the church since the Inquisition, and nobody wants to bring that back," said Father Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit weekly magazine America and an expert on church leadership.

Maybe not. But Flores has been accused of ignoring "red flags," early warning signs that could have mitigated or prevented predatory behavior.

He disputes the critics and remains confident that the process is working.

"We've come a long way. But this isn't the end," Flores said. "We're going to continue working on this."

 
 

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