For Bishops, Sex, Lies and Sealed Records
Covering up for Priests Took Precedence over Helping Abuse Victims
By Brooks Egerton
Dallas Morning News [United States]
December 3, 2006
For 18 years, Richard Sipe belonged to the brotherhood of Catholic priests. For the last 14, he has been helping their victims across America seek redress from men like Fort Worth Bishop Joseph Delaney – men who, as last week's unsealing of court records showed, have deceived their flocks and protected predators.
Time and again, people ask Mr. Sipe why moral leaders would do these things. The San Diego-area researcher explains with a little story, about a priest who challenged a bishop for denying knowledge of a sexual abuse case.
"Look, Father," the bishop responded, "I only lie when I have to."
He "has to," Mr. Sipe says, if he thinks it will protect the church's good name. And many shepherds equate "church" with themselves, not their sheep.
"Clerical narcissism," Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea calls it.
"They call each other 'your excellency' and 'your eminence,' and they're serious about it," says the Charlotte, N.C., psychologist, who treats sex-crime victims and has researched the Catholic hierarchy extensively. "They really are royalty. Truth is what they say it is."
These and other students of the Catholic Church's ongoing clergy abuse crisis see much familiar in the revelations about the Fort Worth Catholic Diocese, which resulted from a 19-month legal battle waged by The Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
The material documents complaints of depravity against seven priests who served for years under the late Bishop Delaney: enticing little girls with candy and older boys with booze; fondling kids as they prepared for first communion; masturbating them behind the altar; abusing them with enemas; attempting rape; raping. The bishop and his aides excused much of it away, helping molesters stay in ministry and hiding it all from police.
The records build on findings that date to 1998, when The News reported that Bishop Delaney had hired two priests with histories of questionable conduct with boys in other states. He retained them after they were convicted of crimes there – the first for contributing to a minor's delinquency, the second for stealing from a parish and using some proceeds on tropical vacations with boys.
Bishop Delaney told a judge that the first priest would not work again with boys, but he did. The Rev. Thomas Teczar became a target in a Texas investigation of sexual abuse and left the state with the knowledge of the bishop, who died in 2005. Bishop Delaney gave The News conflicting accounts of the matter. Authorities said he wouldn't aid their investigation.
Father Teczar faces a criminal trial in Eastland County in February. The Fort Worth Diocese paid two of his victims a settlement totaling $4.15 million last year.
Managing the fallout
None of this happened on new Bishop Kevin Vann's watch, yet he has been struggling to manage the fallout from the court records' unsealing.
He apologized at a midweek news conference for what the abusers did but not for the cover-ups that Bishop Delaney and his aides orchestrated. "Not being here at the time those decisions were made, I can't say they should have done this or that," he said.
But Bishop Vann was doing exactly that by week's end, having come under fierce criticism from victims.
"I can't defend the indefensible," he told the Star-Telegram. He said he planned to talk to, but not discipline, four priests who have been accused of enabling abusers or mistreating victims.
The News asked him repeatedly to talk about the general mindset of diocesan managers over the last quarter-century, when he was working his way up the ladder in Springfield, Ill. What, he was asked, would explain putting a priest's career above children's safety?
Bishop Vann, who was a top bishop's aide in Illinois, would not answer.
There's no good way to have that conversation without addressing the church's broader web of sexual secrecy, said Mr. Sipe, the former priest who consults on civil and criminal clergy-abuse cases. He is the co-author, with the Rev. Thomas Doyle and former priest Patrick Wall, of the recently published Sex, Priests and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse.
Most priests and bishops don't abuse children, Mr. Sipe said. But many, he said, violate their vows of celibacy with adults and end up afraid to challenge more serious misconduct.
"Celibacy is a myth," Mr. Sipe said. "And getting into this exposes a corrupt system."
Bishop Vann was surrounded by this culture in Springfield. An August 2006 report commissioned by the diocese there and conducted by a former federal prosecutor found that:
• Previous Bishop Daniel Ryan "engaged in sexual misconduct with adults and used his authority to conceal this misconduct ... the investigation found a culture of secrecy fostered under Bishop Ryan's leadership which discouraged faithful priests from coming forward with information about misconduct."
• A top aide to Bishop Ryan and the current bishop "was involved in sexual misconduct" before two teens attacked him in a city park and nearly killed him. He has been removed from ministry.
• Two other high-ranking veteran priests "are now on leave because of allegations of personal and ministerial misconduct."
The report did not name four other priests who were implicated in financial misconduct or using computers to access inappropriate Web sites, according to the Springfield State Journal-Register. They reportedly admitted wrongdoing and agreed to undergo rehabilitation.
Bishop Vann was not mentioned in the report.
"I have to be responsible now for making the right and just decisions now," he said at last week's news conference. "That's been the principle of all of my life. I've always tried to make the right decision wherever I've been."
There are other issues to consider when trying to understand cover-ups like the ones in Fort Worth, said Robert Scamardo, a lawyer who formerly worked for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
First, he said, is that bishops do not consider priests employees.
"The analogy is that of a parent to a child," said Mr. Scamardo, who spent years in seminary but decided not to become a clergyman. "There is no group more important to a bishop than his priests."
Shortage of priests
The church's increasingly dire shortage of priests reinforces that bond, he said. And even if a bishop finally concludes that a man should be removed from the priesthood, the Vatican's expulsion process is long and cumbersome.
Charles Curran, who teaches moral theology at Southern Methodist University and formerly worked as a priest, sees another issue: Bishops tend to have more experience identifying with victimizers than victims.
Bishops' "primary experience of people doing wrong is the sacrament of penance," or confession, he said. In many cases, the bishops dispense forgiveness and "there is no consideration" of victims.
"This is the mindset."
And why don't victims speak up more often and go to the police themselves? Because they are typically devout people steeped in church traditions of secrecy and shame, said Mr. Scamardo, who was abused by a priest and a lay minister as a boy.
Instead of seeking justice via civil authorities, he said, these victims hope for better from the very people who have betrayed them: "It's this childlike belief that the church is going to do the right thing. You've got to give that up."
Four years ago, at a landmark meeting of U.S. bishops in Dallas, Dr. Frawley-O'Dea told Bishop Delaney and his brothers from around the country that secrecy was the "cornerstone of sexual abuse." They must all do penance – make "genuine confessions of failings and remorse," she said at the time.
She was the only mental health professional invited to address the bishops' gathering, which produced "zero tolerance" reforms and vows of increased transparency.
The bishops were in free-fall at the time. The Boston Globe had gotten court records unsealed that showed a pattern of violation and concealment much like that now emerging in Fort Worth. The News showed that at least two-thirds of U.S. bishops had left priests on the job after accusations of sexual misconduct.
The Rev. Wilton Gregory, who was president of the bishops' conference, praised Dr. Frawley-O'Dea at the time and pledged a new day of "openness, forthrightness and courage."
It hasn't happened, she said, citing the recent events in Fort Worth as but one example: After the Dallas promises, the diocese fought to keep the priests' files sealed, then fumbled in the aftermath.
"The transparency promise was bull," said Dr. Frawley-O'Dea, author of the forthcoming book Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. Even now, "whenever they come to a crossroads, they take the wrong turn."
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