Archbishop Describes 'What Bishops Were Thinking' on Abuse

By Alexis McLaughlin
Cincinnati Catholic [Cincinnati OH]
Downloaded March 17, 2004

ARCHDIOCESE—Labeling clergy sexual abuse a "tragedy" and admitting that "we (the bishops) are all sorry for what is happening, for the inadequacy of our decisions. I am personally sorry and will carry that sorrow with me to the grave," Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk addressed a crowd of about 200 people March 10 at the University of Dayton.

His talk was part of the ongoing lecture series, "The Wounded Body of Christ: Sexual Abuse in the Church."

Archbishop Pilarczyk said he could only speak about the thoughts of the bishops whom he’s known well throughout the years. He described the emerging awareness of clergy sexual abuse of minors, as well as an evolving knowledge of its effects on the victims since about 1950. He also promised eventual justice for victims and their families.


Archbishop Pilarczyk speaks at University of Dayton March 10.

Warning against the fallacy of presentism — reacting to past actions as though they are occurring now and judging them based on today’s standards rather than on the knowledge of the day — Archbishop Pilarczyk stated that a web of psychological, legal and canonical expertise prior to 1985 created a climate that did little for the victim but much to protect abusive priests.

Only the canon law that made removing offending priests from ministry "practically impossible" was clear to the bishops, Archbishop Pilarczyk said. "When a priest is ordained, his bishop owes him sustenance for life, so "simply firing a priest was out of the question." Even temporary suspension from ministerial activity required a full canonical trial. And if a priest-defendant could demonstrate that a psychological disability caused his sexual misbehavior, he could not be removed from the clerical state.

"The ordinary way of dealing with sex abuse of minors by priests before about 1985 was to get the priest out of the situation in which the offense had occurred, provide whatever psychological and spiritual help the priest required and get him into a new assignment in which it was expected further acts of abuse would not occur," he explained.

The period of 1985 to 2002 saw the bishops becoming increasingly aware of the effects of sexual abuse on the victims and giving greater attention to policy formation for dioceses. And the rise of civil lawsuits aimed at perpetrators and their superiors forced bishops to make difficult decisions regarding litigation. While out-of-court settlements in which the bishops could sit down in a pastoral context with victims may have been the bishops’ preference, some diocesan attorneys discouraged these because guilt was implied and more legal dangers for the dioceses created.

Insurance companies often required church officials to fight charges in court or risk losing their diocese’s insurance settlements, a move that jeopardized the diocese’s patrimony for which the bishop is ultimately responsible.

Archbishop Pilarczyk said the bishops discussed the sex abuse matter often in their United States Conference of Catholic Bishops meetings and issued many statements, but their authority was limited. A June 1992 statement, released when the archbishop was president of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops, called for promptly responding to allegations of abuse, removing the alleged offender from ministry if the allegation seemed plausible, complying with the obligations of civil law about reporting abuse, reaching out to victims and their families and dealing as openly as possible with media.

The bishops could not, however, make the recommendations binding on the conference members because the conference is not a legislative body.

The archbishop said that the Archdiocese of Cincinnati’s first policy statement about dealing with sexual abuse went into effect in 1993 and was revised in 1998 and 2003. As a result, a predominantly lay board reviewed all abuse allegations from the past to determine whether the dispositions taken should remain in force.

While the bishops’ conference and U.S. dioceses were changing their views and policies, many psychologists still advised that some abusive priests who had successfully undergone treatment could be returned to pastoral ministry. Canon law about permanently dismissing a priest remained unchanged as well, despite U.S. bishops’ representatives having asked the Holy See for legal changes beginning in 1986.

"Not only was it possible to restore priests to ministry, in some cases, it was almost, tragically, obligatory," Archbishop Pilarczyk said.

"I believe most bishops found themselves in the crossfire" at this time, he said. "In spite of the contradictory demands, I believe that many bishops felt by 2002 they had succeeded in getting a somewhat better grasp on the situation."

But in 2002 "it became known that some bishops had been reassigning priests who had offended without adequately searching for supervision. Obviously something further still needed to be done," he added.

In June 2003, the bishops issued a consensus statement that said any priest who had ever abused minors would be permanently removed from the priesthood, thus guaranteeing sexual abusers would no longer serve as priests. Upon the Holy See’s approval months later, the decree became operative in the U.S. alone.

Consequently, those priests who had been returned to ministry after offending and treatment would have to be removed permanently. A national review board was established and they called for a compliance study that began in July of last year. Those results were published in January, followed by the more recent "John Jay study."

Archbishop Pilarczyk answered his own question, "What am I thinking?" with the following description: "I have been chosen to captain a ship at night in a storm in uncharted waters with passengers all crying out their needs and advice at the same time and none of them are saying the same thing."

"It is essential for the captain and the passengers to remember we serve the Lord who is capable of stilling the storm and restoring the calm and restoring the faith of all those aboard," he said.

During an often-tense question-and-answer period that followed his address, one audience member recast the lay faithful as crew members on the archbishop’s metaphorical ship and asked for a way to help make decisions for the church.

Archbishop Pilarczyk said, "We do have lay participation: the archdiocesan review board is all lay people but one; the finance council is also all lay people but one; and the pastoral council is predominantly lay people. They all advise me."

One questioner asked when the names of abusive priests would be revealed to the public.

The archbishop explained that "we have already revealed them, and they’ve all been removed from ministry. Their names have all been published in The Catholic Telegraph. We also reported our statistics for 2003, and we intend to do that annually."

Another man in the audience said that he and his wife recently learned their two grown sons were allegedly sexually abused by David Kelley, who is on administrative leave, when they were 11 and 14 years old.

"The ultimate tragedy was that the church knew about this monster and yet allowed him to prey on other innocent children. Thirty-eight men have given testimony about David Kelley’s evil, yet he is still technically a priest. A little over a year ago, he was given a master’s degree in pastoral ministry. He is a free man. Where is the punishment? When will we get justice?" the man asked.

The archbishop apologized for "what happened to you and your family," adding that all offending priests are in the process of being removed from the priesthood. "That day (of justice) will come, maybe not tomorrow, but it will come," he said.

Another questioner wondered why the archbishop felt compelled to apologize to victims and their families when the responsibility, he said, is on the victims’ parents’ shoulders, who "should have gone to the legal authorities."

The archbishop responded, "It is not easy for a victim to go to authorities. We have to be very sensitive to the victims’ difficulties. I am making apologies, because the persons who victimized were agents of the church, and I represent the church."

One audience member wanted the archbishop to justify the recent layoffs of archdiocesan personnel while continuing to pay 14 priests who have criminal allegations pending against them.

Archbishop Pilarczyk responded that by church law, he is required to pay priests "until they are removed from the clerical state. I don’t like paying all those priests but I have no choice."

Another man questioned the morality of a $3 million assistance fund that asks victims "to give up their rights" with no assurance that they will receive anything.

The archbishop said that he believes the archdiocesan victims’ assistance fund to be moral, because the victims were given a choice and did not have to take advantage of the fund.

One person present objected to the group Voice of the Faithful’s utilization of parish facilities. The archbishop said that while he has given pastors permission to open their doors to VOTF, he does not obligate them to do so.

"I have studied the stated aims of VOTF and found that they are not in disaccord with church teachings. If I become persuaded that the stated aims are in disaccord, I will forbid pastors from opening church facilities to the group," Archbishop Pilarczyk said.

Several people, including Kathy Davis, a woman who said she was abused as a child by Thomas Brunner, a priest on leave, said they wanted the archdiocese to "track" defrocked priests so that the general public would be protected.

"I don’t know what control I have if he is dismissed from the clerical state. I’m not sure that I have any way other than the civil law" to track offenders, the archbishop responded.

In response to the question, "Can pastoral councils review personnel files of the priests you appoint to their parishes?" Archbishop Pilarczyk said, "I haven’t done that, but it’s worth looking at."

An elderly priest objected to the retroactive "zero tolerance" policy, because he thought it unfair to punish a priest for an incident of misconduct that may have happened 40 years earlier.

The archbishop responded, "No one will tolerate the ministry of priests who have ever violated. It is the right thing to do."

Following the prayer service that concluded the session, many people said they considered the archbishop brave for facing the clergy sexual abuse situation directly even if they found the bishops’ actions as described in the address inadequate.

Corpus Christi parishioner, Kris Ward, national vice-president and local cofounder of Voice of the Faithful, said, "I’m glad the archbishop came, because communication is very important." Still, she said, "I don’t understand how the bishops could not have done more by going to the moral issues."

With regard to Archbishop Pilarczyk’s explanation of canon law, she said, "Moral mandates and the Gospel haven’t changed. The Gospel shouldn’t be hamstrung by canon law."


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