Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk says his decision to suspend three priests Monday closes one of the most difficult and painful chapters of the clergy sexual abuse crisis in Southwest Ohio.
In his most extensive comments about the crisis in months, Pilarczyk said he regrets that it took so long to remove priests who had admitted abusing children nearly two decades ago.
He also acknowledged that, in hindsight, he might have handled some of the sexual abuse cases differently.
But despite demands from his critics, the 69-year-old archbishop said he does not see many significant reforms ahead for his administration or his archdiocese.
“I think we have learned better how to handle this,” Pilarczyk said Monday in an interview. “I don’t believe there is any specific undertaking we could do now. People are looking for good priestly ministry, and I think that is where the answer is.”
He said church leaders already have done a great deal to improve the way they respond to child abuse allegations.
In the past year alone, he said, the archdiocese has updated its Child Protection Decree, revamped the Child Protection Review Board and implemented the new rules approved by U.S. bishops at their Dallas conference last year.
First among those new rules is the “zero-tolerance policy” that requires the removal of all priests accused of abuse, including the three priests suspended Monday.
Those priests: Thomas Brunner, David Kelley and Daniel Pater were placed on paid administrative leave after the archdiocese’s Child Protection Review Board found evidence that they abused children nearly two decades ago.
The move means the archdiocese now has formally suspended all priests who had remained active in church ministry despite past allegations of sexual misconduct.
“That is where we are now, and I think that is a better place than where we were before,” the archbishop said.
Critics, however, say Pilarczyk’s decision to suspend the priests is a necessary step that should have been taken years ago.
“It’s always a step forward when known or suspected abusers are removed,” said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests. “But the fundamental question is why so little, so late, so reluctantly.”
He said Pilarczyk and other church officials still seem resistant to change. He noted that the suspensions came 18 months after the archbishop disclosed that five priests, including the three newly suspended priests, remained active in the church despite “substantiated allegations” of abuse.
Although all five eventually left their ministries and all five now are suspended Clohessy and other critics say church officials failed to appreciate the threat those priests posed to children.
Now, they say, Pilarczyk and other church leaders must show they have changed not only church policies but also their own attitudes.
“Are they just complying because they have been caught? Or is there going to be a difference in sharing and communicating and working collaboratively to heal this,” said Nan Fischer, director of Voice of the Faithful in Cincinnati.
But Pilarczyk said more change is unlikely. He said he and other church leaders have approved the reforms needed to protect children.
“There’s no handbook on this. It’s still being written,” the archbishop said. “It’s easy for people to say, ‘You should have done more. You should have moved faster.'”
Pilarczyk said he would take steps soon to have the five suspended priests forced from the priesthood, as he is required to do under the zero-tolerance policy. But he said he still does not believe the priests are a threat to children.
“The changes were necessary in the social atmosphere in which we now live,” the archbishop said of the new rules. “If I thought those five priests posed a threat, I would have removed them a long time ago.”