Church’s progress on sex-abuse cases remains under scrutiny

The Seattle Times, June 19, 2003
By Janet I. Tu, Seattle Times staff reporter

As some 270 U.S. Roman Catholic bishops gather in St. Louis today for their annual spring conference, questions still loom about just how much the church is doing to address the clergy sexual-abuse scandal that has buffeted the church for the last 18 months.

A year after U.S. bishops met in Dallas to draft a historic charter to protect minors from sexually abusive priests and punish offenders, the 195 U.S. dioceses are displaying varying levels of commitment to that policy. And the resignation this week of the head of a national board designated by the bishops to monitor compliance has only increased the scrutiny.

Locally, the Seattle Archdiocese has made an effort to be more forthcoming. It has released the number of priests accused of sexual abuse of minors, the number of alleged victims, and the dollar amount spent on the sexual-abuse crisis since 1987. It has not, however, released the names of all 47 priests accused of sexual abuse of minors since the mid-1950s.

Its review board, composed primarily of lay experts and headed by respected retired King County Superior Court Judge Terrence Carroll, began evaluating the cases of 13 accused diocesan priests — all retired or on administrative leave — earlier this month. This week, the archdiocese released the procedures the board will follow as it reviews the cases.

“It’s important that the public knows the process we’re using,” Carroll said. “The days of secrecy are over.”

Still, some members of victims groups — both locally and nationally — say the church isn’t doing enough.

Damage to the bishops’ credibility came earlier this week with the resignation of former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating as head of a national review board established by the bishops last year to monitor dioceses’ compliance.

Keating, a former federal prosecutor and FBI agent, resigned after likening some church leaders to the Mafia.

“To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away; that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church,” he wrote in his resignation letter.

Keating noted in the letter that “most of America’s bishops are fully supportive of the Board’s efforts” but that his comments, “which some bishops found offensive, were deadly accurate.”

Adding further to public scrutiny leading up to the conference was this week’s resignation of Phoenix Bishop Thomas O’Brien, who earlier acknowledged that he had sheltered priests accused of molesting children, and who was arrested this week in a fatal hit-and-run accident.

The resignation of Keating “is alarming and disastrous,” said Milwaukee’s Peter Isely, a national board member of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “I don’t think that anybody was expecting 100 percent results, but I think they were expecting 100 percent effort.”

Locally, some SNAP members contend the Seattle Archdiocese also is not expending 100 percent effort.

“In the last year since Dallas, I’ve seen more of the status quo in that the archdiocese publicly says one thing and then does totally the opposite in the background,” said Scott Brady of Bellevue, a local SNAP member.

A few SNAP members said that while the archdiocese makes public statements about treating victims compassionately, its lawyers are sometimes using heavy-handed tactics. They cited examples of the archdiocese asking for the names and current or last-known addresses of people with whom the alleged victims had had intimate physical contact.

“When we enter into the court of law, just as a plaintiff uses every legal right available to them, we have to do the same,” said Dennis O’Leary, a spokesman for the Seattle archdiocese. “We only ask any personal questions if they’re germane to the allegations that are being made” or to the damages being claimed.

Jim Biteman, a local SNAP member, also thinks the local review board “is yet another example of their PR machine. On the outside it appears to be a positive move. (But) results of their investigations must go through the Archbishop for his concurrence, or spin, prior to the results being made public.”

According to the review-board procedures released this week, the board will make a recommendation to Archbishop Alex Brunett. The archbishop, in turn, will make his decision, which will go to the Vatican for approval or rejection. Information about particular cases will not be made public until the Vatican’s ruling. The archdiocese says it must follow church law, which says no details can be released before the Vatican has ruled.

“I think they (review-board members) have to be judged by the fruit of their work,” said O’Leary, the Seattle Archdiocese spokesman. “Once the actions are taken, the victims will feel that these are serious attempts by the archbishop to address this.”

The board, which will review two to three cases per month, hopes to complete its evaluations of the 13 cases by October or November, Carroll said. The review board already has made recommendations, and Brunett already has made decisions on two cases, which are being sent to the Vatican.

The board is inviting both the accused priests and alleged victims to the meetings at which their cases are being considered.

Carroll says he is not encountering the difficulties Keating encountered in his job. “Time will tell, but I really think this diocese is committed,” Carroll said.

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