Finding the Right Course of Action

CBS NEWS | April 29th, 2002

(CBS) Catholic dioceses around the nation are reacting in various ways to the clerical sex scandal that has enveloped the church in the last four months.

At least 174 priests suspected of molesting minors have either resigned or been taken off duty in 28 states and the District of Columbia since the scandal erupted in January, a nationwide review of Roman Catholic dioceses by The Associated Press found.

The review also showed that in 18 other states, where priests have not been taken off the job, dioceses still have responded to the crisis in a variety of ways. They include turning over allegations to prosecutors, scouring personnel records to see whether old claims were properly handled, and reviewing and publicizing policies for handling complaints.

In Rhode Island, the Diocese of Providence — in a state where 63 percent of its residents were baptized Catholic — has said it has taken steps to avoid the rash of allegations that has plagued other diocese around the country.

The diocese's policy is to report all serious, credible accusations to law enforcement authorities.

Thirty-eight lawsuits have been filed against the diocese, alleging child sexual abuse by 11 priests and one nun. Earlier this month, Cranston priest Daniel Azzarone was indicted on multiple sexual-assault charges for allegedly raping two males over a one year period while he was an assistant pastor at St. Mary Church.

In the end, the review found only four states — Arkansas, Tennessee, Utah and Wyoming — where the scandal seems to have had no impact on the way the church operates.

"It's been years since I've met a diocesan attorney who said, `I'm lucky, I haven't had any cases,"' said Patrick Schiltz, a lawyer who has defended dioceses against hundreds of claims.

AP reporters across the country interviewed Catholic officials last week about the scandal's impact in their dioceses. The information they collected helps demonstrate how the crisis has developed in just four months.

For instance, bishops have given law enforcement authorities details of claims against at least 260 clergymen. Some of those priests are among those taken off duty but others are long retired, and state attorneys say many of the cases are probably too old to prosecute.

The number of priests disciplined since January may be higher than 174, since several dioceses would not say how many clergy they suspended. Schiltz said the number sounded low.

Even if the figure were higher, it would still likely represent less than half of 1 percent of the 46,075 priests in the United States. And many of the complaints come from decades ago. The allegations that prompted Bishop Anthony O'Connell of Palm Beach, Fla., to resign dated from the 1970s, for example.

"The problem is not that widespread," Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick said on "Fox News Sunday," addressing the impression held by some that the problem is epidemic.

"This is not a question which really is destroying the church. It is hurting the church's credibility, absolutely, because it wasn't handled right," McCarrick said.

But such cases support Bishop Wilton Gregory's recent observation that even old complaints are painful and damaging to the church.

"We, your bishops, believed that we had made considerable progress in dealing with sexual abuse of minors and in creating safe environments for children. As the details of troubling cases from the past emerged, that sense of progress has been all but wiped out," Gregory, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said last week.

While the church had faced abuse scandals in the past, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law's admission in January that he allowed a pedophile priest to continue to serve sparked a new level of public anger.

Bishops were pressured to disclose details of abuse claims, and hundreds more people came forward to say they had been molested. In California and Massachusetts alone, prosecutors and private lawyers said nearly 550 people have made new allegations of abuse this year.

Priests in Maine, California and Michigan have been either ordered — or volunteered — to stand before their parishioners and admit they had abused young people years ago. A Gulfport, La., priest had to take a polygraph test after he was accused of abusing a former church employee. Church officials say he passed the test and they dismissed the charges.

"The momentum and public opinion which drives that momentum has shifted so dramatically," said Jeffrey Anderson, a Minnesota attorney who has brought hundreds of sex abuse claims against the church. "This is a time of reformation and awareness that we've never seen before."

Yet church leaders say the dearth of claims that abuse happened recently shows their efforts to prevent molestation are working. Victims, however, wonder why information about old cases is only being revealed now.

They feel it supports their argument that bishops knew of priestly misconduct but failed to disclose wrongdoing until the latest wave of public pressure forced their hands.

Victims also say it's unrealistic to expect children to come forward immediately after they've been assaulted.

"You don't see 5- and 10- and 15-year-olds walking into the chancery to disclose abuse by priests," said David Clohessy of St. Louis, national director for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "The unfortunate psychological reality is that it takes years, sometimes decades, for victims to realize they've been hurt."

Law enforcement authorities have responded to the crisis by pressuring dioceses to turn over records of abuse claims. Prosecutors in Cincinnati, Suffolk County, N.Y., and Philadelphia have gone a step further, asking grand juries to review allegations against priests and how dioceses responded to them.

Several of the allegations now under review have been made against men who are in nursing homes or have died, the review showed. Oregon allows victims of child abuse to file claims even if the crime happened decades earlier, and a claim is pending there against a priest who died six years ago.

Advocates for victims say the goal of pursuing such cases is to compel dioceses to admit the abuse occurred.

"For many of us it's hard to move on until we have an apology or some type of admission or acknowledgment that we were hurt," said Clohessy, who claims he was abused as a child.

Dealing with offending clergy remains a contentious issue for the church.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George drew a distinction between the act of child sex abuse as intolerable, and the perpetrator whose case should be viewed individually for the possibility of reform.

"Zero tolerance for this kind of behavior of course, there is no question," George said on NBC's "Meet The Press."

"Zero tolerance in the sense that one strike if you like, one any possible kind of offense of this nature, means that therefore you are ejected from the priesthood, there has to be some discussion," he said.

George said in the current atmosphere the easiest road to take would be to advocate automatic ejection of offending priests from the Church, similar to mandatory jail sentences for some crimes.

But he said each case should be looked at individually. "It's always wrong, and terribly wrong. It's a terrible crime, it's an awful sin against God," George said.

"But then once you say that if there is some possibility of reform of one's life ... what do you do with that person?" he said. "It's easy to disavow someone and put him out in the street and then society has to deal with him."

Church observers believe the scandal will cool after the U.S. bishops meet in June to vote on new abuse policies. Still, many lawsuits in Boston and other dioceses are winding through the courts. And the reviews by prosecutors and grand juries could lead to more charges.

Gregory said the crisis will only end "when people feel that their kids are safe."

İMMII CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved.