A Year Later, Sex-Abuse Policy Divides Catholics

By Patricia Montemurri and David Crumm
Detroit Free Press [Detroit MI]
June 18, 2003

One year after U.S. Catholic bishops hammered out a get-tough policy to banish sexually abusive priests from the altar, they are finding their so-called zero-tolerance policy is harder to carry out than envisioned.

Renewed controversy, ignited this week by the vituperative resignation of the bishops' handpicked monitor of reform efforts, will follow the bishops as they gather Thursday for a semiannual meeting in St. Louis.

Detroit Cardinal Adam Maida said Tuesday the church can't afford to budge on the issue of zero-tolerance, even though a national spokesperson against the policy is emerging in the cardinal's own backyard. Redford Township businessman Joe Maher, who cofounded a legal support fund for accused priests, is going to St. Louis to lobby for more than 100 men he says his organization assists.

Last year, as it gathered in Dallas to try to end the raging sex-abuse crisis, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops made a strict public promise to banish errant priests from the ministry. Such priests have been removed from church work, but how the bishops' pledge plays out in practice is still evolving.

"Bishops may have different understandings of what we have agreed to do," Maida said, quickly adding: "But our policy -- and anyone can read it -- is zero tolerance."

Still, that doesn't mean most accused priests will face the church's ultimate punishment, Maida conceded. That step -- a complex process for formally defrocking a priest called laicization -- doesn't seem as practical as it did last year in the heat of the crisis, when bishops made broad promises about the punishments they would pursue.

"I don't see a lot of priests being laicized," Maida said.

Permanently barring these men from the ministry and from representing themselves as priests may be sufficient punishment, the cardinal said.

The bishops are going to talk behind closed doors this time, away from the worldwide press coverage that besieged them a year ago in Dallas.

Priests on the defensive

The Archdiocese of Detroit has removed 18 priests from their jobs since March 2002, roughly 6 percent of its active priests. Maida will ask the Vatican to review these cases and, in some instances, will push for laicization.

But some accused priests are fighting back, and their cases likely will be heard by special church courts. For example, the Rev. James Wysocki, who was removed by Maida in February from Holy Cross parish in Marine City over allegations of past abuse, has amassed a defense fund of at least $3,008. The money was raised by parishioners at a spaghetti dinner and auction in April.

The nation's bishops are watching the Detroit archdiocese, partly because Maida is one of only seven cardinals serving in the United States. His straightforward efforts in the last year have avoided the kind of explosive confrontations and soaring legal bills that some other bishops have encountered.

However, metro Detroit also is drawing attention as the home base of Maher, who is emerging nationally as a spokesman for ousted priests and an opponent of the bishops' zero-tolerance policy, approved by the Vatican this spring.

"My observation of the last bishops conference is that they were acting like corporate CEOs instead of living out the ideals of their ordinations. And they're terrible CEOs," Maher said.

Maher wants more help for accused priests and wants some of them returned to work.

As the bishops discuss the crisis behind locked doors, Maher plans to move around the periphery, meeting quietly with bishops on behalf of accused priests during the 3-day meeting.

Maher calls his group Opus Bono Sacerdotii, which is Latin for Work for the Good of the Priesthood. He claimed this week that Maida had expressed appreciation for his efforts in a January letter.

"He just thanked us for what we're doing and affirmed what we're doing," Maher said.

On Tuesday, Maida said that he has not given any broad endorsement to Maher's group. Spokesman Ned McGrath said later that the cardinal's letter "expressed gratitude for Mr. Maher's personal commitment to and support for clergy, but gave no indication of support for the group he founded."

The latest controversies to consume the bishops and overshadow their St. Louis meeting include:

The resignation this week of former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating as head of the bishops' national review board. In a June 12 Los Angeles Times story, Keating compared the bishops to the Mafia because of their continuing secrecy.

Maida said the comments were "inflammatory and insensitive . . . and over the edge." After that, Keating's own review board wanted him out, Maida said, because he had become "a liability" and "the board itself felt it was losing the credibility we gave them."

The arrest Monday of Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien for allegedly leaving the scene after his car struck and killed a Phoenix man who was crossing in the middle of a block. That case comes on the heels of a recent legal battle with prosecutors over O'Brien's mishandling of sexually abusive priests.

Complaints by some bishops about two efforts to examine the church's response to the crisis, one of them a national survey and the other a more formal audit conducted by investigators and sponsored by the bishops' conference.

Maida said some questions on the lengthy survey questionnaire are confusing, so he is hesitant about fully participating in that effort. However, he said that he supports the audit and, on June 2, Detroit became one of the first of the more than 190 U.S. dioceses to be audited by the Gavin Group, a firm composed of retired FBI and law enforcement officials.

"I volunteered to be audited," Maida said, as part of his effort to confront the problem of abuse "justly, fairly and aggressively."

Unforeseen complications

Maida said that his staff still is grappling with the aftermath of the crisis, including dealing with shaken parishioners left behind when a priest is removed.

The parish council at Holy Cross church in Marine City voted to stage a fund-raiser on church property for their ousted pastor, Wysocki, and used the church bulletin to publicize the event. More than 40 items were auctioned and Wysocki was on hand to thank his well-wishers.

When he was removed in February, Wysocki told parishioners at his last Sunday masses that he was innocent of the accusations against him. Although he agreed to stop functioning as a priest, Wysocki did not resign his post as pastor. Neither Wysocki nor his attorney could be reached to comment for this report.

"We just felt the need to stand up behind him . . . It's an awful thing," parish council president Mary Agnes Patrick said this week. "We feel that he should get a fair hearing."

On Tuesday, McGrath said archdiocesan officials are pressing Wysocki to step down as pastor of the parish. That's a step that virtually all of the other accused priests in metro Detroit have been convinced to take, McGrath said.

"He has been asked to resign," McGrath said. "He's under this cloud with multiple accusations and you can't effectively lead in a situation like that."

Working through the complex problems sparked by the new policy is taking more time than church leaders initially estimated, Maida said.

"We had to deal with some situations we've never anticipated happening," he said.


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