AP Interview: Louisville Archbishop Trying Help Church Move on in Year since $25.7 Million Settlement
By Ellen R. Stapleton
June 7, 2004
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly says he refused to step down when more than 240 lawsuits were filed against the Roman Catholic church in Louisville over clergy sexual abuse because he had a responsibility to "clean up" the problem.
Kelly, 73, who became archbishop in February 1982 after most of the alleged molestation occurred, will have to retire in two years. He told The Associated Press in a recent interview how he's tried to lead the church past the crisis in the year since the archdiocese settled with 243 victims for $25.7 million.
"I feel a great responsibility to clean up as much of this as I can before it's time for me to retire," said Kelly, who has acknowledged knowing about a few accusations without removing the priests from ministry. "I'm anxious also to prepare the way for my successor. I want him to find a church that is at peace, as much as that is possible."
While the plaintiffs and some victims' advocacy groups called for Kelly to retire early, he said the majority of the 200,000 parishioners in the 24-county archdiocese asked him to stay. Kelly has said he and other bishops originally believed the offenses were moral faults and only later realized they involved addictive behavior.
Don Stallard, heading into a recent service at the Cathedral of the Assumption, defended Kelly's leadership.
"He has done a good job in other ways," Stallard said. "Everyone can make a mistake in one place."
Stallard's wife, Connie, said the abuse crisis has overshadowed the good work that the majority of priests do. The archdiocese revealed in February as part of a national report that 40 of its nearly 700 priests since 1950 were accused of molesting minors.
Boston, Mass., and Louisville were among the U.S. dioceses to face the most lawsuits in the clergy-abuse crisis.
Elsewhere in Kentucky, Lexington bishop J. Kendrick Williams stepped down in June 2002 after three men claimed he molested them while he served in the Archdiocese of Louisville. Currently, a class-action lawsuit against the Diocese of Covington is set to enter the mediation process. Plaintiffs' attorneys say they represent at least 100 people in the northern Kentucky diocese, which included most of the Lexington diocese before its founding in 1988. The church also settled out-of-court with 43 victims since September.
Kelly said he has had three main priorities following the Louisville settlement - reaching out to victims, implementing an abuse prevention program and stabilizing church finances.
Kelly invited all known victims to meet with him, and some took him up on the offer.
"I begin always by asking for forgiveness. This is not always granted," he said. "I ask for it in whatever time frame works for them. I'm convinced that they will not find healing themselves unless they are able to come to some kind of forgiveness.
"One thing I'm always worried about is that the trust systems that a child should be able to have have been broken. And it makes it hard for them to trust anybody, especially a priest or a bishop."
Last month, a "Service of Healing" was organized by some of the more than 100 people victims of the archdiocese's worst offender, the Rev. Louis Miller, who pleaded guilty and is serving 30 years in prison on charges in two counties. About 200 people and 30 priests attended the service at Holy Spirit church.
"That shows where we are in this situation that both victims and priests can be there together and pray together," Kelly said.
Meanwhile, about 5,800 employees and others have participated in a program outlining a code of conduct for preventing molestation and encouraging the reporting of misconduct. Among the rules are avoiding physical contact when alone with youngsters and never taking an overnight trip alone with a child. All church volunteers will complete the instruction in the fall, said Brian Reynolds, chancellor and chief administrative officer for the archdiocese.
"I feel it will go a long way to sensitizing people entrusted with the care of our children to the horrible possibilities of sexual abuse," Kelly said. "No system is perfect, but I'm hopeful."
Reynolds said the church received no new claims against new priests in the last year.
Keeping the archdiocese on sound financial footing has been a separate challenge. After investment income was used to cover the settlement, parish assessments were increased and 50 out of 250 staff positions were eliminated as the budget was slashed from $8 to $6 million. Still, Kelly said there are no plans to close parishes unless demographic shifts prevent them from being self-supporting.
Boston recently announced a controversial plan to close 65 of its 357 parishes, partly because the sex-abuse scandal has aggravated already shrinking Mass attendance and weekly collections.
Despite an audit that showed the Louisville archdiocese was following the charter adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002, victims and their advocates say they have not seen enough changes.
In particular, Kelly came under fire for his decision to reinstate a priest who had been accused of abusing two men.
"One of our hopes was to work with the church and see a change in attitude," said Susan Archibald, head of The Linkup, an abuse survivors' group. "But it still hurts when survivors feel that they did something wrong in telling the truth."
Archibald says victims continue to feel like the church is "an adversary" and has done nothing to curb the resentment toward plaintiffs for suing the archdiocese.
Kelly told the AP he is trying to persuade parishioners to have sympathy and understanding for the victims, both at Mass and through written publications.
"I feel the message is out there. That doesn't mean to say that everybody has heard it, or having heard it accepts it," he said.
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