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How Did Local Archdiocese Escape The Scandals?

May 12, 2002 | The Hartford Courant

Whenever the subject of the Catholic Church's horrid pedophilia scandal is raised, someone invariably asks me how Hartford managed to avoid it.

With explosive revelations in Boston and Bridgeport, why not the Archdiocese of Hartford, where more than 500 priests serve almost three-quarters of a million Catholics?

First of all, Hartford escaped relatively unscathed. The Courant reported in March that the Archdiocese was the target of a dozen civil lawsuits since 1990 alleging sexual misconduct by four diocesan priests, and paid nearly $2.5 million to settle those suits. The incidents allegedly took place in the 1970s and `80s.

In contrast, the Archdiocese of Boston this month backed out of a settlement said to be worth $15 million to $30 million for the 86 victims of former priest John Geoghan, saying the deal wouldn't leave any money for victims of more than 80 other miscreant priests.

Without minimizing the incidents that did occur, Hartford nonetheless had many fewer of them. I think several factors, besides a certain amount of luck, were at work; here are three:

Leadership. The Archdiocese took the problem seriously long before most others did. On April 20, 1990, Archbishop John Whealon issued a rigorous policy against sexual misconduct by priests and other diocesan employees.

The policy, affirmed by Whealon's successor, Archbishop Daniel Cronin, says that plausible allegations must be investigated immediately by a board composed of laymen and clerics.

If an allegation is supported by sufficient evidence, the priest is promptly removed from his ministerial duties and sent for medical evaluation. The policy calls for reporting the incident to the proper civil authorities, cooperation with their investigation, and for providing help to victims and their families, said Rev. John Gatzak, director of communications for the Archdiocese.

Cronin, considered a no-nonsense administrator, has utilized the policy to remove wayward clerics, several priests told me.

One suspects Cardinals Bernard Law and Edward Egan, as they twist sadly in the wind, wish they had done something similar.

Good priests. The Archdiocese has had many, many outstanding priests over the years. Rev. Tom Goeckler put young Eddie Perez on a path that led to the mayor's office. the Rev. Cal Gengras is a longtime champion of people with mental disabilities. the Rev. Tom Barry spurred the redevelopment of the former Veeder-Root factory. These men and many others set a high standard for pastoral service. And, many are homegrown. Though Geoghan was an exception in Boston, there are usually fewer secrets about homegrown folk.

Mental health. This spring doctors at the Institute of Living, Hartford's nationally renowned psychiatric hospital, made the startling claim that they had been deceived by some church leaders regarding treatment of abusive priests. They said information about the priests was sometimes withheld, and that warnings were ignored, to keep the priests in the ministry.

This controversy mostly applied to Bridgeport and Boston priests and overshadowed what has been a strong relationship between the Institute and Archdiocese of Hartford for many years. The late Rev. John Kiely, a therapist as well as the Institute's chaplain and director of pastoral services, helped develop a program of psychological testing for seminarians, again well before many other dioceses took this step. the Rev. James Gill, a staff psychiatrist at the Institute, was instrumental in developing counseling programs for priests in need. This had to help.

Of course, Hartford's comparative good fortune doesn't do much to lessen the pain and shame of what has been the worst church scandal in decades, if not centuries. It's an opportunity, if the more progressive church leaders are willing to take it, to open a dialogue on the ordination of women and making celibacy optional. I don't believe celibacy causes pedophilia, but it limits the pool of qualified applicants.

But if this is wishful thinking under the current conservative leadership, there is a specific step, suggested by Gatzak, that the American bishops could take at their meeting next month. They could move to the forefront, become a major force, in protecting children from abuse in all situations. They could turn an awful tragedy, over time, into something positive. We'll see what happens.

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