Added Task for Maine's Next Bishop

By John Richardson
Portland Press Herald [Portland ME]
February 28, 2004

Maine's next Roman Catholic bishop said Friday he has been as surprised and horrified as anyone by the extent of child sexual abuse by his fellow priests.

Bishop-designee Richard J. Malone said he remains hopeful and eager to take over the helm of the Maine church, even as he feels the added responsibility to reach out to victims of abuse and distrustful parishioners.

"I was as devastated and, really to be honest with you, shocked by the volume of these horrible cases," he said Friday. "Almost all of my ministry had been in education and teaching. I really, to be honest with you, never heard references to (abuse cases). My work has not brought me up close to this whole miserable aspect of the church's life."

Malone's perspective is about to change. He will be installed as the bishop of the Portland Diocese on March 31 and will become the spiritual leader of 234,000 Maine Catholics at a time of pain and sadness in the church.

"Even under the best of circumstances, taking over the helm of a diocese is daunting because it's such a sacred trust," he said. "You're responsible to God and the people for so much. Coming to a new diocese with this stuff to deal with . . . certainly adds another level. But I go in trusting in the Lord. I've been called to this."

Malone said he feels blessed to have been chosen, and that the church will become stronger and better. The 57-year-old Boston-area cleric will replace Bishop Joseph Gerry, who reached the retirement age of 75 last year.

As bishop since 1989, Gerry has experienced the anger, frustration and pressure for change aimed at leaders of the church as victims' stories of molestation revealed how bishops failed to turn in accused priests and, in some cases, allowed them to harm more children.

Gerry issued a written statement Friday after the release of a national survey of church leaders that found at least 4 percent of American priests have been accused of sexually abusing children in the past 52 years. Numbers provided by the Portland Diocese revealed a similar picture in Maine: 41 priests, or 4 percent of those who served, have been accused of sexual abuse since 1950.

"The information in the John Jay report was sobering, shameful, but ultimately necessary in order to determine if the church is taking effective steps to stop the abuse of children in the future. I am overwhelmed by the information and sorrowful over the pain and suffering it represents," Gerry's statement said.

Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe said this week that state and county investigators have reviewed allegations against 63 identifiable priests and church employees in the past 75 years, a longer time frame than the John Jay report.

And the crisis is clearly not over, as new victims continue to come forward and report past abuse.

The last reported incident of alleged abuse by a Maine priest took place in 1992, according the Attorney General's Office. Church officials say 1989 is the last year in which there was a substantiated claim of abuse taking place because more recent incidents led to criminal charges and verdicts of not guilty.

Even now, however, the Rev. Thomas Lee is suspended and under investigation because of allegations that he sexually abused children while assigned to a parish in Boothbay Harbor in the 1970s and early 1980s. Advocates for victims and church reforms are urging Gerry to remove Lee permanently.

Pauline Salvucci, a former Roman Catholic nun who lives in Westbrook and has set up a Web site focused on child sexual abuse called Voices of Outrage, said she's convinced the bishops are still not facing the magnitude of the scandal.

"This is only the tip of the iceberg," she said. "This report was a self-report. What you are getting are the foxes giving an inaccurate accounting of the chickens in the hen house."

Some of that distrust of church leaders is sure to confront Malone when he takes over as Portland bishop next month. That is especially true, he acknowledged, because he is from Boston, where the church scandal erupted two years ago and where the national report says 7 percent of priests have been accused of sexual abuse.

"There was a time when one could anticipate that a new bishop coming in would generally have the trust of most people. And I know that the trust has been so wounded that I can't count on that," he said. "I'm just hoping and praying the good people of Maine will take time to get to know me. And I know it will take time for them to trust me."

Malone was the director of education in the Boston Archdiocese before he became an auxiliary bishop in 2000. He said his only direct exposure to the crisis has been the couple of times the archdiocese assigned him to meet with parishioners whose priests were removed because of abuse allegations. He has talked to both angry parishioners and recovering victims. "When you first listen to one of these victims tell their story, you're never the same again," he said Friday.

After he is installed in Portland next month, Malone will be the central figure in Maine in implementing reforms and in reaching out to victims and church members. He said his priorities will include continuing to move forward with new policies and oversight to prevent the abuse of children, and reaching out to victims, including those who have not yet reported the abuse.

"The only way these people are going to be helped . . . is to come forward," he said. "I know it can create more challenges and pain (for the church), but how else can people get the healing?"


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