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  Guest Commentary: Venice Diocese Works to Heal Wounds, Restore Trust

By Gail M. McGrath
Naples Daily News [Florida]
January 27, 2004

The Jan. 21 editorial, "Church owes the faithful timely, forthright justice," is misleading. In its handling of allegations of sexual abuse of minors by church personnel, the Diocese of Venice "owes" only the alleged victim-survivor and the accused "timely, forthright justice." To state that cases are "allowed to drag out until suspects are elderly and infirm, or in hopes the public memory fades" is unjust and inflammatory.

The rights of victims and the accused are the diocese's main concern. The diocese has a policy which it follows and will not compromise the integrity of its investigation process in response to pressure from outside sources. Each case has its own distinct time line. While respecting confidentiality constraints, the diocese deals with these situations in an open and forthright manner. Regardless, some people always will find fault with how the diocese handles allegations.

At times there is no definitive determination of guilt or innocence, e.g., what the alleged victim-survivor says versus what the accused says; no witnesses; no substantiation either way. However, Bishop John Nevins takes the position that if he is to err, he will err on the side of caution to ensure the well-being of those served by the church.

Last month Bishop Nevins issued a four-page report to the people of the diocese regarding past and current efforts by the Catholic Church in Southwest Florida to protect children. This report, "Healing the Body of Christ," was sent to more than 18,000 families in the 10-county diocese with another 85,000 distributed at parishes. It is posted on the diocesan Web site (www.dioceseofvenice.org). This report includes, for the almost 20-year history of the diocese, the number of priest-abusers, the number of victims, and the funds paid and their source. The diocese's openness and transparency did not get a mention in the Naples Daily News despite the fact that a reporter called me when he had the report in hand.

Bishop Nevins is committed to restoring trust and to healing the wounds caused by abuse. He has apologized to those who have been victimized, either directly or indirectly, by priests who have abused children. He is aware of the devastation that has been wrought by this terrible problem for victims, for priests and for all Catholics. He has pledged to do whatever is necessary to see that this does not happen again and has put safeguards in place including codes of conduct, background checks and fingerprinting of all diocesan employees and volunteers including clergy. Nevertheless, the Naples Daily News seems intent on distorting the facts and not reporting the diocese's proactive efforts. This is a disservice to its readers as well as to the church, to those who have been victimized and to the hundreds of dedicated priests who serve the Catholic people in the diocese's 54 parishes, 10 chapels and four missions.

Our message is simple: Sexual abuse of children is criminal and sinful. The Diocese of Venice does not tolerate sexual misconduct or protect anyone who engages in this behavior. Anyone who believes they have been victimized by a representative of the church should report it to law enforcement authorities and to the diocesan victim-assistance minister, Beverly Zeiss, R.N., (941) 416-6444.

The results of a search for "diocese" on the Naples Daily News Web site displays stories primarily on sexual abuse. However, the Venice Diocese has a significant positive impact on the Catholic and secular community. In 2003, more than 4,000 infants were baptized in Venice Diocese parishes; 819 couples were married; and 2,600 men and women were commended to God's mercy at funeral Masses.

The Venice Diocese has more than 5,000 young people in its 12 elementary and high schools. It has two schools (ungraded) for 167 special-needs students. It has a school of pastoral formation to prepare laity for roles of leadership and ministry in the church and offers a master of arts in pastoral theology in association with Barry University.

Last year the diocese assisted more than 46,000 people in matters ranging from legal services to food distribution to refugee resettlement through its 18 social service centers. It has a number of locations providing services to single mothers, pregnant women and people with HIV/AIDS. In conjunction with HUD, the diocese has built five apartment complexes for low-income well elderly with another under construction and more on the drawing board.

Perhaps some of these might be considered newsworthy.

McGrath is director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Venice, which includes Collier County

 
 

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