Bishop's Change of Tone Could Help Local Church to Heal and Move on [Erie PA]
March 1, 2004

Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman came clean on Friday, by the standards of his world at least. For the first time since the church's sexual-abuse scandal boiled over early in 2002, Trautman acted like a leader willing to go at this thing head-on.

The bishop released a rundown of how many priests in the Erie diocese had been credibly accused of preying on children and of how much the diocese spent to deal with those accusations. And he fielded all questions, for the most part without ducking them.

The situation Trautman's numbers and words describe is ugly, but his more candid approach certainly is more attractive and effective than the defensive stonewalling that until now defined his response to the scandal.

The tone the bishop set previously guaranteed a few awkward moments on Friday. Until then, for instance, Trautman had said only that "a couple" of priests in this diocese had been removed from the ministry over sexual abuse allegations. On Friday, a couple became 16.

And the bishop still gets fuzzy when asked about when those priests were removed. He said he believes he removed most of them during his 14-year tenure, but couldn't offer specifics about when.

It seems curious that such key information wouldn't be top of mind for a man in his position. But if Trautman is in the same boat as many of his brothers, as the circumstantial evidence suggests, his reluctance to get specific isn't hard to figure.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops says about 700 priests have been removed from ministry nationwide since January 2002, when revelations in Boston lit a fire that spread across the country within weeks. The bishops acted against those priests, in other words, only after the pressures of scandal and press inquiries forced their hands.

Still, Bishop Trautman deserves credit for his change of course. He shows signs of understanding at last that only acknowledging and confronting the nasty truth in detail will create the conditions that will allow the church and its people to move on.

Perhaps the nastiest piece of the truth implicit in both the local and national data is that most of these criminals got away with it. And too many got away with it because the children they preyed on were failed by men with the power to protect them and/or seek justice for their suffering.

No credible claims have surfaced of abuse committed during Bishop Trautman's tenure, and his role has been to manage the damage left by his predecessors. But local victims and their advocates have been tracking the bishop's every move and word, looking for signs he was interested in more than playing for time and hoping all of this would go away.

Only the bishop knows how much his relatively open performance on Friday reflects a change of heart and how much a willingness to listen to people in a position to save him from his own disastrous sense of public relations. Either way, it adds up to doing the right thing.

Some victims and their advocates want more. They want Trautman to publicly identify the abusive priests, as some other bishops have done. Because the statute of limitations has long expired on the local cases, the victims see exposure of these predators as the only justice available to them.

The insidious nature of pedophilia raises a larger issue as well. Sixteen predators from the Erie diocese - and hundreds more around the country - have been cut loose by the church. If people knew who and where they are, at least they could keep an eye on them.

Trautman indicated Friday he has no intention of naming names. That stance might dog him, and the American bishops collectively. The bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection in January recommended that the bishops develop detailed guidelines on whether to identify abusive priests.

The most important part of all of this, of course, is for the church to fix what's broken in order to protect today's and tomorrow's children. Trautman is taking a variety of laudable steps to see to that.

But my sense of it has been that many Catholics have been looking for more - for signs their shepherd is really starting to get it. On Friday, for the first time, Bishop Trautman offered hope that he is.


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