Retiring Bishop Discusses Sex Scandal and Changes in Church

WAVY [Virginia]
Downloaded May 17, 2003

Historic growth, unwavering dedication to peace, and a priest sex scandal all define the legacy of Bishop Walter F. Sullivan.

For nearly 30 years, Sullivan's been the bishop of the Richmond Catholic Diocese, making him the longest serving bishop in Virginia history.

He retires June 10 on his 75th birthday, but before he does, he sat down with WAVY News 10.

Bishop Sullivan's story can't be told without reporting the 18 million dollars he's given to schools from the diocese, or the 35 new parishes, or the doubling of church members during his tenure.

But there have been plenty of bumps along the way too.

It's at ocean's edge where Bishop Walter Sullivan comes to think, to write, to live.

Sullivan may take his cues from the Vatican, but Wall Street catches his eye too.

He invested $600 dollars in Continental Cable turning that into 75,000 dollars, and now lives at Shepherd's Haven, his retreat in Sandbridge

"I've always liked the underdog," says Sullivan. "Something in me, I reach out the less fortunate."

Bishop Sullivan is a man of peace.

He's the Bishop-President of Pax-Christi, the National Catholic Peace Movement, outspoken against the war in Iraq.

"I see it as a moral issue," says Sullivan, "attacking people, causing death, we need to rethink what we are doing."

He cares about race, remembers the African-American sanitation worker who came by when he was very young.

"My mother fed him every week, breakfast," says Sullivan. "We were very small, we use to sit on his lap, we use to think he was the great

Sullivan has strong ties to Hampton Roads. In 1957, he was the basketball coach at St. Mary Star Of The Sea School in Hampton, where he also taught religion.

Earlier in May, Sullivan returned to the school performed mass, then gave the school $500,000 from the Diocese for a new gym and cafeteria.

He also signed over one million dollars to Catholic High School back in December.

Sullivan's feels his greatest accomplishment as Bishop is in building the church. The Richmond Diocese has doubled in size since Sullivan became bishop in 1974.

Sullivan has strong feelings on other topics.

He feels the church's stand on divorce is one of the major reasons people leave the Catholic Church.

On the subject of women priests, he sides with the Vatican in its continued support for a ban on women clergy. "You might say it's wrong," says Sullivan, "but I don't think it's wrong at all."

Sullivan differs with the Vatican when it comes to the ability of priests to marry.

"As far as married priests, I hope it comes some day," says Sullivan.

On the child sex scandal that's rocked the Catholic Church, Sullivan characterizes it as "horrendous."

When asked if the church has botched it's handling of the crisis, Sullivan says "sure." But when asked if he's botched his handling of the situation in the Richmond Diocese, he says "I don't think so, no."

Sullivan's critics disagree. They say Father John Blankenship, who pled guilty to sexually assaulting Robert Presson 20 years ago, got preferential treatment because his mentor, Bishop Sullivan, knew about the abuse and sent his friend to treatment, then transferred Blankenship to a prison ministry where he had no contact with children.

The way the bishop dealt with his long time friend Father John Leonard led to four resignations from the bishop's sexual abuse panel.

One of the four included Jeanne Doucette, who wouldn't appear on camera but said on the phone, "Bishop Sullivan didn't follow his own process dealing with the sexual abuse panel," said

Sullivan says in the Father Leonard case, there was "no direct evidence of a overt homosexual act."

But Bill Bryant and three others disagree. They accuse Leonard of sexually abusing them in the 1970's at a Catholic Boys High School. Are they all lying?

Doucette believed the victims.

"He (Sullivan) refused to make Father Leonard's psychological test available to the panel," says Doucette. "That report concluded Father Leonard should be relieved of duty and hospitalized, but the bishop reinstated him anyway, and it was at that point I resigned from the panel."

Instead of forcing Leonard to resign, the bishop exonerated him, then reinstated him at a church near Richmond. Leonard's still under investigation by the Commonwealth's Attorney.

For Bishop Sullivan, at the end of his tenure, the sex scandal a major bump in the road.

"Well, to me it was all very repulsive," says Sullivan, "but there a lot of other repulsive things in life."

Other priests with ties to Hampton Roads did resign, including Father Eugene Teslovic and Father Julian Goodman.

"You committed a sin, confess and you are forgiven," says Sullivan, "and the Lord said 'go and sin no more.'"

But Sullivan admits prayer alone isn't enough anymore.

In the end, the bishop says the shepherd's flock returns to the church - devoted.

"Our people love the church," says Sullivan. "They don't like this, we're all embarrassed by this, but it doesn't shake their faith."

Even though Bishop Sullivan resigns in June, he'll remain as bishop until the pope assigns a new bishop.


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