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  Church Turning Eyes Away from Scandal

By Abbott Koloff
Daily Record [Dallas TX]
Downloaded June 25, 2003

DALLAS - Church officials appeared to be moving closer Thursday to a policy that would throw out any priest ever found to have sexually abused children, but the actual proposals won't be revealed until today, when bishops from across the nation put it to a vote.

Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, opened a three-day national meeting here with a strong apology to victims of sexual abuse by priests, saying that church leaders were to blame for allowing them to remain in the ministry. He acknowledged that some church leaders had been more concerned about scandal than victims.

"We are the ones who ... reassigned them to ministries where they continued to abuse," Gregory said. "We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities. ... We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that prevents abuse. ... And we are the ones who, at times, responded to victims and their families as adversaries and not as suffering members of the Church."

The bishops also heard from people who said they were abused by priests. Church officials said this was the first time that victims have been heard by the full body of bishops at one of their annual meetings.

Mark Serrano, formerly of Mendham, who says he was abused by a former pastor of St. Joseph's in Mendham, was among a group of victims who met with four cardinals on Wednesday. He said he expected the bishops to come out with a stronger Article 5 today.

"There's no doubt they will do this," he said.

Victims' advocates made it clear that they would accept nothing less, and the bishops said, over and over, that they were listening.

Gregory would not comment Thursday, however, on what changes had been made to a draft charter of proposals to deal with pedophile priests. Church officials had been hinting for the past two days that its final form would be stronger than the original - which would have allowed one-time past abusers to remain in the priesthood.

Archbishop Harry Flynn of Minnesota, chairman of the committee that drafted the proposal, promised on Wednesday that a new charter would be put together overnight and that controversial Article 5, which deals with punishment, would be significantly strengthened.

Bishop Frank J. Rodimer of the Paterson Diocese said that it appeared likely that Article 5 would be changed and that he was wrestling with how to vote on it. He said he approved of the original article, which would allow priests who abused once in the past to work as long as they were approved by a review board made up mostly of regular Catholics.

Priests who abuse children from now on would be removed from the priesthood under the draft charter.

"I think it's good the way it is," Rodimer said. "It gives a diocese the opportunity to review case by case. ... The strong feeling in the room was that if we voted on Article 5 (as it stands) this morning, there would have been strong opposition to it. I have to hear the discussions. I'll make the decision (on how to vote) when the time comes."

Bishops were expected to continue talking about Article 5 last night so that they would have a clear proposal to vote on today. If the article is strengthened, and all priests ever found to have committed any abuse are either removed from the priesthood or aren't allowed to work as priests, Rodimer acknowledged that it could affect one priest in the Paterson Diocese.

William N. Cramer, who pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child and was found by a civil jury to have molested two Sparta boys, now works as director of pastoral care at St. Joseph's Regional Medical Center in Paterson. His job could be in jeopardy.

"It depends on how the article is nuanced," Rodimer said. "If zero tolerance is adopted across the board, our diocese will have to make that applicable to all of our priests."

Rodimer has defended his decision to allow Cramer to continue to work by saying that he no longer fits the profile of an abuser.

The bishop previously said the final charter might require the diocese to seek the removal of another accused abuser from the priesthood - James T. Hanley, who has been accused of abusing children at parishes in Pequannock, Parsippany and Mendham. Hanley no longer is allowed to function as a priest but he's not officially out of the priesthood.

As of Thursday afternoon, Rodimer said he was still struggling with the issue of removing one-time past offenders but appeared to be moving toward voting for the stronger proposal. Bishops had been urged to make that change by victims' advocates over the past two days and Rodimer said he would consider it.

"If there is a strong reason, I would support it," Rodimer said.

Dave Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he expected the bishops to go along with a sweeping zero-tolerance policy but questioned whether they had the will to enforce it.

"If they're voting for zero tolerance under duress, that's troubling," Clohessy said. "Once the furor dies down, we have to worry about enforcement."

Bishops continued to talk about Article 5 into the evening, and at one point a bishop from Kentucky, John McRaith, collapsed and was taken to the hospital. The cause of the collapse and the bishop's condition were unknown Thursday night.

For much of the day, victims stayed in the lobby of the hotel, holding pictures of themselves as children. Serrano and two other men who said Hanley abused them in Mendham years ago spent the day giving interviews to TV crews from around the nation - and later were part of a press conference at another location where victims gave accounts of being abused.

Clohessy and three other victims of abuse by priests spoke to the full body of bishops earlier in the day.

"We don't believe we are here because you enjoy us being here," Clohessy said when it was his turn to speak to the bishops, fighting back tears for much of his speech as he talked about being sodomized by a priest and the psychological effects.

"I can tell you about the especially awful early years. I would shower and shave like a normal person, then couldn't take the first step outside. It was hit or miss whether I would get to work."

He told the bishops about a homeless man who had been abused, referring to a man who victims say was abused by Hanley and now is living in a concrete conduit in Morristown. He told them about another man from Kansas, Eric Patterson, who committed suicide.

"I ask you to say a prayer for him," Clohessy said.

The bishops also heard from Michael Bland of Chicago, who said he became a priest but then quit because church officials did nothing to another priest who allegedly had molested him. The bishops heard from experts who told them that silence and secrecy had allowed abuse to continue.

"We pledge to remove the secrecy," Gregory said later in the day.

Clohessy and other victims had asked the bishops on Wednesday to consider another proposal - punishing bishops who allowed abusive priests to continue working. Clohessy said he did not expect that to be included in the charter. Rodimer said victims could not expect to get everything they wanted.

"I'm sure they are going to ask for a lot of things that are not going to be done," Rodimer said. "They're not going to set the total agenda for the Catholic Church."

Clohessy had ended his speech by addressing regular Catholics, asking them not to accept anything but real reform. Gregory later responded to that, saying the bishops have pledged to make real change

 
 

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