Archdiocese Abuse Steps Inspire Trust, Criticism

By Shelby Oppel
The Oregonian [Oregon]
July 13, 2003

Dr. Leila Keltner oversees the medical evaluations of 1,500 children each year to determine whether they've been abused or neglected.

Despite her credentials, the Portland physician faced the same precaution last fall that greeted all parent volunteers in parishes and schools run by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Portland: a criminal background check.

Keltner drives her son, a fifth-grader at Cathedral School in Northwest Portland, and his classmates to field trips. She also serves on a newly appointed board of lay Catholics who advise Archbishop John Vlazny on child abuse issues.

The checks "show that the archdiocese is truly concerned about kids," Keltner says.

"They now realize that you can't tell from looking at someone, or from what their job is, whether or not they might be a sex offender."

A year ago, Vlazny and more than 200 Catholic bishops met in Dallas to respond to the sex abuse scandal that rocked the nation's largest religious denomination. Today, the Archdiocese of Portland has won praise for rigorous background checks and other steps to prevent abuse.

In an unprecedented public display of contrition, the bishops meeting in Texas promised openness and accountability to repair the broken trust. But in Portland, church officials continue to limit what they reveal about financial settlements with victims and details of how they handle abuse allegations.

In the past year, the Archdiocese of Portland has run background checks on nearly 12,000 volunteers and employees, including priests hired long ago. Those are in addition to teachers and clergy who were previously subject to the checks.

The archdiocese also screens all visiting priests, including more than 200 who last year entered the archdiocese, which encompasses 350,000 Catholics in 125 parishes and 52 schools west of the Cascades. And parish schools now include "safe touch" lessons in kindergarten through third grade.

Parents interviewed by The Oregonian say they trust that their children are safe in church settings. Although these days, some add, they avoid leaving their children alone in any environment.

"My comfort level is very high," says Carol Brewer, whose seventh-grade son and fifth-grade daughter attend St. Pius X Parish School in Cedar Mill.

"I tend to be pretty careful about this stuff. Maybe because of what happened in the past, I ask more questions. But I haven't been concerned about my kids."

Still, a victims group -- the Oregon affiliate of the national Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, or SNAP -- says the archdiocese hasn't gone far enough to repair the damage.

Bill Crane, a Clackamas businessman who coordinates the group, says Vlazny rejected the group's offers to work with him. The cold reception violates the spirit of the bishops' pledge, he says.

During the Dallas meeting, Crane said, he was encouraged that bishops would work closely with victims and open what has been a closed church culture.

Today, Crane regards the meeting as "one of the best PR stunts in church history."

Vlazny declined interview requests. Since May 2002, he has addressed the topic in at least 16 columns in the archdiocese-owned newspaper, the Catholic Sentinel.

In a July 3 column, Vlazny responded to criticism of the bishops: "The truth is that we bishops are actively implementing the (Dallas) charter. . . . We are doing our best to protect children today, but we are also making every effort to respond fairly to yesterday's children who suffered abuse and only now are seeking justice."

The flood of litigation against the archdiocese -- 150 people have sued the archdiocese since December 1999 -- involves claims that date from the 1940s to the 1980s. All but a handful involve priests who have died.

But in the past year, at least one accusation was lodged against an active priest who was then removed from his parish. In part, the handling of the complaint is an example of the Dallas changes at work.

A man contacted the archdiocese to report "inappropriate touching" by the priest that occurred more than 20 years ago in the archdiocese, said Bud Bunce, an archdiocese spokesman. The priest is a member of a religious order that is based in another state.

Church officials reported the complaint to state authorities and to the priest's superiors, Bunce said. Such reporting has been archdiocese policy since 1983.

The religious order deemed the complaint inconclusive, Bunce said. In the past, the next step -- what to do with the accused priest -- would have been left to archdiocese officials. But in Dallas, the bishops pledged to appoint review boards of lay Catholics to weigh in.

In Portland, a seven-member review board recommended that the priest be removed from his parish, Bunce said. He was returned to his order outside of Oregon, Bunce says.

"Out of an effort to show extreme caution . . . they recommended to (Vlazny) that he be removed from ministry," Bunce says.

At the last parish where the priest had served, lay leaders -- nonclergy who serve on the pastoral council -- were told of the reasons for his removal, Bunce says.

But Bunce declined to provide information that might allow other Catholics to know if the priest had also served their communities. Citing a privacy request by the man who reported the allegation, Bunce declined to name the priest or other parishes at which he had served.

Policy's effect noticeable The keystone of the archdiocese abuse policy concerns adults' obligation to report signs of abuse in children. The policy requires all employees -- not limited to the teachers and clergy who are mandatory reporters under Oregon law -- to report reasonable suspicions to state authorities. The law makes an exception for clergy who learn such information during confession.

John Richmond, a manager in the child protective services division of the state Department of Human Services, met with church officials last year to suggest improvements to the archdiocese policy. Employees and volunteers are encouraged to report any suspected abuse and to let state investigators make the final judgment.

Chuck Sparks, a Multnomah County deputy district attorney, gave church officials high marks for cooperation.

"We have not had the sense of being stonewalled or that information is being withheld," Sparks says.

Parents say changes are easy to spot. At some parishes, windows were cut into once-solid office doors. On overnight youth group trips, adult chaperones are no longer allowed to room with the teens they supervise.

"There's almost never an opportunity for two people to be alone together," said Laurie Anctil, president of the Parent Teacher Organization for the past two years at St. Pius X School.

In Southwest Portland, Trisha Thompson says the nuns who run St. Clare School make her "exceptionally confident" about her first-grade daughter's well-being.

"I see (the nuns) operating in somewhat of a different sphere than the priests and the decision-makers within the church," Thompson says.

In contrast, the church hierarchy struggles to deal adequately with sexual issues, from abuse to priestly celibacy to birth control, she says.

A pledge to focus on victims Beyond adopting safeguards, the bishops in Dallas promised to work with abuse victims to bring healing. In Portland, Vlazny and other church officials have met one on one with victims, held healing services and provided counseling.

"What I hear is a real focus on the victims," says Keltner, the review board member, "that comes down from Archbishop Vlazny."

Crane, who was sexually abused as a boy by a New Jersey priest, disagrees. After the Dallas meeting, he met with Vlazny to ask him to name a representative of the victims' group to the review board, to link their Web site to the archdiocese site and to agree to work with them in anti-abuse efforts. Vlazny declined.

"Vlazny has somehow convinced himself that he's done all that he can," Crane says. "If he did, he would associate with SNAP and do everything he can in working with survivors."

Bunce declined to respond to Crane's criticism. The review board, Bunce wrote in an e-mail, "is not an advocacy group, nor is it called to be a forum for advocacy groups by the charter."

The Dallas charter called for more openness on the part of church officials. Since that pledge, some bishops have decided to reveal the costs of priest litigation.

In September, Cardinal William H. Keeler gave a detailed accounting of how much the Archdiocese of Baltimore and religious communities had spent, including $4.1 million in settlements in the past 20 years.

"This is part of the transparency and openness called for in the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People approved by the U.S. bishops in Dallas," Keeler wrote in a letter to parishes.

Portland has settled with about 85 plaintiffs since 2000 but has not revealed the costs. Neither the archdiocese nor plaintiffs' attorneys want to disclose individual settlement amounts, but many plaintiffs' attorneys said they would not object to releasing a total figure.

The "archbishop has promised to provide his people with more specific information on the funding of settlements when all or nearly all of the claims have been resolved," Bunce says.

With about 35 claims pending against the archdiocese and lawsuits continuing to be filed, it is unclear when that will be. The only financial information that has been made public during litigation is nearly $1 million the archdiocese paid to settle two 1980s sex abuse claims.

Apart from the legal wrangling, the effects of the church's response to the abuse scandal are felt on a personal level in parishes.

At St. Anthony's Parish in Forest Grove, the Rev. Bill Holtzinger puts out his hand to block the children that run to him for hugs -- a practice he began as a Catholic schoolteacher, before he became a priest three years ago.

"I put my hand out and say, 'Hey, slap me five,' " Holtzinger says. "And they're slowly getting clued into that. The culture is changing."

Reporter Ashbel "Tony" Green of The Oregonian contributed to this report.

Shelby Oppel: 503-221-5368;


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