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  Local Parishes Detached from Scandals
Pro-Active Diocese Policies Help Polk Avoid Problems Seen Elsewhere; 'A Feeling of Helplessness'

By Cary McMullen
Ledger [Lakeland Florida]
April 8, 2002

On Easter Sunday at St. Matthew Catholic Church in Winter Haven, there was no indication a sex-abuse scandal was shaking the Catholic Church in America. While angry parishioners in Boston held up signs calling for Cardinal Bernard Law to resign, at St. Matthew the Masses were serene and well-attended.

The Rev. Fred Ruse, St. Matthew's pastor, said he has detected no anger about the scandal. He called members of his parish to solicit their opinions. He also broached the subject openly from the pulpit more than two weeks ago, offering his flock suggestions on how to deal with confusion and questions from their children and from non-Catholics.

Not all priests have taken such steps, Ruse said.

"We need to talk about it. Boston and New York seem so remote and foreign to us, there's a feeling of helplessness about it," he said.

If local parishioners are less upset than in other parts of the country, it may be because scandals elsewhere this year have left untouched the Catholic Diocese of Orlando, which includes all nine parishes and two missions in Polk County, comprising at least 25,000 Catholics. The diocese's leaders say there are no pending cases involving accusations of abuse, and there have been none for five years.

The diocese's policies, which appear more proactive than others, were formed in the wake of the Orlando diocese's own scandals that hit between 1985 and 1995. Those incidents resulted in at least $ 2.25 million being paid to as many as 20 families who alleged sexual abuse by priests.

The latest sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church began in February and have reached unprecedented proportions, continuing without relief. Last week, a California man filed suit in St. Petersburg against the Vatican and the local diocese, alleging he was abused by a Salesian monk while he was a seventh-grade student at a Tampa boarding school and that church officials conspired to cover it up.

Since Feb. 1, when The Boston Globe disclosed Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop of Boston, had continued to assign priests accused of sexual abuse to parishes, similar cases have turned up in dioceses around the country. Two U.S. bishops -- both of the Diocese of Palm Beach -- have resigned for their own admitted sexual offenses. The most recent of those was Bishop Anthony O'Connell, who resigned in March.

In the past 10 years, scrutiny of the problem and lawsuits against the church have increased. In that time, U.S. dioceses have paid nearly $ 1 billion in settlements.

The church's hierarchy has exhibited a range of responses to the disclosures, from candor to reluctance. For example, Bishop Thomas Daily of the Brooklyn-Queens diocese, formerly a top assistant to Law in Boston, has maintained silence throughout the crisis.

But Archbishop John P. Foley, president of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Communications, said recently, "It's a very dark day in the history of the church in the United States."

Even Pope John Paul II made a rare comment about the crisis in his annual pastoral letter to priests the week before Easter. Noting "some of our brothers ... have betrayed the grace of ordination," the pope wrote, "grave scandal is caused, with the result that a dark shadow of suspicion is cast over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity and often with heroic self-sacrifice."

ORLANDO DIOCESE NOW

AHEAD OF THE CURVE


Though it's been five years since there was a case in the Diocese of Orlando, its leader, Bishop Norbert Dorsey, issued a statement March 21 apologizing to those who have been sexually abused by priests.

"I feel a deep sadness because over the years I have personally met with victims of situations in our own diocese. These victims have shared their suffering with me. I regret that news of any allegations may bring them back to a horrific chapter in their lives," Dorsey wrote.

In a recent interview with The Ledger, Dorsey said the abuses should be recognized as both criminal and moral offenses.

"It brings about a natural revulsion and anger. It's not only a civil crime, but a serious offense against the Lord's law," he said.

Policies initiated in 1985 under Orlando Bishop Thomas Grady and strengthened 10 years later by Dorsey may have helped the diocese avoid some of the problems encountered elsewhere. Since 1995, the diocese has had a crisis team that consists of the diocese's chancellor, a parent, a lawyer, a psychologist and a law enforcement officer, all appointed by the bishop. The team sets and reviews policy for the diocese and conducts independent investigations of allegations.

Sister Lucy Vazquez, chancellor for the diocese, described the main points of the policy: Any allegation of abuse is reported to the state child-abuse hot line and to law-enforcement agencies.

If the allegation involves a priest, he is removed from active ministry and placed on administrative leave.

The diocese cooperates with any criminal investigation.

A suspended priest is evaluated at a treatment center. If the allegations are verified, he is permanently removed from active ministry.

Since 1997, the diocese has required criminal background checks, including fingerprinting, for all priests, teachers and employees who come in contact with children.

Vazquez said all priests accused of abuse in the Orlando diocese have left the ministry.

She refused to discuss past cases on the grounds that it would only reopen the emotional wounds of the victims.

EARLIER CASES SHAPED CHANGES

The diocese's policies were forged in the fires of several cases of alleged abuse.

According to reports in The Orlando Sentinel, between 1973 and 1994 seven priests were accused of molesting nearly three dozen youths, mostly boys.

Until 1985, the diocese had no written policy for allegations of abuse, and sworn depositions included charges that accused priests were quietly transferred to other parishes.

In 1985, four boys sued the diocese, alleging that the Rev. William Authenrieth had abused them while he was a pastor at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Rockledge. The Sentinel reported Authenrieth admitted molesting the boys but was not prosecuted because of evidence problems.

The diocese paid at least $ 2 million to settle that lawsuit, the newspaper reported, and established the policy of reporting allegations to authorities and suspending accused priests pending the outcome of investigations and psychological evaluations.

Since then, the diocese has had to deal with six priests or former priests who were similarly accused. In 1986, arbitrators ordered the diocese to pay $ 250,000 to a College Park family to settle a claim that the Rev. Eamon O'Dowd had an affair with a parishioner and fondled her 12-year-old daughter in 1983, the Sentinel reported.

In three other lawsuits, the diocese reached undisclosed settlements with accusers.

Two accused priests held top posts in the diocese. The Rev. Lawrence Redmond was vicar general -- the top deputy to the bishop -- for 31/2 years until he retired in January 1995. He was accused of molesting several boys in at least three Central Florida cities in the 1970s and 1980s, the Sentinel reported.

A case that received much publicity involved the Rev. Arthur Bendixen, who was chancellor -- the No. 3 post in the diocese -- from 1984 to 1991. In September 1993, the Sentinel reported, Bendixen was accused of sexual abuse by a former altar boy, who said Bendixen molested him while Bendixen was pastor of St. Mary Magdalene Catholic Church in Altamonte Springs.

Dorsey suspended Bendixen four months later and ordered him to seek treatment, but Bendixen refused and was barred from performing priestly duties, the newspaper reported. He later left the area and was reported to be living in Chicago or in his native Peru.

The diocese reached several out-of-court settlements with as many as 11 men who said they were abused by Bendixen, according to the Sentinel. The terms of the settlements were kept confidential.

The former St. Mary Magdalene altar boy filed suit in 1995 against Bendixen and the diocese, alleging that the diocese had been warned about Bendixen's abuse in 1986 and in 1992, the newspaper reported. The diocese denied the charges, and an Orange County judge dismissed the suit against the diocese, saying the statute of limitations had expired.

The last known cases in the Orlando Diocese were reported in 1997, when the Rev. James Coyle, a pastor in DeLand during the 1980s, and the Rev. Oscar Salazar, a pastor in Deltona, were removed from pastoral duties and reported to police, according to the Sentinel. Neither man was ever charged. In Coyle's case, the statute of limitations had expired, and in Salazar's case, the family of his accuser declined to press charges.

In spite of the policy of reporting new cases of abuse to police, Dorsey has said he will not turn over to police the names of all priests accused in the past unless he is asked.

The Diocese of St. Petersburg has taken a similar position. A spokeswoman for Bishop Robert N. Lynch told the St. Petersburg Times on Thursday, "Those are confidential personnel matters. I can tell you right now that we don't release that information."

Archbishops Law in Boston and John Egan in New York recently yielded to pressure and gave law enforcement agencies the names of its accused priests, some dating back 40 years.

NO NATIONAL POLICY

Before having to deal with the Bendixen case, Dorsey had studied the issue of sexual abuse by priests. In the early 1990s, he served on a national Catholic committee to develop recommended policies for dioceses to deal with accusations of sexual abuse. The Orlando Diocese's policy mirrors those recommendations.

However, each diocese is under the independent administration of a bishop, so the guidelines were not mandatory and policies continue to vary widely from diocese to diocese. Vazquez, who succeeded Bendixen as chancellor, points out, for example, that the Archdiocese of Boston has not had criminal background checks for its priests or employees.

In the wake of the scandals, some have been calling for a more uniform national policy. Dorsey said he thinks that will happen.

"Some (dioceses) have been a bit later in attending to it, but we're very serious about this," he said. "We want to do our best to ensure as far as we humanly can that we never put people, and especially children, in harm's way. The bishops of Florida have been trying to work more closely."

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops will take up the issue at its June meeting in Dallas. However, the conference lacks the authority to impose rules on its bishops without permission of the Vatican, and the popehas been wary of granting autonomy to national bishops' conferences.

Asked whether the church has been too slow to react to the problem of sexual abuse, Dorsey declined to criticize the policies of other dioceses.

"The church is so big. I can't judge other dioceses. I don't have all the facts," he said. "It was only in the 1980s we began learning about the seriousness of the condition. None of us knew enough about this stuff."

Cary McMullen can be reached via e-mail at cary.mcmullen@theledger.com or by calling 863-802-7509.

 
 

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