Catholic Church leaders in Central Florida have pledged to protect children at all costs as an international crisis captivates the organization with more than 1 billion members.
“It never should have happened. I apologize for it. I beg them to forgive us,” Orlando Bishop Norbert Dorsey said.
Dorsey, bishop of one of the largest dioceses in Florida, is speaking of the darkest time in his years as a spiritual leader. Priests who are pedophiles have been exposed by victims, who are now adults.
“We thought it was something like alcoholism, or compulsive gambling, or something — that it was a moral fault … so it could happen, in those past years that someone was passed on, thinking he’s ‘reformed’ and given a new start and all that sort of thing. But it was disastrous. It was disastrous,” Dorsey said.
The conspiracy of silence has been broken by people like a 41-year-old Central Florida man, who preferred to remain unidentified.
“These men that act out like this are very sly and very good at fooling people,” the unidentified man said.
He said he was repeatedly abused nearly 30 years ago by Art Bendixson, a priest who served in the Orlando Diocese until he was removed in 1994 when victims started talking.
“I don’t think I ever felt angry or bitter toward the Catholic Church. I think that I always wanted to go and say, ‘Did you know this was going on? Did you know this is what happened?” And I wanted them to say, ‘We believe you,'” the unidentified man said.
The church did believe him and many others, who made credible reports about holy men who did unholy things to them as children. Today, there is a renewed effort to clean the church.
Rev. Richard Walsh is a favorite with a fourth grade class at St. Margaret Mary Catholic Church in Winter Park. But he couldn’t be in close contact with children unless he had been fingerprinted and passed a criminal background check. The sins of other fathers have cast a dark shadow.
“It’s painful to the extent that, in many ways, it’s a reflection upon not just individual priests, but it’s a reflection on the entire priesthood,” Walsh said.
Walsh understands the need for safeguards to ensure children are protected.
One of the things the Diocese of Orlando has done to ensure children stay safe is to establish a crisis response team. Included in that group are a police officer, a lawyer, a psychologist, a parent, and a former victim.
The team demands more openness from the church. The Rev. Bob Markunas, a pastor of an Orlando church, said crime and sin can’t fester where there’s no secrecy.
“We can’t continue to say that the bishop and the priests, and the deacons and the pope, are the only ones in the church. There’s a massive billion people that belong to this great organization, the Catholic Church. They need to start taking more of a role in it,” Markunas said.
New construction at Catholic churches and schools looks far different these days. Glass and windows are used whereever possible. Church leaders said when it comes to children nothing can happen anymore behind closed doors. Even old doors can be modified in an enlightened church.
As church leaders of the future study for the priesthood at a seminary in South Florida, courses are designed to weed out those who might exploit children.
Malaquias Rosa is a second-year seminarian, who has already passed a battery of psychological tests. Sexuality is as key to his studies as theology.
“And that means denying, denying myself. Priesthood is a sacrifice,” Rosa said.
It’s a sacrifice that not everyone can make, theology student Gilbert Medina said.
“Any seminarian preparing for priesthood has to make that choice. Am I willing to live up to what the Catholic Church is asking?” Medina said.
It’s asking for celibacy, chastity and morality. Is that too much to ask?
“The very fact that this is something that is not clustered to just one group of people, being priests. It’s an illness that affects everyone across the board, so whether you’re married or not, that is not the issue,” the Rev. Miguel Gonzalez said.
Clinical psychologist Dr. Steve Jordan has treated both abusers and victims. He agrees the priesthood, and its vow of celibacy, doesn’t create pedophiles. But child sex abusers are drawn to it.
“Those organizations, in which the role of leadership involves trust and obedience and a large supply of children, is breeding ground, and very attractive to pedophiles,” Jordan said.
“First of all, there has to be a recommendation, sort of a clear record of that man’s past,” Dorsey said.
Dorsey said the Orlando Diocese now scrutinizes every incoming priest or seminarian, looking for a history of sexual misconduct. He continues to minister to those who have been abused in past years and grateful that some have found peace.
“One thing we did learn was forgiveness, and sometimes forgiveness is hard, and sometimes to forgive is probably the hardest thing that you’ll do,” Dorsey said.
But he did, and the Catholic Church prays others will, too.