A More Open Church, a More Wary Public after Abuse Scandal

By Steven G. Vegh
The Virginian-Pilot [Virginia]
Downloaded August 6, 2003

The Rev. Thomas J. Caroluzza, the bishop's representative in eastern Virginia, has dealt with sex-abuse allegations against priests. "I don't know when the end will be," he says.

In the past year, the Rev. Thomas J. Caroluzza has witnessed all the faces of hurt inflicted by the Catholic sex-abuse scandal.

It's been his job as the bishop's representative in eastern Virginia to hear accusers' anguished stories. To tell an astonished congregation their pastor was a suspected abuser. To listen to priests demoralized by clergy brothers' betrayal of their vocation.

And every face shows the snowy-haired monsignor something more -- that the ongoing scandal has snatched at the trust Catholics once implicitly gave the church, its leaders and priests like him.

"I would have a hard time believing that people weren't wondering about me," he said.

The revelations of abuse that first rocked Catholics elsewhere surfaced in the Richmond diocese one year ago this week when Bishop Walter F. Sullivan expelled two priests who admitted abusing minors.

In September, the Rev. Eugene Teslovic of St. Luke Catholic Church in Virginia Beach was ousted because of sexual misconduct with minors.

Last week, the Rev. Dwight E. Shrader of St. John the Apostle Catholic Church in Virginia Beach was forced to resign from the priesthood after allegations by five people.

And after 12 months, Goochland County's prosecutor still has not ended his investigation into whether the Rev. John E. Leonard, a Richmond-area priest, abused schoolboys in the 1970s. Leonard was cleared by Sullivan last summer of any serious wrongdoing.

Nor has the crisis cooled nationally since it erupted in January 2002. Several bishops accused of protecting abusive clergy have resigned, and at least 325 of 46,000 U.S. priests have either been dismissed from their duties or have resigned.

In July, the Massachusetts attorney general reported that 789 children had been sexually abused in the Boston archdiocese since 1940 by 250 priests and church workers.

The continuing revelations about abuse locally and across the country have changed attitudes among many of the 84,183 Catholic families and nearly 200 priests in the Richmond diocese, which includes Hampton Roads.

Skepticism about church leadership is implicit in the local presence of Voice of The Faithful, which now has two chapters in Hampton Roads.

Originally created in reaction to church coverups of abuse, the group represents Catholics who want the laity more involved in decision-making by the church.

Meanwhile, concern that the diocese hasn't done enough to help victims led the national Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests to establish a Hampton Roads chapter this spring.

At the parish level, some worried clergy say they'll do anything to avoid being alone with children, lest they be suspected of misconduct.

And many parishioners like Kris Miracle of Virginia Beach say Catholics can no longer blithely entrust their children to clergy.

"Are you the person you say you are? That is a fear," she said.

The Richmond diocese's first brush with the crisis began in May 2002 when several men said they were abused as students by Leonard at St. John Vianney Seminary, a now-closed Catholic boarding school where he was a teacher and principal.

Sullivan referred the case to the diocesan Sexual Review Panel, which appointed a team to investigate. The bishop put Leonard on leave.

In June 2002, Sullivan reinstated Leonard, saying the team's report, and his own research, showed that the priest was guilty only of "imprudent" behavior with juveniles.

Sullivan made his decision without consulting the abuse panel, prompting half of its members to quit in protest.

What battered Sullivan's credibility, however, was the media's disclosure weeks later that the investigatory team had called the accusers credible. The team had recommended that Leonard be removed from his parish into extendedinpatient therapy.

Dissatisfaction with Sullivan's management of the Leonard case persists among Catholics like Cathy Goeke of Norfolk.

"I don't know what his connection with Leonard is and why he keeps going to bat for him," Goeke said. "I don't understand why that one got swept under the rug."

Sullivan has no second thoughts about his decision on Leonard. "I was given the report and told to make a decision, period, so I did," he said Tuesday.

He said he is confident that parishioners and priests are reassured by changes, made since the Leonard case, in how the diocese handles abuse allegations.

"We're much the wiser -- we know how to proceed and do it quickly, instantly, professionally," the bishop said. "It's a zero-tolerance mentality."

Sullivan adopted guidelines set last summer by the U.S. Catholic bishops, including the formation of a Review Board composed of lay people to investigate abuse allegations. The board replaced the former Sexual Abuse Panel.

So far, the board has reviewed complaints against three priests, proposing dismissal for two and reinstatement for the other. Sullivan endorsed all three recommendations, although he was not obliged to do so. The diocese has held news conferences to discuss each investigation.

"When we are willing to admit that priests do this -- when we say `Father so-and-so is accused of this or that' -- we've created an environment where people feel a trust in us," said the Rev. Pasquale Apuzzo, the diocese's spokesman.

Candice Neenan, a lifelong Catholic who helped organize the Voice of the Faithful chapter in Virginia Beach last year, acknowledged the changes.

"The diocese is more alert. They're going to watch for problem situations and, hopefully, nip them in the bud," she said.

The VOTF wants more done, however, to support abuse victims. It wants to generate more support for the majority of priests who serve parishes devotedly. And it is pushing for more accountability from bishops and more democracy in a church where decisions are made from the top down.

This spring, the VOTF chapter that meets at Church of the Resurrection in Portsmouth asked the pope's U.S. ambassador to let local priests and lay Catholics participate in choosing Sullivan's successor after he retires. The ambassador politely said no.

So did Sullivan when Neenan's chapter asked him to emulate Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler.

In an open letter last fall, Keeler revealed the names and history of 57 priests linked to abuse -- every case in the archdiocese since the 1930s. He reported that the archdiocese had spent $5.6 million settling lawsuits.

Sullivan criticized Keeler for citing the names of dead priests, as well as clergy who had been accused but never investigated or proven guilty of abuse.

"What he did was absolutely demoralizing to the priests" in the Baltimore diocese, Sullivan said.

In the Richmond diocese, there are still two or three cases of past abuse by priests, religious or church employees that have not been made public, Apuzzo said.

In each case, the accused was either expelled from ministry or chose to leave the church job or religious vocation he or she had held, he said. Each of the accused individuals is now dead. No abuse case, whether old or new, will be revealed to the public unless the victim first asks the diocese to disclose the information, Apuzzo said.

Unilaterally opening every case could hurt those victims who want everything about the incidents, including the names of the abusers, to stay confidential, he said.

Annette Dickerson, who this spring started the Hampton Roads chapter of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said she believes Sullivan simply wants to protect priests and shield the diocese from lawsuits.

Dickerson, now 46, said she was abused as a child in her family's Norfolk home by a priest from St. Pius X Catholic Church.

Dickerson, who still lives in Norfolk with her husband and two of her three children, welcomed the revelations last year of widespread clergy abuse. "There was a feeling of relief that I wasn't alone, because as a survivor, you honestly feel alone."

Dickerson has left leaflets on scores of cars parked at local Catholic churches, sharing her story of abuse in the hope that victims will contact her support group for the help she says they're not getting from the diocese.

Apuzzo said most victims known to the diocese have not asked it for assistance. He said some accusers have been provided therapy paid for by the diocese's insurance but only in cases in which a priest confesses to abuse or there is proof that abuse occurred.

In Bill Bryant's case, the standard of proof was too high. Bryant is among the men whose complaints of abuse by Leonard, the Richmond-area priest, were deemed credible by diocesan investigators.

"The diocese at no point offered any sort of counseling or care," said Bryant, who lives in Arizona. "That still disappoints me -- that the diocese didn't care enough to offer any kind of assistance."

Bryant grew up in a strongly Catholic family, but his faith was shattered by the abuse.

When he decided last year to tell investigators his story, "my hope was that in standing up for 15-year-old Billy Bryant, the experience would be so healing that I could come back to the church. It was just the opposite."

As in most parishes, there's been no discovery of abuse at Christ the King Catholic Church in Norfolk.

Nonetheless, "I think people are still struggling at times with the sense of shock and the sense of disappointment," said the Rev. Brian Rafferty, who is the parish priest.

Deep frustration was particularly obvious in a parishioner Rafferty chatted with last fall while watching a basketball game in the parish gym.

A few days earlier, a local priest had been arrested for sexual impropriety with a man in a Norfolk park.

"She started talking about the situation . . . and said, `When can we expect to see your name in the paper?' She was certainly not trying to be funny," Rafferty said.

Some clergy said the pain of guilt by association is exacerbated by the diocese when it publicly discloses that a priest has been accused of abuse before determining whether or not he is innocent.

At the same time, many priests say they understand how the abuse scandal has made parents like Ed Lee suspicious of clergy.

Lee, who runs the YMCA in Norfolk, is a member of St. Mary's parish in Suffolk. The vast majority of priests are "godly men of faith," he said.

Still, "as a parent, I know I need to be more vigilant about not trusting, with full faith, that all priests are good," Lee said. "That's the lesson you learn."

While he doesn't want priests viewed as predators, Sullivan commended parents who now pay more attention to how clergy interact with their children.

The bishop also said that the Catholics he meets in traveling around the diocese still have firm faith in their church and their priests.

Sullivan cited the example of St. John the Apostle, which he visited on Tuesday, a week after expelling Shrader as the congregation's priest.

"The parish is holding strong," he said.

Across the diocese, financial donations to parishes and Sullivan's charity fund also have remained stable, said John F. Barrett, the Richmond diocese's finance director.

Dioceses elsewhere have paid multimillion-dollar legal settlements of abuse claims, but no one has ever sued the Richmond diocese over child sexual abuse by clergy, Apuzzo said.

Despite the appalling discoveries in the abuse crisis, some local Catholics have managed to find a degree of elusive goodness in its consequences.

That would have seemed impossible at St. Luke's parish in Virginia Beach, where the congregation saw Sullivan force its priest into retirement last September on the grounds of sexual abuse.

"You begin by asking, `What can you do in a situation like this except pray,' " said Patty Trail, a nurse and parish member. "Once you start praying, you pray more, and the more you pray, the closer you get to God."

As a result, "I have just become much more spiritual personally," Trail said.

At Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church in Norfolk, the Rev. Joseph Metzger is upbeat about how the diocese and the hierarchy responded to the crisis.

"Accountability is raised now, which is a good thing," he said. Steady growth in his congregation is another sign that the church retains credibility, Metzger added.

The abuse crisis won't help the recruitment of new priests. But Caroluzza said it will spark a healthy self-examination among Catholic clergy.

"It will purify us into who are we really, who do we want to be, what are we called to be," he said.

Similarly, while some clergy consider Voice of the Faithful a radical group, Caroluzza said the group's call to involve the laity in decision-making is a healthy echo of the Second Vatican Council, which stressed ordinary Catholics' role in the church.

But he's not so optimistic about when new discoveries of abuse in the diocese will end.

"I wish it was over. I thought it was over a month ago," Caroluzza said in July. "I don't know when the end will be."


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