Of Church Scandal, Forgiveness and Fairness

By Jim Remsen
Philadelphia Inquirer [Philadelphia PA]
November 13, 2005

A respected Catholic priest is exposed as a child molester. A venerable pastor is shown to have once been a church administrator who failed to blow the whistle on abuse.

The church teaches forgiveness, but can a molester ever really be forgiven, let alone restored to public good graces? And has the administrator forfeited his right to be a parish pastor, or to receive public honors for his other, good works?

What is fair?

To Jim Post, it's "an exquisite moral dilemma."

As a founder of the activist group Voice of the Faithful, Post has watched as Catholics across the country absorb the shock of local priest abuse - then struggle with how to regard their once-trusted clerics, and the officials who minimized or enabled the problem.

"Do you forget all of the good they ever did? No. But do you close your eyes to the bad things? No, you can't do that, either," said Post.

Nowadays, many people in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia are trying to balance those scales. The recent grand-jury report documenting decades of child abuse and official cover-ups has made them heartsick about the state of their clergy.

Some come down hard on the side of zero tolerance for clerical misdeeds. Their scorn falls primarily on Cardinals Anthony Bevilacqua and John Krol, who emerge in the report as architects of the cover-ups.

There have been calls to rename the Bevilacqua Community Center in Kensington, the new Bevilacqua library at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, and the seminary's Krol chair of moral theology.

There also have been scattered demands that the cardinals' onetime enabler-aides be dismissed from their current posts.

None of those punishments will be meted out, according to the archdiocese.

Cardinal Justin Rigali has apologized for the abuse and for administrative "misjudgments of the past," and has pledged to keep molesters out of ministry. Beyond that, said archdiocese spokeswoman Donna Farrell, the cardinal doesn't believe firing aides or "other administrative changes serve the purpose of healing and moving forward."

The Bevilacqua and Krol tributes "honor the whole person, the entire body of work," Farrell said. "A name change does not help in the healing process."

Only one molester priest, Francis Giliberti, has been stripped of a tribute because of the grand jury's revelations. West Catholic High School renamed its Giliberti scholarship fund for the priest's parents, to distance it from him.

That was appropriate, says Msgr. Paul Dougherty, former director of spiritual formation at St. Charles seminary.

"If someone was a direct perpetrator of a very serious crime, part of the acknowledgment of the problem might be having an honor removed," Dougherty said. In general, though, "the whole force of the Gospel is oriented toward forgiveness and reconciliation."

Catholics also must realize, he said, that "for something to be a sin, somebody has to know it is wrong and to deliberately and willfully intend the wrong. Instead, the person could have just made a misjudgment."

Those calculations, and his reading of the grand-jury report, have led Dougherty, now a priest at St. Albert the Great parish in Huntingdon Valley, to believe church penalties for the administrators, and even Bevilacqua, may be inappropriate.

"I don't think [Bevilacqua's] intent was a deliberate desire to harm the children... but to protect the church from scandal," Dougherty said. Likewise, the cardinal's lieutenants who shuffled molesters between parishes "may not have intended harm but just made a misjudgment, like 'Father can change his behavior.' Intention is hard to judge. Only a person knows that before God."

In the end, Dougherty said, the spiritual goal "is not to gloss over sins and wrongs but to move beyond them to the future, both for the offender and the offended."

Trina Taylor shares that outlook.

She is a parishioner at Presentation B.V.M. in Wynnewood, which was headed for 15 years by the popular Msgr. Vincent M. Walsh. Walsh, 69, began a health sabbatical in August, then resigned permanently last month - after the grand jury revealed that, as a chancery official in the 1970s, he had not warned parents about a known abuser-priest, nor apparently alerted a parish pastor about the same priest.

Walsh has not spoken publicly on the matter, but his resignation letter denied that he was stepping aside because of the grand jury's findings. Some Presentation parishioners have circulated a petition to try to get him back.

In Taylor's view, Walsh is an inspiring man of God who performed "a hundredfold more good works than that one mistake he made 35 years ago."

Though shocked to learn of Walsh's chancery record, she said she quickly decided to forgive him. To do that, she turned to the Lord's Prayer and its call to forgive people for their trespasses, and thought of "all the big blunders in my own life. I came to the conclusion that how can I judge that man when so many people have forgiven me for the many mistakes I've made?"

Taylor and others say it's unrealistic to expect midlevel administrators to have challenged the system because they vowed obedience to their bishop.

(In a recent interview, one of the enabler administrators, speaking on condition of anonymity, said, "Our job was to obey, not like a Nazi, but to give the benefit of the doubt to our superiors that they knew more and knew the right thing to do. In retrospect, that was dumb.")

Kathleen Sullivan, a Presentation parishioner like Taylor, said obedience was a trap. "As an adult Christian, I feel you have to use your conscience and not blindly follow someone's lead," she said. "That can be very dangerous."

Like others, Sullivan vacillates between fury at the hierarchy and conciliation.

"My prayer is that they shake up the top tiers of the archdiocese administration and remove all those who covered up and assigned priests," she said. "In the corporate world, they would be relieved of responsibility."

The permanent tributes for Bevilacqua and Krol are a disgrace, she said. Bevilacqua, who has declined to comment on the grand-jury report, "knew darn well what he was doing... . They can't prosecute anybody, but they can rename the honors and the buildings. Why should his legacy go down in stone in a glorified way? There are lots of angry, frustrated, infuriated people about this."

But when the scandal hits closer to home - enveloping Walsh, whom she believes is "a very holy man" - Sullivan softens a bit.

"I wish we could hear directly from him," she said. "If he said honestly, 'I did this, I was trying to get ahead, it was dead wrong, way off base, I'll try to make amends for the rest of my life for what I did and didn't do,' then I could take him back. I'm a sinner like the rest of us. What I don't like is the cloudiness."

The Rev. Thomas Doyle was an early whistleblower on priest abuse 20 years ago, when he worked at the Vatican embassy in Washington. Now an advocate for abuse victims, he wants no mercy for culpable bishops and assistants.

"It's a cop-out to say, 'We're Catholics and have to learn to forgive,' if that means we give them a pass," Doyle said. "We need to forgive, but also to demand accountability."

A legacy of good works, such as Bevilacqua's passion for aiding new immigrants, is commendable, Doyle said, but "it doesn't threaten the image of the church. It's safe. What's more difficult would be to challenge the church to prevent the harm that was done. That harm is unconscionable, and the institutional church seems to think it goes away."

Post, the Voice of the Faithful leader, proposed a "truth and reconciliation" system, akin to the one used in post-apartheid South Africa, to help the church "reach a state of peace." Abuser priests would openly apologize and agree to acts of atonement devised by their victims, such as community service, while administrators would do the same before a delegation representing the church at large.

"There's a cleansing effect to coming forward and telling the truth," Post said. "But we're not getting that voluntary cleansing through admissions of guilt. It's still a legal process that encourages enablers to keep their mouths shut and not admit wrong. There's a greater concern for legal liability than moral liability."

Farrell, the archdiocese spokeswoman, said Rigali encouraged parish forums such as one at St. Ignatius of Antioch in Yardley, where the pastor, Msgr. Samuel Shoemaker, apologized "for anything I have done or didn't do" as Krol and Bevilacqua's chancellor.

Beyond that, the archdiocese hopes most Catholics are satisfied with the reforms it has put in place to head off abuse and are, as Farrell said, "looking to the future."

If a person did wrong, "the Christian tradition would ask that it be admitted," said Dougherty, the former seminary official. "But the bias of the Christian tradition is recognizing the wider goodness of a person's life."