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  Abuse Report Just the Beginning
Archdiocese Will Face a Range of Thorny Issues for Months to Come

By J. Michael Parker and Ron Wilson
San Antonio Express-News
February 29, 2004

The Archdiocese of San Antonio's participation in a recent healing service with clergy sex-abuse victims was an uncommon gesture for a U.S. diocese.

The event, co-hosted by the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, drew a mix of victims and clergy, and seemed to mark the archdiocese as a rare, progressive force in dealing with the scandal.

But one person was conspicuous by his absence: Archbishop Patrick Flores.

Local SNAP director Barbara Garcia Boehland said he was specifically disinvited.

"He's known about these abusive priests but has done nothing. The church has a lot of power, but it hasn't been very good to the people."

That friction, and the fallout amid Friday's release of reports on the national scope and costs of the scandal, indicate the healing here and across the country is far from over.

Concerns about bishops' roles in the scandal; how well new policies will protect minors; the issues of celibacy and homosexuality in the priesthood; and naming guilty priests will be discussed for months in the wake of Friday's reports.

The reports showed 10,667 claims of abuse between 1950 and 2002, with about 4 percent of all American clergy who served during that period - 4,392 of the 109,694 priests - accused.

Abuse costs such as litigation and counseling were $572 million. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' National Review Board had the study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

In San Antonio, the numbers were 58 victims, 20 priests and more than $5.2 million in costs.

Although the percentage of known abusive priests in the San Antonio archdiocese was about one-quarter of the national percentage reported, nobody was rejoicing.

For one thing, the revelations do nothing to relieve the anger many victims feel personally toward Flores for not doing more to stop the abuse before it started or to reach out to victims when they made allegations.

Flores has apologized often and publicly for the damage abusive priests have done. He has shed many tears over what he has called "the heaviest burden I've ever carried as a bishop."

But victims say he has questioned their veracity, told them it's their word against the priests', and accused them of greedily seeking money.

Flores has denied the accusations repeatedly and has emphasized that he has followed and steadily improved the archdiocese's sexual misconduct policy.

He also says he has followed the recommendations of the crisis intervention committee.

"We are committed to do all we can to prevent this abuse and respond to allegations in a respectful, responsible and timely fashion," he said in a statement issued Friday. "We have implemented or improved many new strategies that will assure people that our churches, schools and other institutions are safe places for them and their children.

"We have reached out to victims' groups and individuals to let them know that we love them and want to walk their painful journey with them."

But he has angered victims by asking why many have waited 20 years or more to come forward. They said it's difficult even to tell their families of sexual abuse by a priest because they're embarrassed and fear they won't be believed.

'SERIOUS FAILINGS'

The animosity toward Flores is not unique. One of Friday's reports cited the "serious failings" of bishops, which added to the suffering of the victims.

Victims aren't the only ones upset with the bishops.

A pastor of a well-to-do North Side parish who's been a priest for more than 30 years said the scandal has made good priests easy targets of suspicion and has jeopardized the traditional father-son relationship between a priest and his bishop.

"If I ever abused anyone, I wouldn't expect to be helped by the bishop. But along with all the true allegations, the zero-tolerance policy (bishops) approved in Dallas (in 2002) makes it easy for anyone with a vendetta against a priest to make an allegation against him.

"Once an allegation is out there, it's out there for good and it's not going to go away. And if I'm accused, do you think I'm going to go to the bishop about it? No, because he's too busy trying to save himself."

EVERY CASE IS DIFFERENT

The Vatican also recently has said actions by U.S. bishops to remove offending priests were too harsh. Russell Shaw, a writer and former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says one rule simply can't govern all cases of abuse, because the incidents are too different.

The San Antonio Archdiocese is acutely aware of that now. After receiving an allegation last August against Father Joe Aviles, pastor of St. Joseph's South San Parish, the archdiocese had trouble deciding how to proceed.

The alleged sexual abuse of a minor took place in 1985, before Aviles was a priest. So the archdiocese didn't know how church law would apply to him, and left him in place for more than six months while it figured things out, even while it reported him as one of 20 problem priests to the review board.

He was removed Friday, and the revelation during the weekend left parishioners and victim advocates angrily questioning the new safe environment policy.

Archdiocesan school Superintendent Dale Hoyt and safe environment coordinator Judy Perillo met with about 50 parents at St. Joseph's School on Thursday night.

"Whenever a police officer is accused of something, he's immediately put on administrative leave before any investigation begins," parent Thomas Voight said.

Perillo and Hoyt were sympathetic, especially because they didn't know about the allegation until the weekend, either.

"We need a crisis team to be prepared for things like this," Perillo told the parents.

Monsignor Lawrence Stuebben, in charge of administration at the archdiocese, acknowledged Friday that mistakes had been made and the process needs to be improved.

"We missed some things, and we're going to learn from this," he said. "When the first case of sexual abuse of a minor came up in 1985, we knew nothing about the scope of the problem or how to deal with it. We've been learning all along, and we're going to learn from the Aviles case, too."

OTHER PROBLEMS

The procedures in place have other problems. Friday's reports say church law "made it too difficult to remove a predator priest from ministry."

And the North Side pastor said bishops, who allowed the sins of troubled priests to turn into a national scandal by failing to remove the priests from ministry, still have no accountability process to assure they do the right thing.

One policy Friday's reports did not fault was celibacy for priests. Even though Pope John Paul II is an ardent advocate of celibacy among priests, some observers have made efforts to link the scandal with that policy.

Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said Baptists acknowledge their problems with sexual misconduct, but Protestants never will have the problem with child abuse that Catholics are having.

"You want to know why?" he asked rhetorically. "Because in Protestant churches, people in decision-making positions are parents. Parents are not going to allow a child abuser to have access to children.

"Can you imagine parents doing what Cardinal Law (in Boston) did, sending a child abuser to another church? Parents would never do that," Land said, adding he applauded recommendations to give the laity a greater voice on the diocesan level.

A report earlier this month by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights cites research by various groups showing abuse is not uncommon in professions where adults are in a power role over others.

It shows most churches hit with sexual abuse charges are Protestant, and most of the alleged abusers are not clergy but church volunteers.

"Celibacy did not cause the crisis," according to Friday's reports.

Instead, the church has failed to weed out "many sexually dysfunctional and immature" priests and seminarians.

The reports also refused to point fingers at homosexuality among priests, which falls in line with recent studies that show homosexuality and pedophilia are not related.

The report did say, though, that "the overwhelming majority" of abuse victims are young boys.

"We do not place the blame for the sexual abuse crisis on the presence of homosexual individuals in the priesthood as there are many chaste and holy homosexual priests," the report said.

In some places, though, "the large number of homosexual priests or candidates had the effect of discouraging heterosexual men from seeking to enter the priesthood."

Sexuality was at the center of another cause cited Friday.

SEXUAL REVOLUTION

In San Antonio, the number of priests involved in sexual abuse of minors peaked in the 1970s. Catholics have pointed out that statistics indicate sexual abuse of children peaked nationally in the 1980s.

According to published reports, Monsignor Richard S. Sniezyk, acting bishop in Springfield, Mass., said Feb. 22 that most abusive priests took seminary training in the mid-1960s to the early '80s.

"It was that era of the '60s - most of it took place from the mid-'60s to the early '80s - and the whole atmosphere out there was, it was OK, it was OK to do. Certainly that atmosphere is not present in the church today," he was quoted as saying.

The next day, Sniezyk withdrew his remarks, saying he "did not mean to suggest ... that sexual misconduct in any context is ever acceptable."

Friday's report also mentioned problems in Catholic seminaries during the sexual revolution of the '70s and '80s.

During that time, according to the report, some seminaries yielded to a culture of sexual permissiveness and moral relativism.

Shaw said problems like those put the seminaries in turmoil. The situation was worsened, he added, by the inability of the bishops to deal effectively with them.

The current generation of bishops is answering for what their predecessors failed to do, he said.

Some of those bishops, the reports said, "placed the interests of the accused priests above those of the victims."

Proof of that, some victims' advocates claim, is a refusal to release the names of guilty priests.

The San Antonio archdiocese refuses to release the names of 12 of its 20 problem priests because they are retired or dead.

"We need to change the law, get the names out and become transparent," Houston SNAP member Madeleine Manning said.

In fact, Manning said, now is the time to take the abuse issue out of the church and into state legislatures.

"We have to eliminate the statute of limitations (on clergy child abuse)," said Manning, who said she was abused by a priest when she was between the ages of 5 and 10.

"We have to create an atmosphere where victims are not afraid to speak out," regardless of how long ago the abuse took place.

At their June conference in Denver, bishops will review in closed session several new initiatives, Shaw said.

Though no one knows just what the new initiatives are, most likely they will include discussion of some of the problems facing the church.

"The sexual abuse crisis has metastasized through the church," Shaw said.

"It is part of the wider crisis ... bigger than the sex abuse by priests and failures of bishops. It deals with sexual behavior, credibility of bishops and priests, the authority of the bishops, the role of the laity, decisions made in closed session, secrecy."

In November, the bishops will meet in Washington and may adopt specific plans with profound effects, he said.

Manning, an artist and writer and a leader in her Lutheran church, said the full story about abuse must come out in public.

"I don't think all the numbers are out," she said, referring to Friday's report.

"What Catholics want to know is, was there abuse in my church or in my school? We still don't know that."

Contact: J. Michael Parker jparker@express-news.net

 
 

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