About two dozen victims of sexual abuse by priests met behind closed doors with four Roman Catholic cardinals and other church leaders here today as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops prepared to confront a wrenching issue that has created a deep crisis for the church in the United States.
In what was described as a sometimes emotional encounter, some of the victims said they told the cardinals and bishops that they had to take more personal responsibility for the sex abuse scandal in the church. They said they told the church leaders that any bishop who allowed a priest known to have sexually abused a minor to remain in his ministry should resign.
“The problem is not just the offenders,” said Peter Isely, a member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP). “It’s the offenders and those who covered up.”
David Clohessy, national director of SNAP, said the church leaders “politely listened” but made no response to the victims’ statements. “A lot of the survivors bared their hearts and bared their souls,” Clohessy said. “There were a lot of tears.”
Clohessy said that at the end of one meeting, some of the bishops shook hands with Janet and Horace Patterson of Conway Springs, Kan., whose son, Eric, was sexually abused by a priest at the age of 12 and killed himself 17 years later.
Today’s meetings, first with the eight members of the conference’s ad hoc committee on sexual abuse and then with the cardinals, appeared to have eased the sense of tension and rancor that has been building between leaders of the victims groups and the bishops throughout the year. Barbara Blaine, the founder of SNAP who earlier in the day warned that the victims would not be satisfied with “empty words,” thanked the bishops and cardinals for their “openness” and said she hoped the meetings would lead to the adoption of a tougher policy on sexual abuse of minors by priests than has been proposed.
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington said he and the others who listened to the victims were deeply moved by their stories. “We see and we feel and we hear the sorrow in the church and the difficulty in the church that this situation has caused,” he said.
SNAP leaders said they asked to meet with all nine active U.S. cardinals, but only four agreed to do so. In addition to McCarrick, they were Cardinals William Keeler of Baltimore, Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles.
The victims of sexual abuse by priests have repeatedly expressed anger and frustration at what they describe as church leaders’ insensitivity to the problem and its consequences. And while today’s meetings appeared to have eased tensions somewhat, Blaine set the tone for this week’s confrontation over the issue at a news conference earlier in the day. She quoted several high-ranking church leaders as deploring sexual abuse by priests, then noted that the comments were made in 1992, when the bishops also discussed the subject and adopted policies to deal with it.
“So you will bear with us this week as we hold out some skepticism,” Blaine said. “What we have been hearing is not any different than what we heard in 1992. We don’t want empty words or to be told that they’re moved by our stories. We heard that a decade ago.”
Mark Serrano, the Washington representative of SNAP, said the victims’ organization would seek three specific actions by the Conference of Bishops: “Disciplinary procedures” against any bishop who knowingly allowed a sex offender to remain in his ministry, immediate removal of all priests guilty of sexual abuse of a minor, and an independent audit of diocesan personnel and other records related to the sex abuse scandal.
“I believe there are bishops and cardinals coming to Dallas this week hoping that this will be the end,” Serrano said. “This is not the end.”
The bishops’ two-day meeting begins Thursday and will include a closed session that afternoon to debate a draft national policy on sexual abuse of minors that was produced by the ad hoc committee. Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the head of the ad hoc committee, said he expected the committee to make “substantial modifications” to the draft policy overnight before it is presented to the full conference on Thursday. But it remained unclear whether the committee or the full conference would accept the demands of victims’ groups to include mechanisms to discipline bishops who tolerate known sex offenders among their priests.
As bishops from around the country arrived here today, they were greeted by a front-page article in the Dallas Morning News that said that about two-thirds of them had allowed priests accused of sexual abuse to remain in their ministries. The newspaper said that estimate was based on a three-month survey and was not disputed by church spokesmen.
The draft national policy that will dominate the Dallas proceedings calls for the immediate removal from the priesthood of any priest who is credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor after the policy is adopted. But one of the proposed policy’s most controversial provisions would allow an exception to this “zero tolerance” approach for priests accused of a single act of sexual abuse in the past.
The exception would apply to any priest “who has been treated for sexual abuse of a minor and who has not been diagnosed as a pedophile and has not committed more than one act of sexual abuse of a minor.”
Critics have also suggested, as the ad hoc committee and the cardinals were told today by the victims, that the draft policy does not adequately address the question of what should be done about bishops, such as Cardinal Bernard F. Law of Boston, who allowed priests to remain in contact with children after they were accused of sexually abusing a minor.
Asked about the “accountability” of bishops for the sex abuse scandal that has so shaken the Catholic Church, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., the president of the bishops conference, said, “The question of accountability of bishops is a burning issue and I have every reason to believe that that particular topic will receive significant debate.”
Gregory said the goals of the Dallas conference were “to protect all of our children, to promote healing and reconciliation with victims and their families and to reach out to those whose faith has been shaken and in some cases destroyed, and to ensure that we bishops act responsibly with regard to allegations and cases of sexual abuse and to bring accountability to our actions in implementing our policies” across the country.
Gregory acknowledged that earlier attempts by church leaders to address the problem of sexual abuse by priests “have not been adequate.” He said one reason the policies adopted in 1992 failed was that they were not mandatory, allowing each bishop to decide whether to implement them. But calling this conference “unprecedented,” Gregory predicted that it would produce a mandatory policy that is “clear, concise and transparent, and is applied uniformly across the United States.”
“The bishops of the United States are committed,” he said, “because we have seen the tragedy of not acting.”
Gregory said that the Vatican had not sent a representative to observe this week’s conference but that he was confident the decisions of the U.S. bishops would be supported in Rome. “The Holy See is very much aware of the severity of the problem we are facing,” he said.