Lay Critic Offers Advice to Bishop

By Bill Zajac
The Republican [Springfield MA]
March 29, 2004

SPRINGFIELD - A Catholic man who helped push a parish priest to confront the former bishop over his handling of sexual abuse allegations has a list of recommendations for the incoming bishop.

Saying the church needs more input by laity and tougher measures against abusive priests, Warren E. Mason's proposals are similar to those included in a list of "non-monetary" demands issued by 38 alleged clergy sexual abuse victims last month.

Mason, a 48-year-old Cathedral High School graduate and father of three teen-aged sons, has juggled his marketing and entrepreneurial career while spending an average of 30 hours a week researching, networking and writing about the Catholic Church's clergy sexual abuse crisis for the past two years.

Two years ago his outrage at the Catholic Church's "mishandling" of clergy sexual abuse led him to challenge his new pastor, the Rev. James J. Scahill of St. Michael's Parish of East Longmeadow, to speak out against and protest what was happening in this diocese.

"While Father Scahill has chosen to stand for those who have no voice, the deafening silence of other priests in this diocese has been damning," said Mason.

Among things the new bishop can do to reform the diocese's handlings of the clergy abuse issue, according to East Longmeadow resident Mason, are:

Establish a new diocesan review board, which could possibly include some existing members, to investigate clergy abuse complaints.

Hire a full-time investigator with a strong criminal justice background and no ties to the diocese to work with the board and the district attorney.

Allow law enforcement to review all diocesan files and personnel documents.

Report all allegations of abuse, whether deemed credible or not, immediately to civil authorities. (Under a change in state law, religious leaders must report all such complaints to civil authorities, although former Bishop Thomas L. Dupre never reported allegations that he abused two boys two decades ago.)

Seek to defrock all priests who have had credible allegations made against them.

Cut off abusive priests from diocesan financial support, including pensions.

Immediately replace a fund set up to aid abusive priests with a "Danny Croteau Clerical Abuse Fund" for victims. (Croteau is the 13-year-old altar boy whose 1972 murder was never solved and who was allegedly abused by now-defrocked priest Richard R. Lavigne, the only publicly identified suspect in the murder probe.)

Immediately settle the clergy sexual abuse lawsuits facing the diocese, hiring a new law firm to replace long-time diocesan legal counsel Egan, Flanagan and Cohen.

Add an annual collection in parishes for the support group Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.

Lead efforts to change Massachusetts law to eliminate the statute of limitations for sexually abusive crimes against children.

Mason points to polls that indicate American Catholics want more of a say in the church.

"There is no structure in place to make a bishop accountable to the laity or concerned clergy," said Mason.

Mason cites pollster John Zogby's studies that show 58 percent of American Catholics want the church to become "more democratic."

"Other than deciding what time the church supper is going to be, the laity has little say in the operations of parishes and the diocese," Mason said. "I'm confident that if women and lay people shared positions of power in the church, the clergy sexual abuse crisis would have never occurred."

Two-thirds of American Catholics believe dioceses should "be required to disclose financial information," according to the Zogby poll.

Many of Mason's suggestions have already been implemented by the Diocese of Metuchen, N.J., which has been praised for bold steps taken to deal with clergy sexual abuse and giving the laity a significant role in running that diocese.

"It will be tragic if the church discovers this (Americans want more say in their church) too late," Mason said.

Since being appointed as bishop-elect, the Most Rev. Timothy A. McDonnell has refused to comment on any specific diocesan issues, pending his installation.

Mason offers the suggestions in the hope that McDonnell will be successful here and that concerned local Catholics can embrace their church with the same enthusiasm as they once did. "Bold action is needed," he said.

Mason said he was motivated to act on the abuse because he saw an opportunity to make a difference on an issue where there should be no moral compromise.

"Sexual abuse of children is the most heinous of crimes. There is no gray area here. The church should be strongly behind any law that targets these crimes," Mason said.

Besides pushing Scahill to challenge the diocese, Mason has helped nationally known authors do research on abuse and consulted with national organizations that support victims. He also has written op-ed essays about clerical abuse for several New England newspapers