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Clergy abuse cases present challenges for Church leaders

by Archbishop John Vlazny

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    Reflecting on all he has had to do to guide his diocese through the sex abuse scandal which exploded in 2000, Archbishop Vlazny offers a remarkably frank assessment of how he feels about things, especially after learning some of the ways in which the American legal system has been manipulated to facilitate a financial attack on the Catholic Church.
  • Larger Work:
    Catholic Sentinel
  • Publisher & Date:
    Portland, OR, May 19, 2006

Nineteen years ago on May 19 I was appointed a diocesan bishop. As I look back upon that day, I can't help but entertain the image of a lamb being led to the slaughter! Little did I realize then that pastoral ministry for me included a lengthy sojourn into very troubled and unfamiliar waters, namely, litigation resulting from claims of child sexual abuse by clergy. The journey continues, and the "ship" moves relentlessly forward and many of the passengers, including this one, often become quite seasick.

Back then in my former diocese, lawsuits had been filed claiming child sexual abuse by a priest. Confronted with the ghastly credibility of the claims, other people and I did our best to seek just compensation for victims while trying to be faithful to our evangelizing mission as a faith community. Everyone had advice, including psychologists, insurance carriers, lawyers and parishioners, but there was no manual to guide the captain and crew about the best course to take. Little by little, with the help of some wise confreres and the grace of God, we managed to work through all kinds of confrontations, challenges and deeply distressing situations. The demands for compensation and punishment then were excessive as they remain today, but no one knew for certain the worth of such claims. Personally I am grateful to those who helped me patiently and perseveringly seek the truth and work for justice for all concerned.

"Liberation" came in October of 1997 when I was appointed the 10th Archbishop of Portland. For two years no similar claims came to my desk. But it all ended abruptly in early 2000 when 25 claims surfaced alleging abuse by one of our priests in previous decades, dating all the way back to the 1950s. It was a high-profile event for the Oregon media, and we were brought to our knees both in terms of the financial and non-monetary demands. I apologized. We prayed. Policies were revised and improved. There was even public acclaim from the Oregonian for the way we had handled this matter. But it was only a beginning, certainly not a happy ending.

Over the years, the claims have mounted, so many that eventually we reached the point where we were no longer able to meet the demands. Insurance carriers had abandoned us. The media, both secular and Catholic, became highly critical. Many of our own people vented their frustration and rage and some even walked away. I am regularly chided by parishioners. Fortunately I still remember days of yore when I wasn't a bishop and therefore was not a bête noir. All the wise pundits, both secular and Catholic, continue to point out the inadequacies of those of us who serve the church as bishops.

But then early this month, I received copies of some articles that made me begin to wonder. Have I been duped? Have we as a church been unfairly pilloried? Like my brother priests, I didn't answer the call to ordained ministry because I wanted to hurt or offend people. Because I am weak and sinful, I certainly have that capacity. Consequently, I try hard to be sensitive to those who bring the claims against the church, and I have wanted to treat them with compassion and fairness, while at the same time doing my best to maintain some stability in the lives of the rest of us who are members of this church. But . . . .

The articles were written by a Catholic archbishop, an attorney and a Catholic layman, a father of four, all from the state of Colorado. The articles were prompted by the legal struggle in that state to eliminate or attempt to revise the statutes of limitation that govern lawsuits concerning the sexual abuse of minors. Such changes had already occurred in the 1990s here in Oregon. They have led us into our present conundrum. Criminal statutes cannot be amended and applied to past actions, but the same is not true for civil statutes, which allow institutions such as our church to be sued for crimes in the distant past, which involve people who are no longer alive and which challenge people's memories and the likelihood of adequate discovery to resolve claims fairly.

Similar legislation has been killed in New York, Iowa and Mississippi. As was the case here in Oregon, so it is in these other states that victims' groups and plaintiffs' attorneys were the ones seeking the changes. Legislators who are swayed by these groups typically protect themselves and the public institutions they serve. Hence the abuse of a child in the public school will not meet the same "justice" that now can occur when the victimization occurred in a Catholic school. Can this possibly be fair?

Here in this archdiocese, the costs that most of us have incurred are incredibly huge and threaten the effectiveness of our work in the service of the Gospel. We can never forget that innocent people were hurt in the past by some of our priests who committed terrible crimes. Fortunately, some of the victims are on the mend. But the healing did not occur because of money. Don't be fooled. Certainly, just compensation is a victim's right. But bad laws that inflict penalties only on some rather than all cannot promote justice.

Nowadays if something bad enough is said about the church, then it must be true. This is not merely the reaction of non-Catholics. Too many of our Catholics have had their own minds and hearts poisoned with respect to our church. I grow weary of people who wash their hands of the whole matter and seek reassurances that their contributions will not be used to compensate victims or pay attorneys. My friends, we are the ones who are being sued. We are the ones who compensate victims and pay attorneys. Who else?

When our current siege of litigation and bankruptcy finally comes to an end, there will be many more matters pertaining to justice that need to be studied. It certainly has not been a good experience for any of us but it should be and, hopefully, will be a learning experience for all. We are doing much better in our efforts to protect children and deal with complaints swiftly and fairly. We have taken this matter seriously and we have shown the world what needs to be done, even though no credit is given.

We have every reason to make sure that our own rights for survival are protected now and in the future. Perhaps the onus of that task will rest on the shoulders of another bishop and Catholics of another generation. Hopefully, they will be even more circumspect than we have been during this perilous journey together. Thanks be to God for watching over us and guiding us. We shall not fail, not because of ourselves, but because of the God in whom we wisely place our trust.

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