|Blog Focuses on Church's Alleged Sexual Abuses
By Rich Howells
October 17, 2010
The Catholic Church has been plagued with scandal for centuries, but it wasn't until the 1990s and early 2000s that the international cover-up of clergy sexual abuse cases was brought to light by the media. In the past year, the cries for reform in the Church have intensified as even Pope Benedict XVI was implicated in systematically protecting pedophiles within the holy ranks.
The Diocese of Scranton has had its share of scandals this year, including a school chief accused of sexual abuse and a former priest being named as an abuser for the first time. These developments came as little surprise to Michael Baumann, a blogger and former Northeast Pennsylvania resident that has continued to keep a close eye on the diocese from afar through his Web site, Off My Knees. He holds his own views as to how the diocese can begin to atone for their alleged sins.
A dark history
Baumann was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., but his family moved to Northeast Pennsylvania when he was 12. He attended Notre Dame Junior/Senior High School in East Stroudsburg, and in 1973, his eighth grade teacher was Father Robert Gibson, an assistant pastor at St. Luke's Catholic Church in Stroudsburg.
Taking advantage of his hectic home life, which included five siblings and an alcoholic father, Baumann claims Gibson subjected the 13-year-old boy to nine months of sexual abuse between 1973 and 1974, during which, he said, the priest told him lies and threatened physical harm to keep him quiet.
"For a 13-year-old, that's all overwhelming stuff, and you kind of carry that forward. You never really get away from it. Part of it was he was this big important person, at least to the eyes of a 13-year-old in the community. With everything else that was going on, the threats were enough to keep me quiet for a long time.
"When I finally did report it to the diocese, they weren't surprised when I mentioned the name," Baumann said.
It took him 33 years to come out about his abuse in 2007, but the Diocese of Scranton never made the allegations against Gibson public. In the fall of 2008, after reading the diocese's statements to The Times-Tribune on another case of abuse, Baumann came out to the local media about his experiences.
"There were some comments in the article that were made by Bill Genello." Genello serves as executive director of the communications office for the Diocese of Scranton.
"He was just flat-out lying, and so I contacted the newspaper and said, 'I'm calling this guy out.' They printed a story, and as a result of that, the diocese kind of had to backpedal a little bit to clarify their statements. They were spinning the fact that they got caught, and after that story ran, I think it was two weeks later, I set up a blog because I was so frustrated with dealing with the diocese," Baumann explained.
Blogging for truth
Off My Knees has not only served as Baumann's online journal, documenting his struggles with healing and trying to lead a normal life, but as a watchdog site that has been keeping tabs on the diocese's alleged lies and mishandlings of abuse cases.
After researching Gibson's assignments, he found that the priest was reassigned at least seven times from his ordination in 1959 until 1997, with one assignment only lasting six months.
As e-mail from other victims of Gibson started pouring it, it became clear in Baumann's eyes that the diocese was covering for a known pedophile for decades.
He said he has corresponded with at least 14 survivors of Gibson, although the diocese has only publicly admitted to four. He has also talked to siblings of victims, "so that number goes up to about 18 or 19."
"They were moving him. Somebody knew in the chancellery that this guy was a predator, and they kept moving him around. The diocese will just say whatever they can to keep the story down. Otherwise, they just want people like me to go away," Baumann said.
According to another watchdog website, BishopAccountability.org, which documents the abuse within the Catholic Church by collecting Church documents and media reports, there have been at least 17 men accused of sexual abuse within the Diocese of Scranton. Many were reassigned several times throughout their tenure, and many, like Gibson, were kept out of prison.
Gibson, for example, was moved to the Vianney Renewal Center in Dittmer, Mo. The low-security facility is run by a Catholic order of priests who have been criticized by local media for running more of a privileged retirement home than a rehabilitation center, nicknaming it "Club Ped."
Baumann says that he was told by the diocese that Gibson is now in a hospital near Dittmer, where he allegedly suffers from dementia.
"I think, to a certain extent, they want me to be sympathetic to the fact that he's suffering, but I don't have much sympathy for him," he said.
Leaving the church
Baumann served in the United States Navy for 23 years, becoming a veteran of the Cold War, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Iraqi Freedom. He moved to Virginia, married, and had three sons. He currently works for the Department of Defense.
Over the course of his life, however, he said he could not escape the trauma of his past, and has tried joining groups like the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests and attending conferences with those who have suffered similar childhood experiences.
He has even corresponded with the Diocese of Scranton's Victims Assistance Coordinator through letters and phone calls but said he still hasn't found the genuine help he's looking for.
His interaction with the diocese, he said, has only led him to the conclusion that they want to collect information on victims like himself and keep them quiet. Much of their correspondence "diminished the true nature of what happened," he said. Former Bishop Joseph Martino, for example, invited Baumann to meet with him, but he turned down the offer knowing that he wouldn't get the answers he was looking for.
"I don't want him to tell me that he wants to pray with me. I want to know why they didn't report this guy. I wanted to know why they removed him from the jurisdiction that he could have been prosecuted in. I want to know why they kept moving him around," Baumann explained.
He also feels that Martino, along with Bishop Emeritus James Timlin, have been "sitting on" information that could lead to justice for many more survivors of abuse, but added that the diocese won't "do anything unless they're publicly backed into a corner."
No longer considering himself a Roman Catholic, he applied for official defection from the Diocese of Brooklyn, where he was baptized. After contacting several attorneys, he found that he was outside the statute of limitations. While he believes that the Catholic Church itself is beyond reform, Baumann hopes that the laws will be easier to change.
"I have no interest in reforming the Catholic Church. I have more of an interest in reforming the laws to protect children from predators like this. I'm interested in reforming laws to make sure that anyone who protects a pedophile that knows about crimes that have been committed against either venerable adults or children and does nothing about it is prosecuted.
"I don't care if they're a bishop or a Scoutmaster or a minister or cop or a teacher – it doesn't matter to me. The laws in every state have to be written to protect children," he said.
Sending a message
In early April, Joseph G. Casciano, the schools chief of the Diocese of Scranton, was fired after allegations of abuse, although no criminal charges were filed because the statute of limitations was reported to have run out on the case.
In June, an anonymous man placed a classified ad in The Times Leader looking for survivors of Reverend James M. McAuliffe, who he said abused him at Holy Saviour Parish in Wilkes-Barre sometime between 1954 and 1963. Both The Times Leader and Go Lackawanna are publications in the Wilkes-Barre Publishing Company.
While the diocese has followed what Baumann considers their current procedure, notifying law enforcement in areas where McAuliffe served and circulating church bulletins in those parishes, McAuliffe passed away in 1989 without ever being reported for his alleged crimes.
While the diocese reports on its website that they established a policy to deal with sexual abuse cases in 1993 and have annually been in compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People since its inception in 2002, Baumann said that the real policy of the diocese "is to protect the Church," not its followers.
"They're pretty relentless in court, but if you go back, you'll find out that a lot of cases that have actually made it to legal action have been settled out of court to avoid things becoming public record. What needs to happen is things need to become public record. The local authorities need to stop deferring action to the Church. They shouldn't allow the Church to police itself or to take care of their own problems. They need to treat these people as the criminals they are, and I'm not only talking about the priests and the other people that are committing crimes – the chancellery that is hiding information, that have been protecting these people, should also be looking at charges," Baumann said.
He is not only asking law enforcement to "wake up," but for the faithful to realize that large percentages of their donations go towards legal costs, pensions, and early retirement for known pedophiles.
"I think every Sunday morning, when there's a Catholic sitting in a pew in a church somewhere and they're getting ready to throw that five, 10, or 20 dollar bill in…they have to realize that in addition to buying supplies for the diocese…they are paying for the bishops to hide criminals. If the parishioners would hold one or two weeks worth of donations or tithings…that would send a definite signal to the diocese that the people aren't going to stand for it," he said.
While he has guided many survivors towards counseling and other resources through his blog and e-mail, Baumann still hasn't seen much relief in his own case. He would like the diocese to go to Gibson's former parishes and ask victims to come forward, paying for counseling for those who request it.
Additionally, he feels that they should come forward with all the records they have on Gibson, as many victims most likely still reside in the area.
He has yet to correspond personally with the new bishop, Joseph Bambera, who was appointed the 10th bishop of the Diocese of Scranton in February after the sudden retirement of Martino, but has been in contact with Victims Assistance Coordinator Joan Holmes since he was installed.
While he questioned why he "would drive seven hours to Scranton to sit down with a guy who's not going to tell me anything anyway," he added that he would consider it if the bishop would agree to certain terms.
"I think if the bishop sent out an invitation to survivors to come talk to him and actually sat down with us and didn't preach, pontificate, whatever word you want to use, just sat and listened and got an understanding of the scope of this, the damage caused by this and the impact this has had on his flock, that would be a good thing," he said.
Whether he decides to meet with Bambera or not, he knows that someday, for his family's sake and his own, he will have to quit blogging and move on.
"I don't want it to become an obsession," he said. "At some point, I've got to let go of all of this and move on to something new. I don't know if that means that I get my defection approval from the Diocese of Brooklyn I'll just say, 'Screw it,' and move on to something else. This has done enough damage in my family that, at some point, I've got to put these bags down and keep walking."
The Diocese Responds When asked for comment on Baumann and his offer to Bambera, the Diocese of Scranton offered the following statement:
"Mr. Baumann first contacted the Diocese in 2007 to report that he had been sexually abused by a priest many years before. The Diocese informed him that his claim was credible, and law enforcement authorities were notified. The priest in question had been removed from ministry 10 years prior to this report and was placed in a treatment center outside the Diocese, where he was strictly monitored and could have no contact with children. Currently the priest is being cared for in a long-term health facility.
"Since Mr. Baumann's initial contact three years ago, the Diocese has attempted to assist him to heal from the trauma of this incident. On several occasions, he has been offered the opportunity to meet with Bishop Martino and now Bishop Bambera. The offer remains open, and Bishop Bambera is certainly willing to meet with him if he so desires. The Diocese strictly adheres to all church and civil laws when dealing with cases of alleged or confirmed sexual abuse of minors by priests. Any such allegations, including those made against lay employees, are reported to law enforcement.
"Bishop Bambera is committed to doing everything he can to ensure safe environments for children, and to help any victims as they seek healing and peace of mind."
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