With a community commission appointed by Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland giving its first recommendations today on how the church should handle the red-hot issue of sexual abuse of minors by priests, one thing is clear.
Clergy, laity and victims all are saying, “Do something.”
Much of that message is directed at the larger church, an ancient institution buffeted by a wave of scandals in the United States and symbolized in some people’s minds by a meeting of U.S. cardinals and Vatican officials this week that failed to produce a consensus on such matters as a “one strike,” “zero tolerance policy” for defrocking sexually abusive priests.
But even people who say Milwaukee has done more than most dioceses in helping victims and holding perpetrators accountable want policies and standards here refined and toughened. And everyone is looking toward Dallas, where U.S. bishops may well forge a “one strike” policy in their formal response to the crisis at a June meeting.
“I would be surprised if we don’t see action being taken by the American bishops in June,” said Father Frank Malloy, 42, pastor of St. Luke’s parish in Brookfield. “I think the laity is too upset to sit back and accept a wait-and-see policy. If they are mad in my parish, I’m sure they are mad in other parishes.
“That whole process is going pretty fast for the way that Rome normally works. Rome is generally talking about things in terms of decades, at least, and our laity wants action now. I don’t know how you can make it any more clear to the bishops, ‘Hey, our folks want action now.’ ”
Father Dennis Ackeret, 60, pastor of Christ King parish in Wauwatosa and the dean who represents priests on portions of Milwaukee’s west side and inner city, said, “I don’t have any expectations for the commission at this point. I know they are working with past and present cases. The only thing I could say is I’m expecting perhaps some clarification on how we ought to continue to proceed and how we ought to change things. I know their recommendations will be followed.”
More action needed
Ackeret echoes those who think more needs to be done nationally when the bishops meet in Dallas.
“I’m expecting, and I will be disappointed if we don’t get something that’s strong. I think there’s a lot more pressure on us to take a deeper, stronger response to issues like this. I can’t see any case where there is someone who could be involved in pedophilia or abuse of minors who could be put back into service somewhere. I just don’t see how that could happen.”
Joe Cerniglia, whom serial abuser Father William Effinger acknowledged molesting in Waukesha County in the 1980s, said the church should not be treated differently from any other organization and its priests no differently from other professionals.
“Right now, we are basically leaving it in their hands as to whether they report these crimes or not,” Cerniglia said. “They should not have a choice of whether to report it, and they should face consequences if they fail to do so. Given their track record, they haven’t done a very good job policing themselves.”
Cerniglia said people should not get confused on the issue: “The issue is not homosexuality or celibacy or whether women should be ordained. The issue is how the church handles crimes and whether or not they are going to be held accountable for their actions.”
When priests of the archdiocese gathered Wednesday to discuss the sexual abuse issue with Weakland, the top concerns were: helping victims, protecting children and holding perpetrators accountable, according to several priests.
But there also were concerns for protecting priests against false accusations and, to some extent, concerns that the church might ban homosexuals from the priesthood.
Asked to respond to that, Ackeret said, “I’m concerned, and I think a lot of the priests are concerned, that suddenly this will be turned into a homophobic issue. There are a lot of peripheral things that people are trying to drag in and say this has to be addressed – ‘the pedophilia issue is because of celibacy, it’s because of homosexuality, it’s because we have a hierarchy in the church, it’s because we don’t have the Latin Mass.’
“Everybody who has any kind of objection to the church seems to be ready to jump on the bandwagon and say this is the reason why this has happened. And the reason it’s happened is because there is pedophilia. Pedophilia is a sickness that some men have. It’s not limited to the priesthood, and it’s not limited to celibate people.”
Broad change needed
Father Scott Leannah, 36, of St. Andrew parish in Delavan – the eighth youngest priest in the archdiocese and the youngest pastor – has a different viewpoint. Some priests blame the news media for making the problems seem worse than they are, he said, but he sees a need for major change.
“My feeling is that the pedophilia crisis is indicative of some real flaws in the Catholic Church, and that is that we ordinary priests and the people in the pews are not being listened to, are not being treated like mature Christians, but rather it really seems like the hierarchy don’t seem real interested in what we think or in what we have to say.
“In our diocese, thankfully, Project Benjamin has been in place for a number of years, and so we have a vehicle, and a pretty effective vehicle at that, for addressing these issues. Yet, there are still these guys working who have been known to have had substantive allegations in the past, and I think we need a sense of some clarity here and some truth.”
Little hope of change
Some critics, however, hold out little hope of significant change here or nationally.
Frank Martinelli, one of the founders of an organization for survivors of sexual abuse by priests, summarized the actions of the church leadership as “too little, far too late.”
“It’s a great example of an organization where the leaders talk only to themselves,” said Martinelli, who successfully sued the church for abuse he suffered at the hands of a priest on the East Coast when he was a child. “It was a closed door meeting, no victims in the room, no advocates, no local parish leaders. They talked among themselves, so the analysis of the problem was limited to the mind-set that gave rise to the problem itself.”
Robert Elliott, a lawyer who represented many victims of sex abuse by priests, said the church leaders who covered up for abusive priests did far more damage than any individual priest.
Elliott was particularly critical of the apparent willingness of the Catholic Church to allow priests who are not considered “serial” molesters to continue as active priests.
“What they are saying is that there is a level of tolerance within the church of sexual abuse of children,” Elliott said. “What level of abuse do you have to rise to before you are sanctioned? If you have one or two kids who you’ve abused, are you an underachiever? Does it take eight or 10 before something is done? If it’s eight, what do you say to the first seven victims and their families?”