Posted June 23, 2003
Healer Bishops Are Sent to Ease Churches' PainBy Laurie Goodstein
Taken from the New York Times
ST. LOUIS, June 21 覧 Seventeen years ago, the Vatican dispatched a 53-year-old New York priest named Harry J. Flynn to take over as bishop in a Louisiana diocese. His assignment was to rescue the faith of the Roman Catholics there whose children had been sexually violated by the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, in the first nationally notorious case of a pedophile priest.
The bishop could not fix everything in Lafayette, La., but in eight years he helped repair the damage. Today, as Archbishop Flynn, he closed the spring meeting of the nation's bishops with a progress report on the "monumental effort" they have undertaken to adopt new policies to prevent sexual abuse.
"There is still a long road ahead of us," said Archbishop Flynn, who now heads the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. But he added: "Our commitment has not wavered. We have made a pledge to our people and to the people of this nation and especially to the vulnerable ones, and we will keep that pledge."
He announced that the bishops have formed a committee to consider guidelines on the housing, financial support and monitoring of abusive priests who were removed from working in the ministry but not from the priesthood, the situation for many of the offenders.
Archbishop Flynn was the original "fixer" bishop, but now he is part of a growing subset. After nearly 20 years of sporadic sexual abuse scandals culminating in last year's four-alarm crisis, there is now a small company of at least eight American bishops who have been called on by the pope to rush into troubled dioceses and help extinguish the flames.
Many are younger than 67 覧 the average age of bishops appointed by Pope John Paul II these days. Some are dynamic and forceful; others have a humble touch. The work requires multiple skills: reaching out to victims and their families, comforting parishioners, disciplining bad priests and reassuring good ones, negotiating with prosecutors and lawyers, raising money to pay off settlements.
Two of the bishops have done double duty, each now on his second consecutive assignment to reconstruct dioceses left in a shambles. One is Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan, 64, who flew to Phoenix on Thursday after the resignation of Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien. Bishop O'Brien, who was charged with leaving the scene of a car accident that killed a pedestrian, recently signed an unusual deal with prosecutors to avoid indictment for covering up abusive priests in ministry. Ten years before, Archbishop Sheehan had been sent to Santa Fe after the previous archbishop, Robert F. Sanchez, was forced to resign after admitting to affairs with women. On Archbishop Sanchez's watch, dozens of young people had been sexually assaulted by priests. Many of the priests had been assigned to parishes after stays in a nearby treatment center.
"Don't put your faith in the priests or the bishops," Archbishop Sheehan said he told his flock in Santa Fe, and will now tell the Catholics of Phoenix. "Put your faith in the Lord. Put your faith where it can't be hurt."
In interviews this week between sessions, these bishops said that prayer pulls them through, despair is not an option, and in time it is possible to see measurable results. They acknowledged that not all is well in their dioceses, that there are still aggrieved victims and alienated Catholics, but they sounded confident that some healing was going on.
The fraternity of fixers includes Bishop Wilton D. Gregory in Belleville, Ill., who is president of the bishops' conference; Bishop Sean P. O'Malley of Palm Beach, Fla., and before that, Fall River, Mass.; Joseph A. Galante, coadjutor bishop of Dallas; Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee; and Bishop Daniel F. Walsh of Santa Rosa, Calif.
Two other bishops have served as interim administrators: Bishop Richard G. Lennon, in Boston; and Bishop Robert N. Lynch of St. Petersburg, who twice took the helm temporarily in Palm Beach after two consecutive bishops assigned there admitted to sexually abusing minors. Boston is still without a permanent replacement for Cardinal Bernard F. Law six months after he was forced out by a torrent of newly released documents showing that he knew of child abusers among his priests.
The Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Catholic weekly America, said in an interview that Vatican officials were acutely aware that the fixer for Boston must have a clean track record on the abuse issue. "The Vatican doesn't like to be embarrassed by all these scandals," he said. But he questioned whether, as the years pass, this team of firefighting bishops will have any edge over their brethren in their careers because, he said, "As time goes on, more and more of the bishops who get appointed will have no bad record on sexual abuse."
Three years ago, Bishop Walsh arrived in Santa Rosa to take over a diocese that was in turmoil because of $16 million in debt from sexual abuse settlements and a bishop who spent church money for personal use.
He visited parishes and hired auditors, publishing their findings in the diocesan newspaper. In his first year there, auditors identified 22 areas that needed improvement; last year, he said, there were none. A $20 million fund-raising campaign collected $17 million 覧 "encouraging," he said, for a diocese that includes depressed logging areas as well as wealthy wineries.
"You show the people that we're open, we have nothing to hide," he said in an interview. "We're not playing games with their funds."
Above all, he said: "You trust the people's faith. Their faith is very strong, and these crises or challenges make them more aware of how important their faith is to them in their everyday life."
The bishops said they sometimes try to earn back the trust of Catholics through small pastoral gestures. In some of these dioceses, victims feel they have been snubbed by bishops and chancery staff members, left begging for an acknowledgment of their pain, or for help paying for therapy or medical care.
In Phoenix, Archbishop Sheehan said that one of his first official acts as interim administrator was to authorize a private plane for the diocese's chancellor and two vicars general to travel in time to attend the funeral in northern Arizona of the carpenter killed in the former bishop's accident. He says he instructed the officials to offer the man's family money for funeral expenses.
Sandy Simonson, a leader of the Phoenix chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a lay group calling for accountability in the church, said that many Catholics there had grown deeply disillusioned when they learned of the sexual abuse cover-ups of their former bishop and welcomed a new one. "The first thing he needs to do is to meet with the people, the faithful Catholics," Ms. Simonson said.
Archbishop Sheehan said he had already learned that lesson in Santa Fe. He says that there he has spoken with more than 150 people who said they were abused by priests, and prefers to meet with them individually. He said he did not listen to the advice of some church lawyers that expressions of remorse could be used in lawsuits against the church.
"I felt like I needed to be a priest and talk to people and assure them of the apology of the church for what has happened to them," Archbishop Sheehan said in a news conference here on Friday. "I have felt it is better to make a mistake by being too conciliatory rather than listening to the attorneys."
Archbishop Flynn was recently criticized in St. Paul-Minneapolis for canceling a meeting this spring with the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. He was invited to meet with them here in St. Louis, too, but said he did not have time during the bishops meeting. At a news conference today, he said he preferred to meet on a "local level" with victims.
"I don't want these meetings to be anything but pastoral experiences," he said, "not a circuslike atmosphere."
The other bishop who has been called to fix two dioceses is Sean O'Malley, a Capuchin friar, who was dispatched last September to Palm Beach. Catholics there had just been hit with the news that their second bishop in a row 覧 the one they had thought would be their fixer, Anthony J. O'Connell 覧 had admitted to abusing minors.
Bishop O'Malley also has experience at healing a diocese in pain. He had worked for 10 years in Fall River, where the Rev. James Porter was accused of molesting dozens of children. Bishop O'Malley reached a settlement with the victims and instituted a policy on preventing abuse that would be studied by other dioceses.
At their meeting here today, the bishops heard a report on the progress they have made since last June, when they met in Dallas and introduced a sweeping set of policies intended to stem the abuse crisis. Among the steps taken last year, Archbishop Flynn was drafted to take over the chairmanship of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. Once again he was serving as fixer by replacing a bishop who had lost his credibility on the abuse issue, this time Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H., a diocese that this spring was granted criminal immunity in exchange for admitting that it failed to protect children adequately.
Today Archbishop Flynn reviewed the bishops' progress toward removing priests from ministry, appointing a national lay review board in an effort to keep the bishops accountable, and preparing for teams of auditors, some former Federal Bureau of Investigation agents, who will arrive in each diocese to check whether the bishops are complying with the new policies. After 20 years in which every bishop was essentially expected to be the "fixer" of his own diocese, the bishops have called in the outside contractors.
Archbishop Sheehan said that after 10 years in Santa Fe, he was seeing signs of new life in his diocese. He said he had just ordained five men to the priesthood, four as transitional deacons, and the largest class of permanent deacons ever 覧 61 men in all. He said the number of registered Catholic families had increased by 50 percent.
"So it doesn't have to be all gloom and doom," he said. "I can see real hope for the church in Phoenix just as I have seen hope for the church in Santa Fe."