Louisville Priest Honored for Advocacy of Sexual-Abuse Victims

By Peter Smith
The Courier-Journal
October 15, 2009

When the sexual abuse crisis exploded in the Roman Catholic Church in 2002, Louisville priest Joseph Fowler spoke from the pulpit on behalf of victims, and encouraged them in private.

When victims sought ways to heal their psychic wounds, he brought them along on a mission trip to help the poor in Nicaragua, where he has worked for many years.

And when victims successfully lobbied last year for tougher laws against sexual abusers, Fowler stood with them at the signing ceremony at the Kentucky Capitol Rotunda, saying that the Catholic Church "has desecrated its sacred trust of our youth" and pledging "as a priest to offer my hand to all victims."

For his efforts, Fowler has received the Priest of Integrity award from the reformist group Voice of the Faithful, a national organization of Catholics that advocates for victims of sexual abuse by clergy.

Fowler was chosen because he "has not been afraid to speak out," said Shannon Whelan of the local Voice of the Faithful chapter, which nominated him. "He has preached on the subject from the very beginning. He didn't deny, he didn't want to cover, he flat out said it's time to make amends."

"We need somebody within the institution to believe in," Whelan said. "He's become that face."

Fowler at first declined to accept the award because said he didn't want to be in the spotlight. But the 74-year-old said in an interview Thursday that he agreed to accept the honor "to reward the core group that worked so hard on it. If it was just me, I wouldn't worry about it."

He said the church should continue to be vigilant in preventing such a crisis from recurring by reaching out to victims and promoting awareness of sexual abuse.

"The main thing is to call attention to it and help the victims and learn from experience," he said.

The Archdiocese of Louisville issued a brief statement acknowledging the award, saying: "Father Fowler has served this Archdiocese for many years as a pastor and advocate for those in need.

"The Archdiocese of Louisville supports efforts to reach out to victims and has made victim assistance and education and prevention a priority in our implementation of the 'Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.' Many individuals — both clergy and lay — have worked to make this happen, and we salute all who contribute to this important ministry."

State Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, will introduce Fowler at the national Voice of the Faithful gathering in New York when he receives the award in late October. Wayne last year sponsored House Bill 211, which toughened penalties on sexual abusers and those who fail to report them.

"When victims of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church looked for someone within the church who would hear their concerns and stand up for their efforts to fight sexual abuse, they found a strong and compassionate ally in Father Fowler," Wayne said in a statement. "It's a credit to his courage and honesty that he has been chosen for recognition by the Voice of the Faithful."

Roman Catholic dioceses in Kentucky were among the hardest hit by allegations of sexual abuse when an avalanche of revelations emerged in 2002 of how bishops had for decades covered up abuse of children by priests and often reassigned molesters to places where they could reoffend.

Several clerics and parochial-school teachers were convicted, and many more plaintiffs came forward to accuse deceased priests.

In Kentucky alone, dioceses and religious orders have paid more than $120 million in settlements and other costs.

At the time, Fowler was working at Holy Trinity Church in eastern Jefferson County and shortly afterward at St. Cecilia and Our Lady parishes in the Portland area.

He raised the issue in sermons and conversations. He was especially moved, he said, to learn that one of his family members was abused by a priest.

Fowler retired shortly afterward from pastoral ministry but remains active as president and co-founder of Hand in Hand ministries, which builds housing and meets the needs of people living in poverty in Latin America.

Hand in Hand arranges for Louisville-area volunteers to go on short-term missions, including a group of sexual-abuse victims of clergy, who did relief work in Nicaragua.

"It was very, very healing," said Shannon Age of Louisville, who was sexually abused by a priest. "Sometimes, I don't like to call myself a victim. When you take the focus to where it's not all about me, it really does help the healing to progress."

Fowler said that to prevent abuse, the Catholic Church should introduce "more lay participation and decision-making in the church," saying lay people often have different perspectives from priests.

He also called for efforts "toward the ordination of married men and women," moves that would mark a radical break with church tradition.

"That's kind of a tangent to it," he said, "but just changing the church that's what I'm working for."


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