Bishop Accountability

Priests Seek to Assert Rights and Fight Church Abuse Policy

By Daniel J. Wakin
New York Times
October 4, 2002

Venting feelings of anger, betrayal and sadness, Roman Catholic priests from across the New York metropolitan area formed a group yesterday to assert their rights in the face of strict new sexual abuse policies by the nation's bishops.

In a sign of the depth of feeling, a canon law expert from the Brooklyn Diocese spoke of the rift that has developed between some bishops and priests because of the policies, which were adopted in June and await action by the Vatican.

[Photo Captions: Msgr. William A. Varvaro, left, and Thomas McCabe, a former priest, two organizers, leaving the first meeting of Voice of the Ordained, over Rosie O'Grady's Saloon. (Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times); Daniel Dugo, left, was thrown out of the priests' organizing meeting. He says he was abused by a priest as a child. After the meeting, Msgr. James Kelly of St. Brigid of Ireland in Bushwick, Brooklyn, talked with another priest. (Photographs by Joyce Dopkeen/The New York Times).]

The expert, Msgr. William A. Varvaro, advised the men not to admit any sexual abuses to their bishops, who under the policy must report all violations to the authorities and permanently remove from the ministry any man found to have committed an act of abuse.

"So a priest should say nothing," Monsignor Varvaro said. "And again this is that old question of trust. It's that old question of the father-son relationship that's been destroyed."

Monsignor Varvaro, a member of the Brooklyn Diocese's tribunal, was invited by the steering committee of the new group, Voice of the Ordained, to speak about the legal rights of priests. Later, during a question and answer session, he said he expected a "sizable number" of legal actions by priests against bishops for violation of their rights.

About 150 people attended the meeting, 50 more than were at a preliminary gathering in May. As the meeting yesterday was ending, 91 people had filled out registration forms to join the new group. The meeting was held in Manhattan's theater district.

While priests in other places, including Boston, have organized in response to the sexual abuse scandal, this meeting was unusual in that priests were invited from three dioceses, the Archdiocese of New York, the Brooklyn Diocese and the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., which covers Long Island. Former priests, some of whom are married, were also invited to join.

Many who came seemed merely curious, but the turnout was also unusual for its diversity. There were conservative and liberal priests, and at least three men suspended from the ministry over abuse allegations. They included the Rev. Anthony Eremito, whose accuser, the Rev. John P. Bambrick of the Trenton Diocese, also attended. Father Eremito has brought a defamation claim against Father Bambrick, and is represented by Monsignor Varvaro.

Priests who took the microphone expressed strong emotions. "We have become sacrificial lambs," said one, who did not give his name. "If somebody accuses us, we're dead in the water," said the Rev. Paul Engel, a Capuchin Franciscan friar.

There was also an undercurrent of interest in pushing for change, like the election of bishops, or for a greater role for former priests who have married. There was no public discussion of touchy issues like married priests or women as priests, ideas that some of the organizers had said might one day be on the agenda.

The group's direction is still in formation, said the Rev. John Duffell, pastor of Ascension Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and the moderator of the meeting. "It wasn't clear for Jesus and the 12, and it isn't clear for you and me," he said.

In some ways, the meeting resembled a college reunion, with the men greeting old friends heartily as they entered a banquet room above Rosie O'Grady's Saloon restaurant. "We're here where the church always belongs," Father Duffell said to laughter, "an Irish bar." The organizers said they sought to meet someplace other than a church so as to avoid offending their bishops, who might see the meeting as a challenge to their authority, the organizers said.

The event was also part legal seminar. Monsignor Varvaro gave a rundown of the priests' legal rights, as the priests took notes.

There was drama, too. During Monsignor Varvaro's talk, in which he laid out how the policies were unfair to priests, a man grabbed a microphone in the center aisle. "Pretty much I've heard enough," he said. "What about due process for the victims?" He added, "So if you rape a child once, it's O.K.?"

People booed and tried to shout him down. Three men, including a firefighter there with a friend, wrestled the man out of the hall. "If you have nothing to hide, let me speak!" the man yelled. "You're a bunch of animals and pedophiles!"

The man later identified himself as Daniel Dugo. He says he was victimized as a boy by a priest in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and has become vocal in support of victims.

A national victims' group, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, issued a statement saying the priests at the New York organizational meeting may be well-meaning and do have rights, but "the protection of children and the healing of victims must always come first."

Mark Serrano, a leader of the network, said, "These priests should also remember that for decades the church kept victims silent and fostered a culture where priests would not report the crimes of their fellow priests who were sexual felons."

On several occasions, organizers stressed that they were concerned for the victims.

The focus of the occasion, however, was on priests: how to give them a greater voice when confronted with what many of them say are unfair new policies, and how to summon the spiritual resources to improve morale.

Monsignor Varvaro said that bishops have violated priests' rights to a good reputation and to privacy by naming people who have only been accused. The definition of sexual abuse is too broad, he said, suggesting that if a priest asked a child to read "Lolita," he could be accused of abuse. He said that the uniform punishment -- permanent dismissal -- for any instance violated the broad discretion that canon law allows bishops in punishing priests.

"You don't rush to burn everybody at the stake," he said.


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.