Dallas Resources – April 2002
By Susan Hogan/Albach
The sexual-abuse policy of the Catholic Diocese of Dallas is being hailed by U.S. bishops as a model, but some parishes and schools aren't complying fully, according to a random check of two dozen sites by The Dallas Morning News.
"We don't know at this point what our success rate is," said diocese chancellor Mary Edlund. "Our assumption is that the program is sufficiently in place. But if it isn't, we'll change that."
In the wake of clergy sexual abuse scandals sweeping the country, the diocese has touted its 4-year-old "safe environment" policy nationally. The policy is posted on the Web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for other dioceses to emulate.
But this week, Dallas diocesan officials said they weren't certain how effective the diocese's 66 parishes and 35 schools were in carrying out the policy. The diocese has hired Praesidium, an independent company from Arlington, to audit each parish and school to find out. The audit is being done over the next two months. A final report is expected this summer, but neither the chancellor nor Bishop Charles V. Grahmann would commit this week to making the findings public.
"What we're hoping for now is to see where we are at this juncture," Ms. Edlund said. "We feel we can provide assurances that the people who work with their children are safe. But we want the audit to corroborate that assumption."
The policy requires criminal background checks and other screening of employees and volunteers who work with children 18 and younger, and on those ministering to vulnerable adults who are elderly or disabled.
The News found that many parishes were screening people who worked with children, but not those who work with vulnerable adults. "That's probably because our first effort was to protect the children," the bishop said.
Other parishes were lax about screening select volunteers and employees. St. James Catholic Church in Oak Cliff said it didn't screen nuns who routinely work with children.
"They work with the kids here, but we trust them completely. They are so holy," said the Rev. Efren Ortega of St. James. "When we screen people, we use common sense. I know who we can trust, and people trust me. When you are in the light of truth, people trust you."
Diocesan spokesman Bronson Havard said that there are degrees of urgency in implementing the policy, and that nuns aren't high on the list because pedophile nuns are uncommon.
"Just because our policy isn't perfectly implemented in every entity of the diocese doesn't mean that we don't have a good model," he said.
The diocese's policy was developed in the aftermath of child-abuse cases involving former priest Rudolph "Rudy" Kos. In 1997, a judge ordered the diocese to pay nearly $ 120 million in damages, which was later negotiated to a $ 31 million settlement.
The settlement required the diocese to undergo an auditor's study of its ability to stop abuse, as well as to adopt the auditor's recommendations for at least one year.
In 1999 and 2000, parishes and schools completed a risk-management questionnaire. During that period, criminal-record checks on paid workers rose from 54 to 67 percent, and from 24 to 51 percent for volunteers.
"A comprehensive policy doesn't just happen overnight," Bishop Grahmann said. "The audits show us our deficiencies, which is necessary so that we can correct them. This isn't something we're going to be soft on."
The Catholic Church has been embroiled by sex scandals involving priests in recent weeks. The turmoil erupted in January with a Boston priest; since then, dioceses in more than 10 states have dismissed dozens of priests, and one bishop resigned. U.S. bishops have promised to address the issue at a June meeting in Dallas.
The diocese's top officials said this week that they endorsed a "zero tolerance" plan for priests who criminally abuse a child. That means the priests would be retired or permanently removed from ministry.
The diocese employs a full-time worker to oversee its "safe environment" policy, and many parishes have designated someone, too. If an allegation is made, Ms. Edlund said, she will meet with the accuser within 24 hours.
Sylvia Demarest of Dallas, who represented three plaintiffs in the Kos case, said she's troubled by the policy. "Minor victims will not come forward," she said.
Last year, All Saints Catholic Church in Far North Dallas screened more than 350 people at a cost of $ 27 per person. Three people were prevented from volunteering as a result.
"It's shocking," said business manager Charles Sylvester. "Your first response is to think any volunteer is a wonderful person. But you can't assume that."
Because of the diocese's policy, Mary Immaculate Church in Dallas has put in additional lighting, and cautions parents against sending their children to the restroom alone during weekend Masses. A security officer is also on hand.
Blessed Sacrament Church in Oak Cliff requires a parent to attend catechism classes with their child.
"The whole risk management thing has gotten parents involved in their kids' religious education," said the Rev. Paul Weinberger of Blessed Sacrament. "How can that be a negative?"
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Plano, which developed its program before the Kos trial, goes beyond the minimum standards of the diocese. It fingerprints all clergy, employees and volunteers who work with youths and the elderly, whereas the diocese's policy requires only schools to fingerprint.
"In the beginning, we had a lot of hurdles to overcome," said Terry Wooliscroft, the staff member who initiated the program. "But many people appreciated that we were taking a proactive response."
The diocese doesn't believe that there's any perfect policy, Ms. Edlund said. Much of the success depends on the willingness of parishes and schools to follow the mandates.
"We're out to do a good job here," she said. "But unless all of us take it seriously, it's not going to work."
Priest Is Demoted over Policy
By Susan Hogan/Albach
The Rev. Efren Ortega, 67, a beloved priest for 12 years at St. James Catholic Church in Oak Cliff, is being reassigned to another Dallas parish as a pastoral associate. He can still perform sacramental duties, the diocese said, but he cannot serve as an administrator.
"This should send a clear message to all clergy and employees of the Diocese of Dallas that we intend to fully implement our safe environment program," said diocesan spokesman Bronson Havard. Father Ortega has not been accused of sexual misconduct.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., said she knew of no other priest who had been removed from ministry for failing to implement a sex abuse policy.
"It's a whole new chapter in our church," she said.
The Catholic Church has been engulfed in a series of clergy sex scandals since January, when word broke that a Boston priest may have abused 130 children. Since then, dozens of priests across the country have been removed amid allegations of sexual misconduct.
Diocesan officials summoned Father Ortega to their offices on Friday after The Dallas Morning News reported this week that the priest wasn't complying with the policy. The policy requires criminal background checks on employees and volunteers who work with children and vulnerable adults.
Father Ortega told The News that he didn't conduct checks on nuns who routinely work with children or on select volunteers. The diocese said the problems were more severe than reported. Father Ortega could not be reached for comment Friday.
"This is something we can't fool around with anymore," Mr. Havard said.
Bishop Charles V. Grahmann of Dallas broke the news to members of St. James during a Friday night service at the church. The bishop praised Father Ortega's dedication to ministry, then emphasized the need to bring every parish into compliance with the sexual abuse policy.
"Through his hard work and dedication, he has brought the parish to new heights. Because of our serious commitment to the safe environment program I'm obliged to appoint an interim administrator to St. James parish," he said before hugging the priest. The congregation rose to its feet and applauded.
St. James averages weekend attendance of more than 2,000 worshippers. The parish is served by nuns from Mother Teresa's religious order, the Missionaries of Charity.
"They work with the kids here, but we trust them completely. They are so holy," Father Ortega said in The News' article. "When we screen people, we use common sense. I know who we can trust, and people trust me. When you are in the light of truth, people trust you."
The diocese's 4-year-old policy was developed after the child abuse cases involving former priest Rudolph "Rudy" Kos. In 1997, a judge ordered the diocese to pay nearly $ 120 million in damages, which was later negotiated to a $ 31 million settlement.
Bishop Grahmann recently announced that an independent company had been hired to find out whether the diocese's 66 parishes and 35 schools are complying with the policy.
"The bishop is determined to see that it is implemented, and we will carry out disciplinary action if anyone fails to carry out their responsibilities," Mr. Havard said.
Father Ortega came to Dallas from New York in 1985 and was officially made a priest in the diocese in 1991. He is originally from Colombia.
He is being reassigned as pastoral associate at St. Edward's Catholic Church in Dallas, effective next weekend. The pastor there is the Rev. Eduardo Gonzalez.
Monsignor Mario Magbanua, pastoral associate at St. Cecilia Church in Oak Cliff, is being assigned to St. James, the diocese said.
"While we lament the terms of this transition," Bishop Grahmann said, "Father Ortega has agreed to and accepted the terms of the transfer, and we are both confident that this is in the best interest of the parish and of the church of Dallas."
News of Father Ortega's reassignment caught worshippers at the predominantly Hispanic church off-guard. Many said they hadn't heard of the "safe environment" program and didn't know why that meant their priest had to leave.
"It's very upsetting to hear that he's going," said Diana Sauseda, 31, of Dallas. "He's a great priest. He's good with children. He's good with adults. He's good, good, good."
Evelyn Dominguez, 16, was also saddened by the decision.
"He's one of the best fathers," she said. "He's very connected to people. We love him."
Maria Escogido, 35, of Dallas said she couldn't believe the news.
"I'm going to miss his joy," she said. "He lifts your spirit."
[Photos: Efren Ortega.]
Bishop's Stance Angers Some in Pews
By Susan Hogan/Albach
Bishop Charles V. Grahmann took the stand five years ago to defend the Dallas Diocese against charges that it had covered up a priest who molested children. In the end, a civil jury ruled that the diocese had committed "gross negligence" and concealed information about the crimes.
Last week, the bishop again defended himself, as well as his fellow bishops, against criticism that they had mishandled predator priests. And again, the bishop was admonished, this time by Catholics who took issue with his comments.
"There's a lot of rhetoric out there now," the bishop had said in an interview. "Bishops are accused of covering up and moving people from one parish to another. That's a bunch of bull."
Claudette Allen, 54, of Ennis, said the comments were a "slap in the face" to victims and families hurt by priests who molest. She is a former youth minister at one of the churches served by former Dallas priest Rudolph "Rudy" Kos, who is now in prison for his sex crimes.
"They don't move pastors?" she said. "You've got to be kidding."
Diocesan spokesman Bronson Havard said the bishop's remarks were misinterpreted. "The bishop was referring to the broad-stroke indictments of all 300 Catholic bishops in the country for the actions of a few," he said.
Nationally, the media are holding up the bishop as an example of someone who turned a diocese around with a tough sexual abuse policy, put in place after the sex-abuse scandal of five years ago. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is promoting the policy on its website.
Bishop Grahmann survived the tempest of a priestly sex scandal, but the mood of the Catholics was different then. Today, Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law - whose archdiocese is at the center of the current crisis - is under mounting pressure to resign because of evidence that he knowingly concealed priests' sex crimes.
"Cardinal Law may have done that," Bishop Grahmann said, "but that's not the general norm for bishops."
Clergy sex scandals have thrust American Catholics into crisis. Bishops are facing blistering attacks for their handling of cases. Their approval rating continues to plummet as allegations of cover-ups and secret settlements soar.
"These so-called secret settlements have not been for the protection of the church but, in many cases, for the protection of the victims," said Dallas Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante, national spokesman for the bishops' conference. Insurance companies sometimes demanded secrecy, too.
But many Catholics and lawyers who have sued the church on behalf of victims disagree, saying bishops minimized the problems and bought victims' secrecy.
"I used to think the bishops would change if I hit them in the billfold," said attorney Jeff Anderson of St. Paul, Minn., who has sued the church on behalf of more than 400 victims. "Now I don't think they'll change until a bishop goes to jail and the sound of that door clangs all the way to the Vatican."
The wave of anger from the pews is so strong that some church observers think Cardinal Law may not weather the storm that Bishop Grahmann endured five years ago.
"What is out there is not rhetoric," said the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a victims' advocate who co-authored a study of clergy sexual abuse for the bishops' conference in 1985. "It is an expression of rage. The rage is directed at the bishops."
Two-thirds of the nation's 62 million Catholics say clergy sexual misconduct demands immediate attention. But some Catholics doubt the bishops' ability to tackle the problem because they consider the bishops part of the problem.
"I don't understand why they can't understand what they've done," said Laurie Thomas, a parishioner at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Waxahachie who reflects the sentiment of many Catholics. "They should have removed all of these men. They would have been seen in a much more positive light."
Bishop Galante said that old cases are being unfairly judged by modern standards. Many of the cases coming to light now are decades old, dating to a time when the medical profession insisted that pedophilia was treatable, he said.
"Now we know it's a crime," he said. "Yes, mistakes have been made. Nobody denies that. But in a number of places, people have tried to repair those mistakes."
Bishop Grahmann said that if a priest had sexual problems in the past, he was sent to a psychological center "for a cure." During the priest's absence, his parish slot was filled with another priest.
"So when he came back from the center, we had to find another spot for him," he said. "It wasn't that the bishop was trying to send them around from parish to parish."
But many of the scandals point to greater complicity. Church documents suggest, for instance, that Cardinal Law repeatedly gave a known predator priest ministry assignments for decades despite warnings about his behavior.
Dr. Terrence Tilley, a scholar of Catholicism at the University of Dayton, said media coverage of the priest scandals hasn't explained what the bishops thought they were doing when shifting sex abusers around.
"The bishops were told to treat sex abusers like alcoholics, and that's what they did," he said. "They thought pedophilia was a disease that, with treatment, a person could recover from it. Now, people say that was the wrong model to use."
Bishops have repeatedly said they followed the best advice at the time. Mr. Tilley said that shouldn't let them off the hook. "They still don't understand the issues," he said.
The first wave of priest sex scandals rocked the nation in 1985. The latest scandals surfaced in January in Boston and have led to the dismissal of dozens of priests nationwide, as well as one bishop's resignation.
In 1997, a Dallas civil jury awarded nearly $ 120 million to plaintiffs in child molestation cases involving Rudy Kos - the largest clergy-abuse judgment in history. A $ 31 million settlement was eventually reached.
Several plaintiffs said they were altar boys abused by Mr. Kos from 1981 to 1992, when he served churches in Dallas, Irving and Ennis. Bishop Grahmann arrived in Dallas in 1990.
At the time, many thought the Kos verdict would be a wake-up call to Catholic bishops. But in light of recent scandals, it was a call that many apparently never heard.
"Right now, there's a high level of frustration among Catholics," Mr. Havard said. "Everyone in the Catholic Church is getting targeted for what a few bishops and priests have done wrong. Even though these cases are in Boston or New York, people in Dallas feel it, too."
Catholic bishops are promising to tackle the issue at their regular meeting in June, which this year is in Dallas. Three of the five bishops on the committee charged with coming up with reforms are named in lawsuits as aiding cover-ups.
"My take on the meeting is that it will mostly be blame of the media and denial," said Catholic sociologist, the Rev. Andrew Greeley.
Meanwhile, priests are speaking out from their pulpits. "Every time children are horribly abused by members of the clergy and we don't get horribly outraged and speak out, then we are part of the problem," the Rev. Henry Petter recently told members of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Plano.
His congregation held a listening session this week with a panel that included priests, mental health professionals and Diocesan Chancellor Mary Edlund. Reporters were barred from coverage.
National media reports have focused on the diocese's 4-year-old safe-environment policy, which mandates criminal background checks on employees and volunteers who work with children and vulnerable adults at the diocese's 66 parishes and 35 schools.
The News' random check of two dozen sites recently found that many weren't following the policy. The diocese immediately removed one priest from his parish, and other sites have been working to rectify shortcomings.
The diocese is auditing each site to ensure that the policy is followed. Bishop Grahmann said each parish will be told its individual result, but no comprehensive report will be released.
"We're trying everything we can to do what's right," Mr. Havard said.
[Photo Captions: (J. MARK KEGANS/Staff Photographer) Ben Prado receives a blessing from Bishop Charles V. Grahmann during a Mass at Cathedral Santuario de Guadalupe.]
2nd Catholic Pastor Reassigned
By Michael A. Lindenberger
Stunned parishioners of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church learned Saturday at Mass that their pastor would be reassigned to a much smaller congregation in McKinney.
"This is not my decision, nor is it my choice," the Rev. Stephen Bierschenk said from the altar. "But on the day I was ordained, I promised obedience to our bishop, to accept whatever assignment I am given and fulfill it to the best of my ability. I have done this for 26 years and intend to continue doing so."
His announcement brought a standing ovation from the estimated 200 people in the pews. A long line of often teary - and sometimes angry - parishioners greeted and hugged Father Bierschenk after the service.
"They can't be moving him. They just can't," said Victoria Glorioso, who said she had attended St. Thomas Aquinas for 35 years.
Other parishioners said Father Bierschenk should have been given a chance to correct administrative lapses and be allowed to remain pastor there.
Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante said the controversy over the Roman Catholic Church's handling of sexual abuse allegations against clergy nationwide have made enforcing the policy regarding background checks essential.
"It is bad enough that this happened several years ago," he said, referring to former Dallas priest Rudolph "Rudy" Kos, who was defrocked by the pope and is serving a life sentence. "But if we who are charged with shepherding the diocese do not insist on compliance from all our priests, then we are seriously derelict in our duties."
Other pastors will be reassigned if it is found that they have failed to implement the policy requiring background checks, he said. Those with only minor violations will be given time to come into compliance.
"You can't have it both ways," he said. "Bishops have come under a lot of criticism of late, with some justification, for not handling this issue the way they should have. The message we are trying to send emphatically is that we want a safe environment for our children and for our vulnerable persons."
Father Bierschenk, who has not been accused of sexual misconduct, will become pastor at St. Michael's Catholic Church on May 3. The Rev. J. Carl Vogel, 83, will become pastor emeritus there, a church deacon said. St. Michael's Sunday attendance is about 900. St. Thomas Aquinas has 10,000 registered members.
Father Bierschenk said the bishop's decision was about "sending a message. That's what this is about. And it's a message we all agree with. We all want everyone to be safe."
Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokeswoman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington, D.C., said Saturday that Dallas is the only diocese she knows of where priests have been reassigned for reasons other than sexual misconduct.
Earlier this month, the Rev. Efren Ortega, 67, a priest at St. James Catholic Church in Oak Cliff, was reassigned as pastoral associate at St. Edward's Catholic Church for not doing required background checks. He has not been accused of sexual misconduct.
"What I hope would happen would be that pastors realize that bishops couldn't be any more serious about wanting this policy followed," Sister Walsh said. "I think that's the message that comes from this we mean business."
Father Bierschenk said he met with diocese officials March 19 and learned that an independent auditor had discovered that the parish was "out of compliance" with diocese policies requiring criminal background checks of employees and of volunteers who work with children or adults who are elderly or disabled.
The diocese's 4-year-old sexual abuse policy, which church officials have cited as a model, was developed after the child-abuse cases involving Mr. Kos.
Father Bierschenk said he had understood that if the parish came into compliance within 30 days, he would be allowed to remain as pastor.
But he was summoned to a meeting Friday with Bishop Galante and was told he would be moved.
Bishop Galante said church leaders had intended to give Father Bierschenk 30 days to comply. But they decided to reassign him after they learned that the pastor had been wrong when he told them he thought the parish's religious education volunteers - including the parish youth minister - had been checked.
Father Bierschenk said he had not known that all of the workers - even those with little or no contact with children - had needed to be checked.
"It's not that I disagreed with the policy or didn't want to enforce it," he said. "I agree with it."
Bishop Galante said Father Bierschenk's assignment to St. Michael's, a 110-year-old parish the diocese expects to grow rapidly, is proof of officials' confidence in his abilities as a priest.
"But we want to communicate to everybody and all the priests in the diocese that this is a serious responsibility, and that our first concern is the safety of our children. It is of utmost importance," he said.
Some parishioners said they would lobby Dallas Bishop Charles V. Grahmann to change his mind.
"I can't do anything about it myself at all," Father Bierschenk said. "It's not my place. And I have not encouraged anyone else to do anything for me."
[Staff writer Kristen Holland contributed to this report.]
Dallas Priest Challenges Transfer
By Kristen Holland
Members of St. Thomas Aquinas first learned of the transfer from the pulpit on Saturday and are showing support for Father Bierschenk. About 500 people took part in a candlelight vigil at the church Monday night.
The parish's priest of 13 years is being reassigned for failing to comply with the diocese's 4-year-old policy of doing background checks on church workers within a time frame established by the diocese.
Bishop Charles V. Grahmann, who was at the church to take part in the school's eighth-grade confirmation ceremony Monday night, declined to comment on Father Bierschenk's decision.
Diocesan spokesman Bronson Havard said Monday the decision to relocate Father Bierschenk was firm, but officials haven't named a successor.
"Our position is that we have zero tolerance, and we are going to enforce the safe environment program," Mr. Havard said. "This is the decision of our bishops. It's not revocable."
Father Bierschenk wrote a one-paragraph letter to Bishop Grahmann on Sunday, saying that he had changed his mind following prayer and after talking to many parishioners. He had told the congregation Saturday that he would honor the bishop's decision.
"I'm not happy with this, and I do believe it's causing a lot of harm to the community of St. Thomas," Father Bierschenk said Monday. "Bishop Grahmann specifically said I had 30 days to come under compliance, and then there would be another audit."
He said he met with Bishop Grahmann last Tuesday and was informed of the reassignment on Friday by Bishop Coadjutor Joseph Galante. He is scheduled to start May 3 at St. Michael's, whose membership is estimated to be less than a 10th of St. Thomas'.
The Rev. Carl Vogel said the McKinney congregation was looking forward to Father Bierschenk joining St. Michael's.
"We're elated over him coming. He's got youth on his side and vigor, and he's a builder. He's just A-1."
Arch McColl, an attorney with McColl and McColloch representing Father Bierschenk, said the transfer was illegal under canon law.
"When a bishop transfers a priest for punitive reasons, there has to be a trial first," he said. "He wasn't given a trial."
He said the bishop had 10 days to respond to the priest's letter before a complaint is sent to the Vatican.
Some church workers at St. Thomas Aquinas were not given criminal background checks as required by the diocese's policy to prevent sexual abuse, officials say. According to documents released by the diocese, Father Bierschenk signed a Safe Environment Status Report on Sept. 4, 2001, stating that the parish was completing criminal background checks on all employees and volunteers having significant contact with children. He also turned down an offer for assistance in implementing the program.
The diocese's sexual abuse policy was developed after the child-abuse cases involving former Dallas priest Rudolph "Rudy" Kos, who was defrocked and sentenced to life in prison in 1997.
Father Bierschenk said that he first learned that St. Thomas needed to make changes on March 19 and that Bishop Grahmann gave him 30 days last Tuesday. Bishop Galante said Saturday that church leaders had intended to give Father Bierschenk 30 days to comply but decided to reassign him after learning that he had been incorrect when he told them that he thought the parish's religious education volunteers had been checked.
The on-site audit, completed March 19, said the parish business manager reported that the church implemented the Safe Environments Program in 1999. The assessment also found no documentation of criminal background checks, interviews, screening forms, reference contacts, acknowledgement forms or Safe Environment training for employees or volunteers.
Since Father Bierschenk came to St. Thomas, the pastoral staff has decreased from three assistant priests to none. He's the only priest at the 10,000-member church.
Father Bierschenk is the second pastor in the diocese reassigned within two weeks for not doing required criminal background checks. The Rev. Efren Ortega, a priest at St. James Catholic Church in Oak Cliff, was reassigned as pastoral associate at St. Edward's Catholic Church for not doing required background checks.
Staff writer Holly Warren contributed to this report.
[Photos and Captions: 1. Stephen Bierschenk. 2-3. (RICHARD MICHAEL PRUITT/Staff Photographer) 2. Veronica Ayala holds a candle during a vigil at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Old East Dallas. About 500 parishioners gathered Monday night to show support for the Rev. Stephen Bierschenk, who is being transferred after 13 years at St. Thomas Aquinas. 3. (p. 1A) Dallas parishioners hold vigil for transferred priest Arch McColl, an attorney for the Rev. Stephen Bierschenk, explains the process for trying to reverse the transfer of the priest from St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Old East Dallas. The Catholic Diocese of Dallas said it was reassigning the priest to a McKinney parish after he failed to complete background checks on all church workers.]
Dallas Parishioners Fight Bishop's Reassignment of Pastor
By Associated Press
Dallas Bishop Charles V. Grahmann has ordered the Rev. Stephen W. Bierschenk removed as the 13-year pastor of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church. Grahmann cited Bierschenk's failure to comply with criminal background check requirements for church employees and volunteers under a diocesan sexual abuse prevention program.
He has reassigned Bierschenk to a much smaller church in McKinney, about 30 miles north of Dallas, effective May 3.
"I can't believe the bishop doesn't want to work with the parishioners and Father Bierschenk to solve this problem," parishioner Kelly Barton said Tuesday. "It could have been solved very easily."
More than 2,000 of Bierschenk's flock rallied at a candlelight vigil Monday night while Grahmann was inside the church confirming eighth-graders. Ten prominent parishioners have formed a task force to fight the bishop's decision.
"We're trying to show them this cannot and will not happen to our priest," Gloria Tarpley said Monday night. "The people of St. Thomas don't know how to quit."
Bierschenk was the second priest to be removed this month for not completing the required parish background checks promptly.
Terry O'Brien, president of the St. Thomas Aquinas Parish Council, views as "minimal" the likelihood of changing the bishop's mind about reassigning Bierschenk.
By Rod Dreher
More Roman Catholic dioceses are turning their personnel files over to district attorneys, and are finally being completely open about accusations against their priests — right? Not so fast, say lawyers who have represented priest-abuse victims. Bitter experience, they say, shows that the Church isn't above considering strategies to keep crucial documents out of personnel files, and thus out of the hands of plaintiffs and, perhaps, prosecutors.
"If you're dealing with a diocese that's completely dishonest and corrupt, and there are some that fit into that category, the bishop will try almost anything, and if his attorneys are not honorable men, they'll play tricks," says Sylvia Demarest, the Texas lawyer who won a landmark $119 million judgment against the Diocese of Dallas.
"Based on my dealings with the Diocese of Bridgeport [Conn.] and the Church since 1993, I would be very skeptical of information that bishops voluntarily produce at this point, because for the past nine years here, they were fighting all the way to hang on to documents, and were publicly denying information we now know was completely true," says Jason Tremont, whose Connecticut law firm represented 24 alleged victims of Bridgeport priests in a case that has now been settled.
"Welcome to litigation," says Patrick Schiltz, interim dean of the University of St. Thomas School of Law, who has defended dioceses in lawsuits in each of the 50 states. "Every lawyer who litigates cases knows he has to ask for documents in just the right way. I've seen this game played a ton on the other side, which you never read about in the papers."
What are some of the sleight-of-hand personnel-file maneuvers district attorneys should watch out for?
Documents could be in the diocese's lawyers' files. "In discovery depositions, what occurs is that a key document is found in the files of their law firms. If another case comes along involving the same priest, that document won't be in the personnel file," says Stephen Rubino, a Margate, N.J., lawyer who specializes in clergy sex abuse cases. "There was a witness I just took trial testimony from in which he said the document in question had been released to the law firm, and no copy was made of it."
Personnel documents can be stored in other Church files. "In the Rudy Kos case, everything was still in his personnel file," says Demarest. "But in the case of Fr. Robert Peebles, there was a secret archive file that contained information on his court martial, the reoffense, his laicization, and other matters. That's why when I filed the request for information, I specified any information about this particular priest that would be in the secret archive."
By canon law, each diocese is required to keep a secret archive, accessible only to the bishop and the vicar general, where records of gravely serious matters, such as sexual abuse by priests, are stored. Canon law also requires that records be purged from the secret archive every 10 years, but a "summary file" of the information in the purged documents is supposed to be maintained. But, says Rubino, there are "no checks and balances, and nobody monitoring to see if this is being done."
"We've also had files designated 'separate archives,' 'confidential archives,' 'parish files,' and so forth," Rubino says. "I've had cases where molestation complaints against priests are put in the victim's file, when the victim has been a seminarian."
Psychiatric evaluations and therapy records of accused priests may not be in the personnel file. These are important because they can be used to establish what a diocese knew of the priest's condition, and when it knew it. These are often kept separate from the personnel file. Says Rubino, "Oftentimes the interim reports are destroyed or sent back to the treatment center."
Similarly, say lawyers, files documenting what the diocese paid to settle claims against particular priests are sometimes kept out of the personnel files.
If prosecutors want to be sure dioceses aren't playing games with these records, lawyers say, they should explicitly request all information a diocese has on a priest in question. And even then they are taking a chance on the diocese's good faith. "It's great to have a policy of openness, but actions speak louder than words," says Tremont, who says invoking subpoena power is the only sure way to make sure authorities get all relevant records.
Schiltz says that whenever he has defended dioceses, he has made a policy of disclosing all relevant documents up front, as the best way of protecting his client's interests. "I didn't want the judge or jury later on, when the second or third wave of requests came, to think that I was screwing around."
Attorney Demarest says that the rapidly changing legal and political environment surrounding these cases makes it much more costly for a diocese to withhold documents. In the recent past, if the local legal establishment was predisposed to favor the bishop, and there was no public price to be paid for doing so, a diocese's lawyers had much more room to maneuver.
"I think we're seeing the opposite situation now, where politics make it untenable to continue with that kind of thing," she says.
Schiltz agrees. "Churches shouldn't do that, plaintiffs shouldn't do that, but attorneys on both sides sometimes play this 'gotcha' game. It will be much harder to do that now, with all that's happened. That said, I can't say it went on a lot before."
Diocese Defends Priest's Transfer
By Susan Hogan/Albach
In a rare joint interview, Bishop Charles V. Grahmann, Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante and Chancellor Mary Edlund offered a fuller explanation for the Rev. Stephen Bierschenk's reassignment for failing to do criminal history checks on church employees and volunteers.
"The puzzle is why the people aren't rising up in anger that this priest was not looking after the protection of their children," Bishop Grahmann said. "You know very well that if there had been any sexual abuse, people would be saying we hadn't done enough to prevent it."
Bishop Galante said: "The parish reaction is a throwback to the old days when dioceses protected priests and institutions before children. Well, those days are gone."
Father Bierschenk acknowledged Thursday that he hadn't fully instituted the diocese's 4-year-old safe environment policy. When he learned of his reassignment last week, he initially accepted the decision. But after a show of support from parishioners, he decided to contest the transfer.
"I have rights as a priest, and my goal is to protect them," he said. "They're trying to make an example out of me. It's completely unfair."
He said the transfer was illegal under canon law - an argument the diocese disputes. With the help of an attorney from his parish, Father Bierschenk has filed a formal complaint with the bishop.
If the bishop doesn't reverse his decision, the complaint can be forwarded to the Vatican.
Father Bierschenk is the second priest this month to be reassigned for failing to implement the sex abuse policy. Earlier, the Rev. Efren Ortega was removed from St. James Catholic Church in Oak Cliff.
No other diocese in the country has taken similar steps against priests. U.S. bishops are promoting the Dallas policy as a national model.
Diocesan officials said statements made by Father Bierschenk to national media prompted them to speak out. The priest said he had been overworked, understaffed and made a simple mistake. He also said he received no warning that his 13-year post at the parish of 10,000 members was at stake.
Officials said the priest, who had several years to implement the policy, was minimizing his mistakes and offered some documentation as proof:
*Last fall, the bishops informed priests in writing that failing to implement the policy was a failure to live up to their pastoral duties. Father Bierschenk said Thursday that he remembered the letter but didn't make the policy a priority.
*Last fall, priests were told that Praesidium, an independent company in Arlington, would conduct audits of the diocese's 66 parishes and 35 schools to ensure the policy was being followed. Father Bierschenk said he was aware of an audit but thought the diocese would help him correct problems.
*On Sept. 4, Father Bierschenk signed a document stating that all church employees and volunteers were completing criminal background checks though that wasn't the case. The priest also indicated to the diocese that he didn't need help putting the policy into place. Father Bierschenk said Thursday that he didn't read the document carefully before signing it.
*Officials said Father Bierschenk attended only one of four meetings about the policy mandated for clergy. He failed to notify the bishop as to why he missed two of the meetings.
*At a Jan. 24 clergy meeting attended by Father Bierschenk, Bishop Grahmann said he warned priests that there would be serious consequences - even the reassignment of priests - for failing to implement the policy. Father Bierschenk said he didn't remember any such discussion.
*Father Bierschenk said he told diocesan officials last week that he had not read the policy closely and didn't know he needed to screen all employees.
"After all the years of work and communication we've made around this policy, it was upsetting to hear he didn't know what his responsibility was," Ms. Edlund said. "He was unable to provide any explanation other than, 'I'm busy and it's not a priority.'"
The large outpouring of support for Father Bierschenk from his parish has outraged some child molestation victims of former priest Rudolph "Rudy" Kos and members of the parishes that he served. Mr. Kos was handed a life sentence in prison five years ago, and the diocese unveiled its policy the following year.
"It shocks me that a priest who lived through the pain of what happened in this diocese before would be so cavalier today," Bishop Galante said.
Father Bierschenk's supporters said the diocese is being heavy-handed.
"The punishment doesn't fit the mistake," said Sam Zurawel, 31, who is part of a coalition of supporters. "He should have been given time to correct the issues."
Other parishioners said the priest should step down quietly. "He made a mistake, and we forgive him," said Sharon Gibney, a parishioner for 10 years. "But we also need to back our bishop for finally doing what needed to be done for our children."
A March 19 audit showed the church offered no documentation of interviews, screening forms, reference contacts or screening forms for employees and volunteers, including religious education teachers and a youth minister on staff for a year. The diocese and the priest are at odds over the number.
Father Bierschenk said he didn't think some people needed screening since they were longtime friends. The diocese's policy mandates screening for all employees as well as volunteers who work with children and vulnerable adults.
"We have to enforce the policy or else it's just a sham," Bishop Galante said.
The diocese said that one-third of its audits were complete and that most sites had passed. Bishop Grahmann said the diocese is hiring more staff to centralize the criminal checks done by parishes.
Hundreds of people rallied in support of Father Bierschenk at the church this week. Others are gathering nightly for prayer. Stacks of preprinted letters protesting the transfer are being handed out to parishioners.
Father Bierschenk will remain a pastor but at a much smaller congregation: St. Michael's in McKinney. The transfer is effective May 3.
Moves Affect Parishes
By Susan Hogan/Albach
The decision by the Catholic Diocese of Dallas to reassign a second priest for failing to implement its sex-abuse policy rippled across three parishes Saturday:
*At St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dallas, supporters of the Rev. Stephen Bierschenk again called for the diocese to reverse its decision to reassign him based on what they said was a miscommunication over paperwork.
*At St. Michael's Catholic Church in McKinney, parishioners said Father Bierschenk could expect a warm welcome as their new pastor effective May 3, even though the priest is contesting the diocese's decision.
*At St. Patrick Catholic Church in Lake Highlands, the Rev. John Libone, the first area priest to institute a sex-abuse policy in a diocesan parish, broke the news to worshippers that he was being reassigned to St. Thomas.
Father Bierschenk, 51, is the second priest this month to be reassigned after an audit showed that the diocese's safe environment policy had not been fully implemented.
In removing the priests, diocese officials said they were sending a strong signal to their 66 parishes and 35 schools to take the policy seriously. No other diocese in the country has taken similar steps against priests.
With three-fourths of the audits yet to be done, many sites are scrambling to comply. Last week, at least 400 volunteers and employees from two Far North Dallas parishes turned out to be fingerprinted.
"I had a number of my church members say they were going to get fingerprinted because they didn't want to lose me as their pastor," said the Rev. Tom Cloherty, pastor of All Saints Catholic Church in Far North Dallas. "I got fingerprinted, too. It's important that we do this for the safety of our children."
The policy requires criminal background checks for employees and volunteers who work with children and vulnerable adults. The 4-year-old policy was developed in the aftermath of child molestation cases involving former Dallas priest Rudy Kos. U.S. bishops are promoting the policy as a national model.
The Rev. Efren Ortega accepted his transfer from St. James Catholic Church in Oak Cliff after the audit showed that he wasn't in compliance. But Father Bierschenk has filed a complaint with the diocese contesting his transfer and may appeal to the Vatican if the diocese doesn't reverse its decision.
After a week of public attacks on diocesan officials, supporters of Father Bierschenk struck a conciliatory tone Saturday. They said they supported the diocese's sex-abuse policy and have taken swift action to correct the parish's shortcomings.
"We had the misfortune of being one of the first places to be audited," church member Gloria Tarpley said. "We learned a hard lesson in all of this. The policy is important, and we overlooked some areas. We hope the bishop will reconsider his decision."
Father Bierschenk's supporters include a lawyer and public relations experts from the 10,000-member parish who are acting as advisers to him. Their comments sometimes contradicted ones made by the priest in two taped interviews last week with The Dallas Morning News.
Father Bierschenk told The News he hadn't read the diocese's policy carefully, didn't make it a priority despite repeated warnings from the diocese and didn't see a need to screen employees who were his longtime friends. "I know we can trust them," he said.
The priest, who had several pastoral obligations Saturday, didn't return phone calls Saturday. Nor did he address the controversy during his homily at afternoon Mass. Worshippers attending the service wore green ribbons in a show of support.
St. Thomas' school passed the audit, but several parish employees and volunteers were not in compliance. Supporters say some of those people were teachers in the Dallas school district who had had background checks done there, although the parish didn't have paperwork to substantiate that. The diocese said all checks needed to be done by the parish.
The diocese said Saturday that the decision to transfer Father Bierschenk was firm, in part because the priest remained openly defiant. He was accompanied by his attorney Friday when two priests from the diocese came to talk with him.
Dallas Coadjutor Bishop Joseph Galante said Saturday that he had met with Father Bierschenk's supporters for nearly three hours this week and had offered to meet with the entire parish to listen to their concerns and explain the decision.
"Just as the safety of children and most vulnerable in the diocese ultimately rests with the bishops, so in a parish the ultimate responsibility rests with the pastor," he said.
Some members of St. Thomas say they support the bishop's decision, though they were sad to see their beloved priest leave after 13 years in the parish.
A few speculated that the outcry might reflect fear that a new priest would want more control of the school, take out the altar railings and do away with the parish's Latin Masses. The diocese has said the next priest will respect the parish's traditional leanings.
At St. Patrick, worshippers gasped and wept when Father Libone told them of his transfer. He thanked them for their support and asked for their prayers. They returned the sentiment with a standing ovation.
"Last week, the bishop asked me to go and serve the people of St. Thomas," he said. "I told him that of course I would, because that's what priests are supposed to do. But there's a certain anxiety in any kind of move."
The 48-year-old Dallas native is a canon lawyer - an expert on church law - who's a judge on the diocese's court. He teaches occasionally at the University of Dallas and has served four parishes. He has been a priest in residence for two years at St. Patrick, which averages about 3,200 worshippers on weekends.
At St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Church in Plano, he instituted the first-ever parish sex-abuse prevention program in the diocese. The program is considered the strictest in the diocese, and it became the model for the diocese's safe environment policy.
"The first person ever fingerprinted in our parish was Father Libone," said Terry Wooliscroft, the staff member at St. Elizabeth who initiated the program. "He saw the importance of having a program doing everything we could to protect our children."
Lupe Gonzales said she was sorry to see Father Libone leave St. Patrick.
"St. Thomas is a good parish going through a difficult time," she said. "Father Libone is a good priest and just the right person to help them."
At St. Michael's, Father Bierschenk will replace the Rev. Carl Vogel, 83, who will become pastor emeritus of the congregation of 900 worshippers.
Parishioner Randy Balak of Princeton said the move sends a mixed message. "If he's not following proper procedure where he is, is he going to follow it here?" he asked.
But his brother Larry Balak of Anna reflected the sentiment of other parishioners who said they were willing to give Father Bierschenk a chance.
"The majority of folks will open up their arms to him," he said.
[Staff writer Selwyn Crawford contributed to this report.]
Dallas Priests Told Not to Speak with Reporters
By Susan Hogan/Albach
At a time when many U.S. Catholics are calling for greater openness from church leaders, the Dallas Diocese is restricting priests from talking to reporters without permission from spokesmen for Bishop Charles V. Grahmann.
The diocese's policy is longstanding but hasn't been strictly enforced since the child molestation trial of former priest Rudy Kos in 1997. The diocese is invoking the policy again in light of its controversial decisions to reassign two priests for failing to do criminal background checks on some church employees and volunteers.
The diocese said the high volume of media coverage of the clergy sex scandals across the country also was a factor. The coverage increased this week because of the unprecedented summit on the scandals between top Vatican officials and U.S. cardinals.
"Our priests are being bushwhacked at every turn," said diocesan spokesman Bronson Havard. "I've gotten lots of e-mails from priests complaining about the way the media is treating them."
Dr. Anantha Babbili, a professor of journalism ethics at Texas Christian University, said the restrictions were shortsighted. He predicted a stifling of information that would make reporting more difficult.
"The policy is an overreaction given the extent of the revelations happening in the Catholic Church," he said. "At a time when the church needs to be free and open to regain public trust, we're seeing the exact opposite on the part of church leadership."
But Dr. John Norris, a Catholic theologian at the University of Dallas, said that he empathizes with the diocese's desire to "preserve the integrity" of information given to the media.
"The trouble is that in America, the general tendency when there's a blockage of information is to suspect the worst," he said. "The policy of reviewing interviews by priests may not be well-interpreted by the media or society in general."
Priests were reminded of the restrictions in correspondence sent by the diocese this week. They were also called by telephone last week and told not to talk to reporters or allow them on site without approval from Mr. Havard or Chancellor Mary Edlund.
Other religious groups in Dallas do not routinely screen media requests for interviews with their clergy. Mr. Havard said the diocese's screening is necessary "because it's a different time" in the Catholic Church.
"Priests don't always know what's going on," he said. "This way, we can make sure no misinformation gets out."
Dr. Babbili said the public should be skeptical of what the church means by misinformation.
"If the right information is only the information that protects leadership from adverse public reaction, then that's not the information the public is looking for," he said. "The public wants the church to be open, frank, honest and unhindered in its reaction to public scrutiny."
Until controversies this month involving two Dallas priests, reporters were free to interview any priests who were willing. But a dramatic shift happened after April 4, when The Dallas Morning News published a report stating that its random check of 24 parishes and schools showed that many sites weren't following the diocese's safe environment policy.
The policy requires criminal history checks on volunteers and employees who work with children and vulnerable adults. Father Efren Ortega, then of St. James Parish in Oak Cliff, told the newspaper that he hadn't implemented the policy fully.
"When we screen people, we use common sense," Father Ortega said in the April 4 article. "I know who we can trust, and people trust me. When you are in the light of truth, people trust you."
Two days later, he was demoted and reassigned to another parish as an associate. It was the first time in the United States that a Catholic priest had ever been demoted for failing to implement a sexual abuse prevention policy, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
At the time, the diocese was basking in a national spotlight. Its safe-environment policy was being promoted by the bishops' conference as a national model. National media, from The New York Times to The Boston Globe, had written stories about how Dallas was a diocese once rocked by scandal but had taken dramatic steps with its policy to safeguard children from sexual abuse.
Ten days after Father Ortega learned of his demotion, parishioners at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in Dallas were told that their priest, the Rev. Stephen Bierschenk, also was being reassigned for not implementing the policy fully. With the help of an attorney and public relations experts in his parish, the priest used the media to protest the bishop's decision.
The diocese said more priests might be reassigned if an audit now under way shows they haven't implemented the policy. The audit of 66 parishes and 35 schools is expected to be completed next month. Bishop Grahmann, who initially said the results wouldn't be made public, recently reversed his position.
No uniform policy on media interviews exists for Catholic dioceses around the country. The policy in the Fort Worth Diocese is to forward media queries to the public information officer, though it's not a requirement. In the Austin Diocese, priests are also free to talk with the media.
"We can talk to the media, but almost nobody feels comfortable doing so right now," said Father William Brooks, pastor of St. Albert the Great Catholic Church in Austin.
But Monsignor Edward Jordon, pastor of St. John Neumann Catholic Church in Austin, said it was important for priests to speak out.
"Gag orders on priests only make it seem like there's something to cover up," he said. "We shouldn't be afraid to speak the truth."
Priest Says Farewell to Parish
By Kathy A. Goolsby
The Rev. Stephen Bierschenk had good news for parishioners during Sunday's noon Mass at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Church in East Dallas.
"The Diocese of Dallas doesn't extend to Siberia," he said.
Amid the laughter that followed, Father Bierschenk assured the more than 600 people crowded into the sanctuary that he was only kidding. His new assignment to St. Michael Catholic Church in McKinney is only about 30 miles away, not the other side of the globe.
"You certainly will see me again," he said.
Father Bierschenk, 51, is one of two priests reassigned by the Catholic Diocese of Dallas this month for not fully implementing the diocese's safe-environment policy by completing criminal-background checks for employees and volunteers. The policy, considered a national model, was instituted after child-molestation cases involving former Dallas priest Rudy Kos.
Since the announcement, many parishioners of St. Thomas Aquinas have protested their pastor's removal from the church he has led for 13 years. But on his final day to celebrate Mass at the church, Father Bierschenk urged the parishioners to move forward and begin the healing process.
"St. Peter issued a simple challenge, and it's a challenge I issue to you: Let yourself be built into a spiritual house," he said. "In all that's gone on in the last few weeks, it's been easy to forget why we're here. We're not here because of any one building or any one collection; we're here because of the people."
In a letter to parish members inserted into Sunday's program, Father Bierschenk wrote that his dispute with the diocese pales in importance next to the discord that has developed between the parish and the diocese. But he wrote that he believes the diocese is willing to join him in finding ways to regain the parish members' trust and confidence.
During Sunday's service, many of those parishioners wept as Father Bierschenk reminisced about his 17 years at St. Thomas Aquinas, the first four as assistant pastor. Others chuckled as he recalled one small boy who approached the priest at the altar rail and asked if he was Jesus.
"We have laughed together and cried together," Father Bierschenk said. "We have accomplished some wonderful things, and you have made me a better priest. In the last few weeks, I have experienced a true outpouring of love, and I humbly thank you for that gift."
His words were met with a standing ovation from the congregation. Minutes later, they joined him in singing, "The strife is over, the battle done ..." as almost 100 children followed several older youths carrying the Communion wine, water and Eucharist up the center aisle.
"We always carry the gifts to the front, but that's the first time everyone else came, too," said Mitchell Goulding, 11, as he settled back in his pew.
Mitchell said he will miss Father Bierschenk because he's always nice to the children and he has a great sense of humor. Mitchell's favorite memory of the priest happened during a football banquet catered by an outside company.
"The food was nasty and someone had their dog there eating, too," Mitchell said. "He came up to me and said, 'Look, they're serving dog food.'"
Mitchell's mother, Kasandra Goulding, said the parish children might be the ones most affected by Father Bierschenk's departure.
"He's really built up the school and opened the door for all the children," said Mrs. Goulding, whose family joined St. Thomas Aquinas eight years ago.
Plans are in the works to add more classes to the school, she said. But there is concern that some members will leave the church because of Father Bierschenk's removal, and it will be difficult to raise the funds needed for the school's expansion, she said.
But the pastor said he has faith the parishioners will not let that happen.
"This is a parish made up of many young families, and I believe we have very strong leaders in those families," Father Bierschenk said. "The school was started before I got here, and I believe that will continue."
The Rev. Kenneth Reisor, the church's deacon, told the congregation the reality of Father Bierschenk's reassignment finally hit him when he saw the pastor's belongings packed in boxes. He echoed Father Bierschenk's message of moving forward.
"One of the things we must do to have a healthy hello to the new pastor is to have a healthy goodbye to Father Bierschenk," Father Reisor said.
After the service, long lines formed as people waited to offer words of encouragement to Father Bierschenk. Ani Jabr, 27, fought back tears as he hugged the pastor of the church he joined in 1993.
"When he's talking, I definitely feel the Lord Jesus speaking through him," Mr. Jabr said. "I've tried several churches, and this is the only one where I sometimes find myself weeping during the service. He's definitely touched my heart."
Father Bierschenk will report to the McKinney church Friday, two days after the 26th anniversary of his ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. As he stood in the warm sunlight Sunday, the priest said he was ready for his next assignment.
"I object to the way things were handled, but I'm at peace with the decision," he said. "I'm looking forward to meeting the people in McKinney and making lots of new friends there."
Bishop Accountability © 2003