Rumors Run Deep in Clergy Crisis

By Denise Crosby
The Herald News
April 28, 2002

The call came in to the newsroom on Tuesday afternoon.

The anonymous man on the other end of the line wanted to let us know a priest had just been booted out of an Aurora parish "because of all that's happening" — and that he was fed up with the whole sorry pedophile situation.

What's really sorry, diocese officials say, is that the priest was leaving for medical reasons that had absolutely nothing to do with the clergy scandal rocking America.

Didn't matter that the parish had been well-informed of the reason for his departure. Didn't matter that it's not uncommon for priests to take sabbaticals because of medical reasons. The fact that a clergyman's suddenly gone was all it took for the rumor mill to begin running on overdrive.

What's really unfortunate, no matter what truth is put forth, is that certain people will continue to believe the worst.

For example, even though Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was exonerated of sexual misconduct charges before he died, he went to his grave with some people still thinking he was guilty, said Owen Phelps, director of communication for the Rockford Diocese.

"Normally we don't discuss personnel issues," Phelps said of this most recent rumor, "but, because of the timing of the situation, I will tell you that (the priest) is leaving for medical reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the scandal."

Indeed, it's the timing that turns even the most routine matter into something suspicious in the eyes of a now distrustful society.

Phelps' concern is that too much of the national media focus has been on what he calls the "3-C Crisis" — that this problem is unique only to the celibate Catholic clergy.

"The tragedy," he said, "is that this falsehood can blind parents and other responsible adults to the real danger of sexual abuse of minors ... that the vast majority of cases involve relatives abusing children within their own homes."

As for abuse among church personnel, most of the American church congregations afflicted by sexual scandals are Protestant, according to a report published in the Christian Science Monitor.

And it's not just individual priests who must wear the blanket of suspicion, but an entire diocese.

Indeed, when I first called Rockford a couple of weeks ago concerning the scandal, the long-distance operator chuckled when I asked for the diocese number.

"I've been having to give that out a lot lately," she said.

It hasn't let up, noted Phelps, who's working overtime to keep up with media requests, inquiries and other duties that deal with the American scandal.

The irony, he added, is that the cardinals in Rome last week "are doing what Rockford did 15 years ago." Even though the diocese policy on clergy abuse is now serving as a model for the rest of the country, however, the rumors still persist.

That's why, when a routine clergy conference was held in Rockford last week, Phelps was concerned a reporter would drive by, see a group of priests entering the building and assume there was something sinister going on.

The good news is that the Catholic Church is working in overdrive to make up for its past sins. Policies will change. Secrets will be revealed. Truths will be told.

Sadly, rumors will persist, because mistrust runs deep.

And so does the hurt.


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