Mercury News editorial: Sex offender incident offers some lessons

Mercury News

Mercury News Editorial

Of all the institutions caught up in child sexual abuse allegations — public and private schools, the Boy Scouts, the disaster that is Penn State University — wouldn’t you think the Catholic Church by now would know how to deal with it?

Not the Diocese of San Jose. Its handling of an incident with a registered sex offender on an elementary school campus last month is a worst-case example of institutional culture making it all but impossible to restore public trust. Registered pedophile Mark Gurries’ volunteer work at the St. Frances Cabrini Parish fiesta and its ugly aftermath is a textbook example of what not to do.

Registered sex offenders are barred from schools, with good reason. But soon after Gurries’ release from jail, someone at the diocese gave him a letter of permission to be there. A young woman who knew Gurries’ victim recognized him at the Oct. 6 festival and mobilized parents to protest his presence, but the parish priest resisted asking him to leave for hours.

That alone was appalling. Compassion for Gurries should never have trumped the risk to children or the discomfort of members of the school community at the pedophile’s presence. But Bishop Patrick J. McGrath quickly could have calmed the waters if he’d spoken openly about the incident from the start. Instead, he issued a brief statement that Gurries’ permission was not consistent with diocese policy and would be investigated.

It took six weeks for him to write a full apology — and even then, he left the origin of the permission letter unclear. A former personnel department employee has taken the fall, but many parents believe there had to be higher authorization and wonder if the problem really is resolved. Some think the parish priest, who has resigned, is another scapegoat. At a community meeting Wednesday night, emotions were as raw as they were at the festival.

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