St. Cloud Man Tells Bishops of Abuse
'The Catholic Church... Has Tried to Handle This Problem Internally for So Long.'

By Stephen Scott
Saint Paul Pioneer Press
June 14, 2002


St. Cloud man, now 46, who was abused as a child. At right, he addresses the bishops.

DALLAS -- Craig Martin of St. Cloud, Minn., wanted desperately for years to be heard by someone willing to listen and able to help.

Thursday, he got his chance in front of 288 Roman Catholic bishops of the United States. Frequently choking back sobs, he told of his abuse at the hands of a family priest.

As the bishops prepared to begin a session that would last into the night, they spent a grueling morning not only listening to victims, but hearing experts and even their own president describe how mishandling of the sex abuse scandal had caused tremendous suffering. The grim testimony already had moved them to consider toughening a proposed sexual abuse policy they are expected to vote on today.

"The Catholic Church in the United States is in a very grave crisis, perhaps the gravest we have faced," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "The penance that is necessary here is not the obligation of the church at large in the United States, but the responsibility of the bishops ourselves. It is we who need to confess, and so we do."

He rebuked his brethren for allowing priest abusers to remain in ministry, choosing to not report criminal actions to authorities, being secretive in hopes of avoiding scandal, and treating victims as adversaries and "not as suffering members of the church."

Gregory, of the Diocese of Belleville, Ill., apologized to victims, their parents and families, those who are deacons or in religious orders, the laity, and innocent priests whose "good name" has been called into question.

"The very solid and good work that has been accomplished by the majority of bishops in their dioceses has been completely overshadowed by the imprudent decisions of a small number of bishops during the past 10 years," Gregory said. "It is as if the fabric of the good work that has been accomplished had never existed or had completely unraveled."

If the cardinals and bishops were wondering what U.S. Catholics were thinking about their church, they could have few doubts after Thursday.

" At this particular moment in American history, they are not comparing you to Christ and his apostles," said R. Scott Appleby, director of Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism.

"They are saying that the underlying scandal is the behavior and attitudes of the Catholic bishops -- not just then, 10 or 15 or 20 years ago, when the abusive priests were reassigned -- but even now, after all the sorry revelations to date.

"They are saying that the bishops, even now, have not yet engaged the victims in a way that conveys that the church begins to comprehend the profoundly devastating effect of sexual abuse at the hands of a priest, one whose hands also consecrate the Eucharist, baptize the infant and forgive the sinner."

The issue is essentially about trust, Commonweal magazine editor Margaret O'Brien Steinfels told the bishops.

"Given the efforts in many dioceses over the last 10 to 15 years, why are so many people convinced that children are still in danger?" she asked. "Why are people so ready to believe that nothing has been done?

"The fact is that the dam has broken. A reservoir of trust among Catholics has run dry," she said.

Appleby urged the bishops to enact a national policy to best serve the church in the United States. There has been concern how Rome may view a strict U.S. policy.

"I urge you to formulate the policies that make the most sense for this environment, without anticipating how the Vatican might respond. Let Rome be Rome; it will be, in any case."


While the bishops debated what their response should be in the privacy of a closed executive session Thursday afternoon, some said before the session began that the morning's testimony from victims such as Martin had set the stage for consideration of a zero tolerance policy.

An emotional Martin described how his parents thought it was a great idea when he was a boy that he go on a fishing trip with his priest. Martin, now 46, remembers staying in the motel that night with the priest, but he recalls little else, not even how he got home.

The sexual abuse alleged to have occurred that night at the hands of the Rev. Joseph Heitzer, a priest at St. Peter's Church in Forest Lake, evoked a powerful reaction from the some bishops.

"Just to hear the story, not only Craig's but of the other three survivors, was extremely important for our understanding of the depth of the pain of this issue," said Bishop John Kinney of the Diocese of St. Cloud.

Bishop Victor Balke, Minnesota's senior bishop, said hearing the victims describe their abuse and years of painful consequences probably helped change how he will vote.

"I was impressed by the zero-tolerance comments that were made, not only present and future but past," said Balke, of the Diocese of Crookston. At issue is whether all past offenders would be removed from the clergy for even one incidence of child sex abuse, a policy the bishops are expected to enact for all future offenders.

"I'm not sure I had my mind made up on how I would go on that issue," Balke said. "I think I was getting close, but the speakers this morning were quite significant. I think I would vote now for zero-tolerance for anything in the past as well as present and the future."

Martin, married with three children and now seeking a social work degree at St. Cloud State University, told the bishops how molesters seduce children with kindness, laughter and a shower of attention.

The abusers size up their potential victims' weaknesses and vulnerabilities, he said.

He broke down when describing how he blamed his parents for allowing him to go with the priest on the fishing trip. And he described his resulting lack of self-esteem, past alcoholism, sexual compulsivity, depression and anger.

Heitzer died in the late 1960s while undergoing treatment for alcoholism, according to the Rev. Kevin McDonough, vicar general of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

"A major issue facing the Catholic Church is the fact that it has tried to handle this problem internally for so long," Martin said. "This has only increased the secrecy and helped the church continue to have control over those who have been hurt. Is the church willing or able to give that type of power back to those who have been traumatized?"


A vote is expected on a new national policy for handling molestation claims. Bishops will consider whether to oust any priest found guilty of abuse, or whether to adopt a policy that stops just short of that.


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