Accusers Say Church Rarely Offers What They Want Most

By David Briggs and James F. McCarty
Newhouse News Service
March 15, 2002

In Louisiana, Catholic Bishop Harry Flynn met with victims of clergy sexual abuse to personally apologize and organized a special retreat for their parents.

In Oregon, as part of a settlement of a lawsuit brought by 23 former altar boys who were molested by a priest, Archbishop John Vlazny issued a public apology to victims that was read from every pulpit in the diocese at Sunday Mass. Vlazny also offered a healing service for any victim or family member who wanted one.

But in Ohio, men and women who say they were sexually abused as children by priests or other church employees say they have been waiting in vain for anything like that kind of pastoral response from the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.

Many, like 30-year-old Frank (not his real name), say that what they most crave a simple apology has been denied them. Yet, psychiatrists, victim advocates and child-abuse experts both inside and outside the church are saying with increasing urgency that that's precisely the kind of direct, honest response that abuse victims require in order to heal spiritually and psychologically from such a devastating trauma.

Despite concerns about opening the church to huge monetary claims hardly a trivial matter, given reports of massive settlements elsewhere it may also provide the best insurance the church can find, these experts say. That's because the victim who feels spurned and neglected is the one most likely to seek justice in the courts.

"All I wanted was an apology," said Frank, underscoring the point.

"I would be very happy with that, believe you me."

Frank wound up suing the Cleveland Diocese in 1999, saying that memories had been dislodged that his pastor, the Rev. Allen Bruening, had sexually abused Frank while he was a sixth-grader at Ascension School in Cleveland in 1984.

Bruening was forced to resign from his Ascension assignment shortly afterward on the heels of sexual-abuse complaints from another family. But Bruening and the diocese denied in court filings that Frank was a victim.

In fact, Frank's lawsuit said, it was 1998 before he directly confronted his own memories of the alleged abuse which included being fondled in a motel swimming pool on several outings with Bruening and during showers he said he was ordered to take with his pastor.

Frank was in his mid-20s when he finally told his parents, and then, in an impassioned letter to Cleveland Bishop Anthony Pilla, asked his church to at least acknowledge his suffering.

Frank said that what he got back read like a form letter from the legal affairs department. While expressing concern about his allegations, the church's letter never mentioned that the diocese had acknowledged fielding sexual-abuse allegations about Bruening at least 15 years before Frank first ran into him in elementary school.

"All I wanted was someone to say, 'I'm sorry, I hurt you,'" Frank said recently. "But they're not even sorry about it."

Auxiliary Bishop A. James Quinn said earlier this month that it would be difficult to apologize in Frank's case because Bruening denies the abuse. But Quinn said the diocese would welcome hearing from Frank if he feels he needs counseling.

Diocesan officials said the church offers counseling in all abuse cases it considers reasonable even when the alleged victims have sued.

In a letter sent recently to all diocesan churches, Pilla said, "It is my desire that the church be present in whatever way possible to those who have suffered such abuse."

But a review of court cases and interviews with alleged and confirmed clergy-abuse victims paint a very different picture.

In an apparent effort to protect its public image or its treasury or both the Cleveland Diocese has been loath to acknowledge responsibility for what is a well-documented national and international problem, opting instead to turn a frosty legal shoulder to those seeking redress.

Critics say the danger of using such tactics is that the church winds up not only revictimizing some victims, but also neglecting its fundamental spiritual mission of ministering to its traumatized sons and daughters.

And the hardball legal approach, some say, may actually increase the church's potential financial liability.

When the church will not acknowledge the abuse or apologize, the victims perceive it as a second abuse, said the Rev. Canice Connors, former director of the St. Luke Institute a treatment center for priests in Maryland and a consultant on the issue to U.S. bishops.

"That's when the anger really gets intensified," Connors said.

"That's where it's moved into adjudication."

Two decades ago, with the Catholic Church in America still in deep denial about clergy sexual abuse, the legal cold shoulder was the near-universal response of dioceses confronted with such allegations, said Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who has been involved in more than 400 clergy-abuse cases nationwide.

Through the early 1990s, even sexual abuse of teen-age boys was largely dismissed inside the church as a harmless frolic or another human foible, what one former high-ranking church official described as "the moral equivalent of a priest slipping up with a woman or going to a brothel."

In many cases, church officials say, the priest would apologize, promise never to do it again and be offered forgiveness and, in some cases, a new assignment by his superiors.

But the stakes were raised dramatically in 1984, when accusations exploded in the national media that former priest Gilbert Gauthe had fondled, assaulted and sodomized dozens of boys in Lafayette, La.

Although not always on the same scale, clergy-abuse scandals erupted coast to coast in the years that followed.

By 1993, a U.S. church-sponsored panel recommended the establishment of independent review boards to oversee the church's handling of such allegations and bans to keep abusive priests from working with youngsters again.

The panel also urged the church to pay for mental health costs of victims and, when a child-abuse charge was substantiated, to seek out others who may have been hurt, to minister to their needs.

With more recent scandals in the United States and abroad, even Pope John Paul II who has tended to accuse the American media of sensationalizing the issue has acknowledged that clergy pedophilia "has caused great suffering and spiritual harm to the victims."

And a consensus has started to build among church experts that the time has long since come to start dealing openly and honestly with the problem.

The first responsibility of the Catholic Church is to act like a church and not a corporation, these experts say.

"I would advise the church they need to remember their lawyers are working for them. They're not working for their lawyers," said Dr.

Frederick Berlin, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University and a consultant on sex abuse to the U.S. Catholic bishops. "The church needs to be church. They need to express condolences."

After a slow start in putting words to practice, many dioceses have established policies and procedures that appear to do just that.

In Minneapolis, where Flynn is now archbishop, the church is actively seeking out victims. A new policy, bolstered by brochures and appeals from the pulpit, encourages abused people to come forward and assigns an advocate to help them.

In Portland, Maine, Bishop Joseph Gerry required priests with a history of sexual abuse to fully inform their congregations.

In New Hampshire last month, the church gave prosecutors the names of 14 priests accused of molesting children.

In the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., church authorities dismissed about 10 percent of diocesan priests in the 1990s for allegations of sexual misconduct a move that, while applauded by alleged victims, has left others wondering if priests might now be considered guilty until proven innocent.

And in Boston, where the church is being wracked by one of the most sensational clergy-abuse scandals ever, the embattled Cardinal Bernard Law in January established a "zero tolerance" policy forbidding any priest guilty of sexually abusing a minor from holding any position in the church. Since then, he has turned over to authorities the names of nearly 90 other alleged abusers.

The Boston Archdiocese, facing up to $30 million in tentative settlements of dozens of lawsuits, and bracing for what lawyers say could be hundreds more suits, is one of several American dioceses now considering the sale of church property to settle sex-abuse cases to avoid the necessity of dipping into the Sunday collection plate.

Church settlements in the tens of millions of dollars are no longer rare, said Mark Chopko, general counsel for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a reality that has made it far more difficult for Catholic dioceses to successfully resolve abuse cases.

But as real as the financial risks have become, Chopko said, the church's religious mandate must take precedence.

Apologizing to victims to help them heal is not only the right thing to do, Chopko said, but it also can be done without seriously affecting the church's financial liability.

"The right thing to do is to acknowledge the hurt," Chopko said, "and to say that we're sorry for this."

Although he acknowledged that alleged victims might not hear it, Auxiliary Bishop Quinn said the Cleveland diocese always apologizes when someone claims he or she was abused by a priest. But when the allegations are disputed, even that can be problematic, he said, especially when lawyers get involved.

"Once you have an attorney, it's an adversarial kind of relationship," Quinn said. "I think the bishop is always going to be concerned about stepping in and talking to any client who is represented by an attorney. The potential for misunderstanding is enormous."

Some observers, both inside and outside its ranks, believe that the Catholic Church has actually aggravated its own legal liability with decades of denial and by treating victims as potential litigants instead of as suffering souls in need of help.

Suing the church, they say, is often the last thing an abuse victim wants to do.

It's by attacking them, or by refusing to acknowledge that they may have been wronged, that the church actually drives alleged victims to the courthouse, said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

That's the story heard time and again in interviews with those who have sued the church.

Most say they were lifelong, loyal Catholics who would never have sought redress in the courts if their church had only ministered to them when they first came forward.

The fact that it didn't is as painful for many and for their families as the original abuse itself.

"They didn't even attempt to apologize or correct any mistake," said 26-year-old Joe Kotula, who sued the Cleveland diocese last year, alleging that his grade-school principal sexually assaulted him from 1981 to 1988 in a locked room at St. Angela Merici School in Fairview Park.

The former principal, Vincent Gillespie, was fired in 1993. He died of an apparent heart attack in his apartment in 1996, near a collection of child pornography.

"They still can't even do any little bit to make things right," said Kotula, who has been certified by the Social Security Administration as mentally disabled.

"There's not one little bit of acknowledgment of responsibility or trying to make things right at all. I just don't understand that."

The diocese has offered general apologies. Pilla added another in his recent letter to churches.

"To any and all who have ever been sexually abused as minors by a priest or anyone representing the church, I offer my deepest and most sincere apology," Pilla wrote.

But many alleged victims and their loved ones say that's not enough.

It's with obvious pain that Joe's mother, Mary Kotula, recalls sending her young son to school all those years with the trusting mother's faith that he was in good hands and with simple instructions to behave.

"Have a good day," she would tell young Joe, "and listen to your teacher."

But she is just as angry today with the church officials she has faced in trying to get him some help. In fact, she says she no longer considers herself a Catholic.

"I hate them as much as I do the people who did this to my kid," she said.

"They allow it to go on. They don't care who they hurt, how many people they hurt," she said. "Healing, to me, would be justice."


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