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  Church Turmoil Dying down
Hotline Slows but Lawyers Claim Help Is Lacking

By Bruce Nolan
The Times-Picayune [New Orleans, LA]
August 17, 2002

The most acute effects of the storm that broke over the Catholic Church in New Orleans and elsewhere last spring seem to be abating.

A telephone hotline that the Archdiocese of New Orleans established to field complaints against priests who may have sexually abused minors now lies mostly dormant.

And no new priests have been identified as potential molesters to be suspended from ministry, said the Rev. William Maestri, an archdiocesan spokesman.

But subtler effects of the crisis still unfold.

Interviews with Maestri and attorneys for victims suing the church produce sharp disagreement about whether the archdiocese is treating victims compassionately in its legal dealings, as Archbishop Alfred Hughes and other American bishops pledged to do in Dallas.

That is true even in cases in which priests or others already have admitted the truth of the allegations, the attorneys said.

And the archdiocese still has to implement a pledge the bishops made to American Catholics in June: to set up permanent local church offices in which victims' assistance coordinators would keep in touch with the needs of past sex abuse victims. That should happen in two or three months, Maestri said.

Currently, the sex-abuse reporting hotline (522-5019, or toll-free, (866) 792-2873) is ringing about twice a week, far different from the days after June 3, when it logged 60 to 70 calls in its first month, Maestri said.

Meanwhile, investigations into 20 specific complaints the hotline gathered have identified no new priests as potential molesters, he said.

Five inquiries are left to be completed, Maestri said. One involves a priest who is now dead; three involve diocesan priests and one involves a priest from a religious order, he said.

Checks in place

Opening the hotline was one of several ways the archdiocese responded to the national sex-abuse crisis that began in January, when it became clear that for decades, bishops in many American cities had frequently shielded from prosecution priests accused of sexually abusing children. Bishops often reassigned abusive priests to other parishes on medical advice — often incorrect — that they were probably no further threat.

Like bishops elsewhere, Hughes ordered a package of changes that included a review of the personnel files of more than 1,000 priests and deacons spanning more than 50 years, the establishment of a sex-abuse reporting hotline, and a promise to cooperate with law enforcement when fielding new complaints of sexual abuse.

All the 20 complaints checked out thus far point to priests who are dead, retired or otherwise no longer working as priests, Maestri said.

For that reason, none of the cases has gone before a newly expanded 18-member review board dominated by laypeople who would advise Hughes on whether to suspend an accused priest based on the facts at hand, he said.

Those interviews would be conducted by laypeople under the supervision of professional social workers. Church officials have pledged to relay any complaints involving minors to local law enforcement, and to remind adults complaining of years-old abuse that they are free to go to the police.

The five remaining investigations should be resolved by the end of the month, he said.

Harsh feelings

In the longer term, bishops in Dallas in June pledged in part to reach out more effectively to victims — a response to scores of stories from parents and victims who said they were spurned in their parishes or attacked in court for accusing priests of molesting their children.

"We commit ourselves to do all we can to heal the trauma that victims/survivors and their families are suffering," said the bishops in Dallas as part of a broad apology to victims.

Hughes has met privately with several victims with no attorneys present to offer "pastoral or spiritual assistance," Maestri said.

But attorneys for several New Orleans-area victims said they see no evidence of a changed church in their legal dealings.

"I've seen no change in their attitude from pre-Dallas to post-Dallas," said Raul Bencomo, an attorney representing several families from Norco. Those families claim damage at the hands of Brian Matherne, a former coach and teacher at Sacred Heart School in Norco now serving 30 years at Angola for molesting dozens of grade-school students at a St. John Parish duck-hunting camp.

"Since Dallas, there have been no overtures whatsoever, on the part of either the church's insurer or the church, to resolve or expedite" the claims, said Bencomo, although he said he asked an archdiocesan attorney after the Dallas meeting whether something might be worked out quickly.

Similarly, Metairie attorney Harry Widmann, representing Pat Collins, who was repeatedly molested as a 15-year-old high school student in the early 1980s in Metairie, said, "I'm not seeing anything new" in the church's handling of Collins' case.

Split views on case

His abuser, formerly the Rev. Patrick Keane, admitted the abuse in 1994 and subsequently left the priesthood.

Collins sued the church seven years ago. Settlement talks collapsed in 1999 and Widmann said he continues to collect depositions in preparation for a trial, which is still not scheduled.

Maestri, however, said the church is handling victims in the spirit of healing mandated by the Dallas meeting.

Much of that involves Hughes' personal attempts to contact victims "and provide that level of counseling that hopefully might lead to healing, and to provide an atmosphere that is not confrontational or adversarial," Maestri said.

"I think we've done that," he said. He pointed out that in some cases victims, including Collins, accepted offers of church-paid therapy.

But with respect to litigation, Maestri said the church also has an obligation to consider its "stewardship of the resources of the archdiocese" in evaluating victims' claims.

"We are to be good stewards, plus do what is just and fair in responding to the needs of the victim," he said.

"I think we've done that."

Bruce Nolan can be reached at bnolan@timespicayune.com or (504) 826-3344.

 
 

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