Sex Abuse by Priests Is Topic of Talk
Laity Urged to Help Correct Church Crisis

By Bruce Nolan
The Times-Picayune [New Orleans LA]
February 17, 2004

The Roman Catholic Church's struggle with the scandal of clerical sexual abuse of children is not a passing crisis, "but a profound experience of change" that may permanently alter the face of the church if outraged lay people seize the moment, several speakers said during a program dedicated to the crisis Monday night at Loyola University.

"The problem is not with a few thousand priests" who sexually molested children over the past half-century, said the Rev. Tom Doyle, a Catholic priest and noted victims' advocate. "The problem is corruption at the very top and abuse of power.

"The only acceptable legacy of this era of crime," said Peggy Thorp, who helped found a grass-roots Catholic group in Boston seeking change, is for Catholic lay people to pledge "that no child will ever again be hurt -- and that the laity will have a place in that assurance."

Doyle, Thorp and three other prominent victims' advocates were part of a program sponsored by the Louisiana chapter of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Each one sketched his or her own personal experiences in the scandal, whether as a writer and reporter, such as Jason Berry; or a victim, such as Barbara Blaine of Chicago, SNAP's founder; or as a church official, such as Robert Scamardo, a former diocesan lawyer in Austin, Texas, who used to confront people bringing sexual abuse claims against the church.

Thorp, a co-founder of Voice of the Faithful, a 2-year-old group that claims more than 30,000 members, told an audience of more than 200 that a national lay review board empowered to gather statistics on the size and depth of the sex abuse scandal will release a report this month, marking the first time bishops or lay people have seen a full picture of the scandal's dimensions.

Those numbers will attempt to fix the number of abusive priests and their victims, she said. "But what we're not going to know is how many bishops moved pederasts around like checkers on a board, and what we're not going to know is when they're going to resign," Thorp said.

Although some church critics have focused on particulars such as mandatory priestly celibacy as a cause of the crisis, Berry and Doyle said the scandal sprang from a deeper cause: an elite clerical culture that nursed and protected clerical power at the expense of lay people and their children.

The Rev. William Maestri, a spokesman for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, did not attend the meeting but said later that since the crisis broke, bishops have experienced "a paradigm shift" in which the emphasis moved from saving priests' careers and avoiding scandal "to one where the victim is now the center of attention."

Moreover, he said, lay people are involved nationally and locally in review boards dealing with the scandal and its aftermath.

Doyle, a Dominican priest, is legendary in victims' circles as a canon lawyer in the Vatican's diplomatic office in Washington who broke with the church in the 1980s and wrecked his career when he spoke out against bishops' mismanagement of the early stages of the scandal. Today he is an Air Force chaplain.

"This is in many ways the dark side" of the institutional church, and the crisis "calls us to accountability as the people of God," Doyle said.

Berry also diagnosed the crisis in terms of power and corruption. In the new book "Vows of Silence," Berry and co-author Gerald Renner argue that the Vatican for years has ignored claims by several priests and former seminarians that they were sexually abused as youths by the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of a religious order called the Legionaries of Christ.

Maciel, who is 83 and lives in Rome, and other members of the order have denied the charge.

Although he called Pope John Paul II "a great pope," Berry said John Paul supports "a great wall of mendacity (and) structural lying" in the institutional church.


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