Abuse Victim Gets Apology from Burke

By Tim Townsend
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
February 22, 2005

Archbishop offers to meet; others in sexual abuse cases are still awaiting apologies.

What Tim Fischer wanted more than anything else was an apology.

He wanted someone to say "I'm sorry" for the fact that when he was 11 years old he was raped by the late Rev. Norman Christian, a Roman Catholic priest in the Archdiocese of St. Louis who was removed from ministry in 1995.

So, in his settlement with the archdiocese, Fischer, now 43 and an electrician from Crystal City, asked for an apology, in writing, from Archbishop Raymond Burke. That was in mid-December. Fischer got his letter on Saturday. But more than 30 victims and their parents have been waiting for apologies from Burke, some for a year or more.

The archdiocese has repeatedly said it will do everything in its power to help heal victims of sexual abuse at the hands of its priests. In his letter of apology, Burke offered to meet with Fischer.

Nevertheless, it seems the simplest, and perhaps the most meaningful, thing a bishop can provide — a note of apology — is surprisingly difficult to obtain.

"Father Christian told me, 'Who are they going to believe — you or a priest?' " recalled Fischer. "So it was very important for the archdiocese to tell me, 'We believe you.' It was one of the big things in my life: Who are they going to believe?"

Asked Friday about why it was taking Burke so long to write the letters, archdiocesan attorney Bernard C. Huger said the archbishop would "get them out this month."

Fischer's typewritten letter was dated and postmarked Friday. Fischer's mother also received a letter from Burke, which was nearly the same as her son's.

"For my part, I want you to know how sincerely sorry I am for the suffering you have experienced for so long from the abuse by Norman Christian that you have reported," Burke wrote.

Fischer said it was those words he needed most. "They owed me an apology to say, 'We knew we didn't handle it properly and we're sorry.' That's what I wanted them to say and that's what I wanted them to be forced to recognize."

Article One of the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," which the U.S. bishops adopted in 2002 in Dallas in response to the clergy sexual-abuse crisis, states:

"Dioceses/eparchies will reach out to victims/survivors and their families and demonstrate a sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well-being . . . whether the abuse was recent or occurred many years in the past."

Because the statute of limitations has run on most clergy sexual-abuse allegations, the process of mediation and settlement is considered part of a healing process by the archdiocese, which maintains that if most alleged victims took the archdiocese to court, they would lose. An agreement for the archbishop to write a note of apology is positioned as an extension of the healing process.

David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said apology letters as part of victim settlements "are not unheard of, but not extraordinarily common either."

He said bishops were more likely to try to settle with money. "Typically, what we've seen around the country is that when bishops are forced to, they will part with money," Clohessy said. "But they will fight tooth and nail against any kind of noneconomic concession."

Several victims included in the settlement of 36 cases in November in Davenport, Iowa, asked that the bishop there write them letters of apology.

Those letters have yet to be sent, but one of the victims' lawyers, Patrick Noaker, said the settlements were still in an "implementation stage" so victims had not expected their letters yet. "They're not dragging their feet yet, like they did in St. Louis," Noaker said.

In early February, Burke's spokesman, Jamie Allman, told several news outlets, including radio station KWMU, that "the archbishop has had this letter ready to go for two months now, but Mr. Fischer's attorneys and the attorneys for SNAP simply haven't bothered to give us Mr. Fischer's address."

As it turns out, that was not true. In a letter dated Dec. 22, a paralegal with Chackes, Carlson & Spritzer (which represents sexual-abuse victims) sent the addresses of 20 victims and some of their parents to archdiocesan lawyers.

Huger said his firm had requested the addresses throughout 2004.

Kenneth M. Chackes, a lawyer for the victims, confirmed that "gathering all of our clients' information took some time." But in at least three cases, archdiocesan lawyers had the victims' addresses in June and July, he said. None had received their letters as of Monday.

Huger said his firm needed confirmation that the addresses were current. Huger said the archbishop had been busy with other things since receiving the addresses in December.

"It takes awhile for the archbishop to sit down and write to 30 people," he said. Asked Friday if that meant each letter would be tailored to the individual recipient and his situation, Huger said, "There will be a lot of similarities for sure."

Allman said he did not know how many letters went out on Friday but that there would be a "steady stream" of apology letters going out this week, and that by the end of the week all of them would be sent.


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