In the Northwest: a Legacy of Accountability Amid a History of Hurt
By Joel Connelly
Seattle Post-Intelligencer [Seattle WA]
January 9, 2004
If one sentence sums up the job of a diocesan bishop in the Roman Catholic Church, it's words made famous by a Baptist president, Harry Truman: The buck stops here.
The pedophilia scandal in the priesthood has tested bishops across the country: Some have behaved as buck passers who have done great harm, to vulnerable children and a venerable church.
Seattle Archbishop Alex Brunett, a priest for 45 years, struggles with phrases like "painful," "anguish," and "a very difficult thing for me." He has, however, confronted the scandal -- and its hurt -- head on.
"I have tried to meet with every victim who would meet with me," Brunett said in an interview, done shortly before a nationwide audit gave the Seattle Archdiocese high marks for dealing with clerical sexual abuse and its victims.
"I will fly anywhere, go anywhere, to meet victims," he added. "I ask their forgiveness and ask what we can do to put things right."
Archbishop Brunett has found himself on the receiving end of emotional anger, and tearful embraces.
The scandal erupted in 2002 when the Boston Globe exposed how a known abuser, the Rev. John Geoghan, was repeatedly shuffled from parish to parish. Victims' families depicted Cardinal Bernard Law and top aides -- several of whom later became bishops -- as aloof and self-protective.
But scandal had been simmering since the mid-1980s, when a report to the National Council of Catholic Bishops outlined the pedophilia problem -- and went largely ignored.
Not in Seattle, however, where diocesan chancellor (now Auxiliary Bishop) George Thomas began to put in place a process for investigating complaints and removing accused pedophiles from parish work.
"A lot of dioceses did not act. Boston did not do anything. We were in the forefront," said Brunett. He came to Seattle in 1997 after serving as bishop of Helena, Mont.
The Seattle Archdiocese has faced lawsuits. Almost all of the abuse allegations go back at least 20 years, in one case nearly six decades. It recently paid $7.87 million to settle 15 sex-abuse suits involving the Rev. James McGreal, a priest who retired in 1988 and who was described by Brunett as "a classic serial pedophile."
Why and how did the archdiocese covering Western Washington respond earlier than populous dioceses of the East and Midwest?
The answers might be instructive if a bit unsettling to the Vatican.
The Seattle Archdiocese has long been a beehive of lay leadership and activism, dating back to the Neighbors in Need program that fed the hungry during the Boeing recession of the early 1970s.
Laity rose in defense of Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen in the late 1980s, when Rome tried to force Hunthausen, a peace activist, to yield key areas of his authority to an orthodox, parachuted-in auxiliary bishop.
When choosing to weed out pedophile priests, the Seattle Archdiocese made a key turn in policy, one that required bringing in lay experts.
The past approach -- highlighted in the Boston scandal -- was to pull a priest out of his parish, and send him for rehabilitation to treatment centers for emotionally disturbed priests run by a small Catholic order called Servants of the Paraclete.
Self-described as the "M*A*S*H Unit of the Catholic Church," the Servants claimed cures, and that the recidivism rate for criminal behavior was zero. The result was to put pedophiles back into parishes.
"The advice we were getting was not good advice," said Brunett. "It turned out this was incurable. We had to weed them out."
The policy now, upgraded twice, is far different.
A blue-ribbon committee of lay experts, including prosecutors, has for the past 10 years advised the archdiocese on prevention policies. The diocese retains a formal investigator, a former Seattle police detective. Accused clerics are removed from priestly duties while allegations are investigated. A case review board, headed by a former judge, considers the evidence. Brunett is not part of its discussions.
"They give me advice on whether these events did or didn't happen," said Brunett.
A national audit, headed by former FBI investigators, reported on Tuesday that 175 of the nation's 195 dioceses are complying with new church policies designed to prevent sexual abuse by priests.
The 20 failing to pass muster included the Archdiocese of New York, known for its autocratic cardinals. Another was the Archdiocese of Phoenix, whose former bishop admitted covering up sex abuse cases.
The audit panel delivered special praise to the Seattle Archdiocese, saying that under Brunett it has developed "a program that could serve as the national model for the Catholic Church in the United States."
Still, the bishop is in the hot seat.
"A priest is not a hired gun," Brunett observed. "It is a vocation. I am responsible for him. In what you do for a living, your boss is not responsible for what you do when you go home. Your boss cannot be sued."
"You are involved with people in critical parts of their lives," the archbishop added, "and bringing hope to someone in a critical time of life is the joyful aspect of being a priest."
What, too, if an accused priest turns out to be innocent?
"How do I restore a man's reputation?" asked Brunett. "It's really hard on me, to support priests and stand behind them. It is what has made some victims very angry."
The scandal has not prevented an uptick in vocations. The Seattle Archdiocese ordained five new priests last year, with five more ordinations slated for 2004.
The archbishop is not without a bit of his own anger.
He scorns plaintiffs' lawyers who -- in Brunett's view -- have traveled the country, scanning parish and school records "to try to drum up business." Media-savvy attorneys have, he believes, followed a strategy of casting the Catholic Church in a bad light whatever it does.
"They have to make us look bad or there's no money out there," said Brunett.
In some cases, the archbishop added, lawyers "have held me back from helping victims" by not informing them of counseling offers.
The archbishop and the attorneys have very different agendas.
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