Santorum's Comments Find Few Supporters
Organizations, Clergy Keep Distance from '02 Remarks

By Bill Cahir
The Express-Times [Washington DC]
July 17, 2005

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Catholics in Pennsylvania, including priests and survivors of sex abuse by clergymen, this week rebuked U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum for claiming a "sick" and "infected" culture of liberalism had encouraged priests in Boston to sexually molest hundreds of children in Massachusetts.

Survivors of sex abuse and some Pennsylvania Catholics claimed Santorum, R-Pa., should not have blamed Boston's progressive climate for contributing to a priesthood sex scandal that prompted Cardinal Bernard Law to resign and forced the Archdiocese of Boston to strike an $85 million settlement with 541 victims. The nationwide scandal, sparked by newspaper investigations and lawsuits, ultimately cost the church more than $1 billion.

"I feel very sorry for the good people of Boston and so many others who have been hurt by the political ramblings of the junior senator from Pennsylvania," Father Tom Aleksa of St. John and St. Anthony Parish in Tidioute, Pa., wrote in an e-mail note.

"I am a Catholic priest ordained for over 30 years and I am a pro-life Democrat. The horrible actions of a few priests who made very bad choices were neither caused by a `liberal' gene nor a geographic proximity to Boston," he added.

Tammy Lerner of Allentown -- spokeswoman for the Lehigh Valley chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) -- is not Catholic. However, as a survivor of sex abuse in her family's church, a non-denominational parish, she described Santorum's attack upon the people of Boston as misguided.

Lerner claimed church officials in Boston and elsewhere had shown a tendency to ignore the cyclical nature of the problem. Clergymen who sexually molested children frequently were abused as boys themselves.

"This is not a liberal or conservative issue," Lerner wrote in an e-mail note. "This is a power and control issue driven by secrecy."

Santorum, an anti-abortion Republican and a Catholic, has cultivated a national following by leveling inflammatory remarks at gays and lesbians, working women and, in his latest salvo, Catholics living in Massachusetts, a heavily Democratic state. But some Pennsylvanians say Santorum has failed to capture what happened in the church's sexual abuse scandal either in Boston or nationwide.

"It just frankly astounds me that (Santorum) would use this power on this issue in this way, which is to assign blame and sidestep responsibility, rather than to say, gosh, thousands upon thousands of kids were raped by priests, and one of the main reasons it happened was because their supervisors, the bishops, kept moving them around, knowing they were rapists," said John Salverson, a Catholic and a survivor of clergy sex abuse who serves as a SNAP spokesman in Philadelphia.

Salverson asserted members of Congress, including Santorum and his Democratic critics, generally were giving a free pass to the Catholic Church. Although news reports and lawsuits had unearthed clergy sex scandals in Boston and other cities, lawmakers had never held investigative hearings to assess what Catholic bishops had done to protect known sexual predators. "We have never seen any activity on the federal level to investigate this, to find out what happened," Salverson said.

The controversy came to light this week, when The Boston Globe reported the contents of a column the Pennsylvania senator wrote in July 2002 for Catholic Online.

"Priests, like all of us, are affected by culture," Santorum wrote. "When the culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected. While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston, a seat of academic, political and cultural liberalism in America, lies at the center of the storm."

The senator, interviewed by The Globe this week, refused to apologize. Instead, he claimed Bostonians harbored attitudes promoting "sexual freedom."

Robert Traynham, spokesman for Santorum, portrayed Santorum as the victim in the Boston dust-up. Trayham claimed the senator's Democratic opponents had quoted Santorum's column only to score political points.

Santorum was criticizing "the whole feel-good culture," and claiming that the liberalism of the 1960s and 1970s had affected the priesthood in Boston, Traynham explained.

"Senator Santorum recognizes that the sex-abuse scandal was, or is, nationwide," Traynham said. "He recognizes that the priests that were found guilty in this sex-abuse scandal did a horrific thing. But he also recognizes that at that time Boston was at the epicenter, if you will, of liberalism, lower-case L, in terms of creating a culture where some of these things happened, unfortunately."

Catholic institutions declined comment for this story, including the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Archdiocese of Altoona and Johnstown. Others, including the Archdiocese of Allentown and the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, did not respond to inquiries.

However, sex-abuse survivors interviewed for this story noted that Santorum's diagnosis -- that Boston's political, intellectual and cultural climate had encouraged priests to prey on Catholic children -- did not have any written foundation in the teachings of the church itself.

The late Pope John Paul II, in an April 2003 speech, claimed sexual abuse of children is "by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God." The pope did not make any reference to political, intellectual or cultural liberalism, or a feel-good culture generally, as a cause or provocation for sex abuse.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002 adopted what it calls its Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. American bishops affirmed their support of the document with a vote in Chicago last month. The charter is contrite rather than accusatory.

"As bishops, we have acknowledged our mistakes and our roles in that suffering, and we apologize and take responsibility again for too often failing victims and the Catholic people in the past," the charter states. It does not refer to parishioners' political, cultural or intellectual beliefs.

Alan Perer, an attorney who represents alleged victims of priests' sexual abuse, says Santorum should not characterize clergymen's molestation of children either a regional or political issue.

"This is clearly a national problem," said Perer, whose clients who are suing the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh for allegedly transferring abusive priests from one parish to another. "It affected people all over the country, including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, all through the state. It was a much broader problem, and it crossed all kinds of ideological lines."

Some of the worst sex-abuse scandals have occurred in politically conservative parishes, including Covington, Ky., where the $120 million settlement surpasses the agreement in Boston, notes John T. McGreevy, a professor at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind., and an expert on the history of the Catholic Church.

Santorum faces a reelection challenge next year either from Pennsylvania Treasurer Robert P. Casey, Jr., an anti-abortion Catholic; college professor Chuck Pennacchio, an abortion-rights candidate from Bucks County; or Philadelphia attorney Alan Sandals.

The latest criticism of Santorum, however, doesn't come from Santorum's political opponents. It comes from Pennsylvania Catholics.

Anthony T. Massimini of Strasburg, Pa., a former priest who received a dispensation to leave the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and later married, described Santorum's evaluation of the cause of the Boston scandal as "callow."

"His reducing the problem of abuse to liberal vs. conservative takes spiritual tragedy that is actually centuries old, world-wide and very deep, and puts it in terms of today's shallow, partisan politics. It shows a frighteningly callow view on his part -- both politically and spiritually," Massimini wrote in an e-mail note.


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