Some Dealing with Conflicts over Guilt of Bishop Moreno

By Anne T. Denogean
Tucson Citizen [Tucson AZ]
November 28, 2006

Bishop Manuel Moreno will be laid to rest today. But the conflicted feelings about a good and decent man who failed to protect his flock will linger.

Under Moreno, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson was shaken to its core by a sex abuse scandal that he could have done much more to prevent.

"I don't think that I've forgiven him," said Tucsonan Michael Moylan, who settled with the diocese last year over accusations that he was molested at age 16 by a local priest.

Moreno "didn't molest me, but he made it so that I could be molested because he hid the fact of what he knew," said Moylan, 36. "He knew Father Kevin was a child molester, and he let him come in."

Moreno allowed Kevin Barmasse to come to the Tucson diocese in 1983 after the priest was accused of molesting a boy in Lakewood, Calif. Barmasse, who has returned to California, has never been convicted of a crime.

The diocese has acknowledged that for the 21 years Moreno served as bishop here (1982-2003) and dating back to 1950, a small number of priests betrayed the faithful by sexually abusing at least 96 children and teenagers.

When accusations arrived at the diocese, Moreno offered the priests counseling and moved them to other assignments, where they were able to abuse more young parishioners. The accusations were not reported to authorities.

So how do we reconcile the stories of a man described as humble, kind, thoughtful, empathetic, generous and holy with the knowledge that he did little to stop the sexual exploitation of children?

Moylan is frustrated with the accolades heaped on Moreno.

"I think he did us a terrible injustice. I don't think he should be held up there like he was a saint," Moylan said.

Jerry Schelley, a Yuma attorney for three Yuma abuse victims, said he believes Moreno got caught up "in that same feeling that was prevalent throughout the church at the time, that these things can be kept quiet and the church can deal with it on its own."

Church leaders were so interested in protecting the institution that they didn't recognize or acknowledge the suffering of the victims, he said.

Former University of Arizona President Peter Likins, a Catholic who served on a committee to rewrite diocese policies on child abuse after the scandal broke, said Moreno's failings should be understood in the context of the era.

Of the same generation as Moreno, Likins said they grew up in a time when sexual abuse of children wasn't talked about or widely understood.

Moreno found priests guilty of horrible wrongdoing, attributed it to alcoholism and sent them away for rehabilitation programs, Likins said.

"That was a bad judgment. But it's not as though he said, 'Oh, well, child molestation doesn't matter.' He just misunderstood the root cause. These were pedophiliacs who were also addicted to alcohol. They were not alcoholics who were molesting children because they were drunk," Likins said.

Renee Schafer Horton, a freelance religion reporter, wrote in an article published in the Tucson Citizen on Nov. 20 that Moreno was so free of guile that he couldn't understand duplicity in others. Why did he believe priests who denied the abuse occurred over the accusers? she once asked him.

She wrote, "'Because, he said, without hesitation, why would a priest lie to his bishop?' He looked at me as if I might have the answer, his eyes nearly begging me for one. Then he broke down, apologizing between sobs for being unprofessional."

So which is it? Was Moreno in denial? Did he just fail to comprehend the problem? Or did he make protecting the church his priority over people?

Maybe it's more complicated than any one reason. Perhaps it was a combination of all of them to varying degrees.

In 2002, Moreno told a Citizen reporter that before meeting with the victims, their pain was "abstract" to him.

"But when I talked to them, I really felt their pain. And I got angry at myself and at the church for what some of the priests have done," Moreno said.

In one meeting with victims, Moreno tearfully dropped to his knees to beg their forgiveness. He also asked forgiveness from the people of the diocese for the harm caused by his actions or inactions. The diocese had to file for bankruptcy in 2004 to rein in the costly sex abuse claims.

Is Moreno's heartfelt sorrow, when considered along with a lifetime of decency and support for social justice, enough to redeem him for the terrible evil that he allowed in his diocese?

Could it ever be enough?

Some writers on local media message boards have suggested Moreno should rot in hell. They represent the extreme.

Though Moylan has not forgiven Moreno, he doesn't bear him ill will.

Likins said he has no conflicting feelings over Moreno and loved "the dear man."

"He made some bad decisions. He suffered for those decisions and felt so badly that it really did influence his health and peace of mind," Likins said.

The Catholic religion teaches forgiveness, said Jenny Brichta, 78, a parishioner at St. Augustine Cathedral. We all make mistakes, and it's not our job to judge Moreno, she said.

"We'll see," she said, "what the good Lord has to say to him."

Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767.


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