Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Refusal of Bishops to Be Good Shepherds: Deep Roots of Abuse Crisis, the Rest of the Story

And so the rest of the story: yesterday, I shared excerpts from a series of letters I wrote to the bishop of Charlotte, North Carolina, William J. Curlin, in the 1990s, in which I asked him to meet with me as a member of his diocese whose vocation as a theologian had been smashed by Belmont Abbey College, and whose livelihood and health care coverage had been taken away in the process.  Without any explanation for these actions.

I told Bishop Curlin that my faith—in the church as an institution—was radically undermined by what this Catholic institution had done to me.  I told him I found myself unable to partake of the Eucharist any longer, when priests can stand at the altar offering holy bread to the people of God, after having removed daily bread from our mouths.  With no explanation for their actions.

I asked Bishop Curlin to meet with me as a pastor.  He refused to do so.  Though I wrote him repeatedly over a series of several years, he never saw my face.  He allowed me to leave his diocese, my life in shambles due to the actions of a Catholic college in his diocese, my connection to the liturgical life of the church shattered, never having seen my face.

And then I began to be aware of the crisis of sexual abuse in the Catholic church, and discovered that I was far from alone in my experience with this bishop.  I began to learn that one person after another who had been sexually abused by priests (and brothers and nuns) when he or she was a child had met precisely the same stone wall that I met, when they turned to bishops for pastoral support.

I learned that it was not only common, it was almost an unwritten rule, for bishops to refuse to meet with survivors of clerical sexual abuse.  Ever.  I learned that, instead of hearing the heart-wrenching pleas of survivors of abuse for healing and compassion, bishops routinely set lawyers on survivors, seeking to silence and punish those who dared to come forward.  Not to punish those who abused these survivors.

And I began to realize that the abuse crisis was rooted in a profound, widespread, deep, and systemic betrayal of pastoral office in the Catholic church—one aspect of which I had experienced as a lay theologian (who also happens to be gay), another aspect of which survivors of abuse routinely experienced when they asked to meet with bishops to report their abuse and to receive healing and compassion.

I learned that what I wrote to Bishop Curlin as Steve, my mother, and I left the Charlotte diocese in March 1997—I told him that I had gotten only nice feel-your-pain words from him, and no actual support at all—was precisely the experience of one survivor of clerical sexual abuse after another.

Words.  No actions.  Empty words.  Words belied by the actions of the men speaking them. 

And as my chronicle yesterday noted, I then began to write to Bishop Curlin about the parallels between how he treated me, and how the bishops everywhere were also, it turned out, treating survivors of clerical sexual abuse.  I began to write to Bishop Curlin, appealing to him to think about what his and other bishops’ abdication of authentic pastoral leadership was doing to the church.

That was in 1997.  And of course I received no reply at all to those letters.

And then here’s what happened down the road:

At the end of March 2002, Bishop Curlin gathered the priests of the Charlotte diocese to announce that the diocese had a “zero toleration” policy. Bishop Curlin then had all priests read a letter to their parishes announcing this policy. The pastoral letter stated that “at no time have any of our diocesan funds ever gone to another diocese for payments to pedophile cases.”

On 15 April 2002, the Charlotte Observer announced that Greensboro priest Jim O'Neill had been removed from ministry, noting as it announced this news that Bishop Curlin had hitherto failed to acknowledge payments of $77,489 by the Charlotte diocese in 1996 to a couple, the Corts family of Boone, whose twin sons had been abused by a priest of the Charlotte diocese, Rev. Damion Lynch. The Observer notes that a second payment of undisclosed amount had been made to the Corts three years later.

The week prior to this, Charlotte diocesan spokeswoman Joann Keane had stated, “We have used both diocesan funds and insurance proceeds to help meet the personal needs of victims.” Keane noted that Curlin’s pastoral letter in late March had not deliberately omitted information about these payoffs, but that the bishop was “not mindful” of them when he said the Charlotte diocese had never made such payoffs.  Yet diocesan records show that Curlin himself removed Lynch from his parish and put him on leave in November 1995.

Then on 15 May 2002, the Boston Globe announced that Rev. George C. Berthold, who had been hired (as my replacement) to chair the theology department of Belmont Abbey College, and who had mysteriously disappeared from his job at Belmont Abbey, had less than two years before Belmont Abbey hired him been removed from his position as dean of St. John’s Seminary in Brighton for making sexual advances to a seminarian. The article reports, “Officials at Belmont Abbey expressed irritation that they knew nothing about the episode until a Globe reporter called it to their attention last week."

The following day, 16 May, the Charlotte Observer quoted Belmont Abbey professor Janette Blandford, who chaired Berthold’s hiring committee, expressing outrage that no one had told the committee about Berthold’s past when they recommended his hiring.

On the same day, the Observer reported that Boston’s archdiocesan spokeswoman had told the Boston Globe the preceding day that it had informed both the college and the diocese of Charlotte “verbally and in writing” of the proven allegations against Berthold.

On 16 May 2002, the Boston Globe also reported that Janette Blandford had stated in an interview on the 15th that Abbot Placid Solari, who was dean of Belmont Abbey College at the time Berthold was hired, “assured the committee that there were no problems in Berthold’s background.”

The same day, the Independent of Concord, North Carolina, reported that Belmont Abbey’s spokeswoman Teresa Sowers McKinney had just stated, “If there was any kind of allegations against him, the college should have known about them.”

The following day, 17 May 2002, the Observer reported that the Charlotte diocese had “acknowledged that it allowed a priest from Boston to serve even though it knew he was the subject of allegations of sexual misconduct involving adults.”

Then on 18 May, in an article entitled “Belmont Abbey College Reverses Statement: Abbot Admits He Had Heard of Allegations,” the Observer announced that Abbot Placid Solari, chancellor of Belmont Abbey College, “acknowledged Friday that he had been told about allegations of sexual misconduct by a Boston priest before he hired the priest to teach at the college.” Belmont Abbey spokeswoman McKinney also stated that, in denying that anyone at the college knew Berthold's past when he was hired, she had responded to questions in good faith based on information supplied to her at the time. Belmont Abbey’s board chair said that he believed “honest miscommunication” had occurred between Solari and McKinney.

On 18 May, the Globe also reported that a Boston church official who asked not to be identified told the Globe on the 17th that the archdiocese had written “two allegations involving adults” on the form it filled out to facilitate Berthold’s hire by Belmont Abbey. Documents from the Boston case files available online at confirm that Law did inform Charlotte diocesan officials and Abbey officials of Berthold's past and discouraged them from bringing him to Charlotte.

On the same day, the 18th, the local paper, Gaston Gazette, reported that Solari had admitted knowing of the allegations when Berthold was hired, and that this information was kept from the school’s hiring committee. This article notes that Blandford confirmed that Solari did not pass on the allegations to her committee, and she suspected that in the case of a layperson being hired, such information would have been shared with the hiring committee. Blandford states, “They [i.e., clerics] treat their own differently than everyone else."

The Berthold case was the tip of the iceberg in the Charlotte diocese, it turns out.  In Feb. 2003, the Boston files also caught the diocese up again, with information that a deacon, Mark Doherty, had been hired by Bishop Curlin to teach religion at Charlotte Catholic high school.  The Boston files showed that Cardinal Law had sent information about Doherty’s past in writing to Bishop Curlin.  One of Law’s letters to Curlin about Doherty states that, given the “reasonable probability” of the allegations made against him, archdiocesan policy “precludes parish ministry and ministry with minors.”

Later that month, reporter Tara Servatius reported in Creative Loafing that the Charlotte diocese had paid nearly half a million dollars since 1995 to local victims of alleged sexual abuse. Servatius noted that this information had been buried in the 2001-2002 annual report of the diocese.

In April 2003, Belmont Abbey gave its distinguished Grace Award for outstanding public service to Bishop Curlin.