Friday, October 2, 2009

Tom Roberts on Archbishop Tomasi's "Indefensible Defense": Abuse Crisis Is about Clerical Privilege

More follow-up to the story about Archbishop Tomasi, the Vatican’s U.N. observer, who stated this week that the problem of abuse of minors by religious authority figures is just as great in other faith communities as in the Catholic church, and that in the Catholic church, it’s largely a matter of gay priests preying on young adolescent boys.

Tom Roberts has a noteworthy statement about Tomasi’s claims at National Catholic Reporter now. It’s entitled “Archbishop Tomasi’s Indefensible Defense.”

Roberts wishes that before folks like Archbishop Tomasi pronounce indignantly on this subject, they’d first read the huge volume of documents produced so far to track the abuse crisis. Many of these are anguished first-hand testimonies of those abused by Catholic religious authority figures when they were children. It is impossible to read these statement without being troubled to the core of ones soul by what has happened for many years within the church, and has been covered up by Catholic pastors.

As Australian bishop Geoffrey Robinson maintains in his superb book, Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (Dublin: Columba, 2007), “If a better church one day emerges from this crisis, it is they [i.e., courageous survivors who have spoken out] alone who must take the credit for creating it” (p. 225). Robinson says that listening to victims of clerical sexual abuse is the most profound spiritual gift he has received in the last 25 years.

Roberts’s conclusion:

While the church has taken admirable steps to deal with the symptoms of the crisis -- making training mandatory and doing background checks and the like -- the much deeper issue, the question of how the institution reached the point where it could protect such crimes for so long while ignoring the pleas of victims, is yet to be answered. It is a question that gets at the heart of our community life and the trust that should exist between laity and clergy. It is a question that demands a deep examination of the clerical, especially hierarchical, culture, its sense of privilege and how, in the future, it might be held accountable.

And the deep, deep problems continue, despite the intense spotlight of publicity that has been shone on these problems for almost a decade now. Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) reported yesterday (and here) that the diocese of Austin, Texas, “continues to respond to proven, admitted and credibly accused pedophile priest cases in a timid, passive, irresponsible way.”

Five months ago, SNAP challenged then bishop Gregory Aymond, who has since been elevated to the position of Archbishop of New Orleans, to seek out anyone who may have been abused in the Austin diocese by Fr. Gregory Patejko, who was transferred to Austin from North Dakota in 1981 after having molested a boy in North Dakota. SNAP’s requests fell on deaf ears.

SNAP has now learned that more than a dozen civil child sex abuse claims have been settled over the past six years against Fr. Rocco Perone, who ministered in Austin from 1957 until 1988, after having been transferred from Oregon to Texas. SNAP notes that, to the best of the organization’s knowledge, Perone is “the most prolific child molesting cleric to have ever worked in this [i.e., Austin] diocese.”

As with Fr. Patejko, SNAP is calling on Austin diocesan officials to track down any possible survivors of abuse by Fr. Perone in the Austin diocese, and to offer these survivors—if they are out there—support. SNAP’s press release about this notes that when an Episcopal priest, Fr. James L. Tucker, was found to have abused children at St. Stephen’s Episcopal School in Austin, the local Episcopal bishop publicized the allegations, causing five more victims to come forward.

The Episcopal pastoral leader’s response to abuse of children in one of his institutions stands in marked contrast to that of former Bishop Aymond, according to SNAP. The SNAP press release notes that SNAP repeatedly asked Bishop Aymond, when he headed the Austin diocese, to release a full list of proven, admitted and credibly accused pedophile priests. Bishop Aymond refused to do so.

And then he was made Archbishop of New Orleans.

I happen to know Greg Aymond. Before he was made bishop, he once had dinner at my house, sat at my table and ate a meal I cooked.

When I read in the Dallas Morning News in 2004 that he was among the two-thirds of bishops proven to have sheltered one or more clerics who abuse minors, I wrote to tell him how disappointed I was to learn this. By this point, Aymond had been made bishop of Austin.

Bishop Aymond wrote back to tell me that my letter to him had displeased him, and that the media distort stories about clerical sexual abuse of children and bishops who deal with this situation. Bishop Aymond told me that I owed him an apology for being disrespectful to him and voicing my disappointment at learning of his history of having protected a known clerical abuser of minors.

That’s the last time I’ve heard from Bishop Aymond. And now he has been made an archbishop. And the abuse situation in the Catholic church seems no closer to being resolved than it ever has been.

And as Tom Roberts says, it won’t be resolved without “deep examination of the clerical, especially hierarchical, culture, its sense of privilege and how, in the future, it might be held accountable.” And from where I stand, that is simply not happening.