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Words Returning to Haunt U.S. Bishops

Catholics: Confidential report in 1985 urged leaders to take action to combat a growing sexual abuse scandal.

June 01, 2002|LARRY B. STAMMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"What did they know and when did they know it?"--a variation on a phrase popularized during the Watergate scandal--is now being directed at the nation's Roman Catholic bishops as they scramble to confront the church's sexual abuse crisis.

As it turns out, as early as 1985 the bishops knew more than they admitted about the magnitude of a budding scandal. That year, they were given what critics now regard as a road map for a thorough housecleaning--a prescription that the bishops failed to heed.

The history of this warning, a 92-page report by two priests and a lawyer, may haunt the bishops when they convene in two weeks to discuss solutions to the abuse problem.

The 1985 report warned prophetically that sexual abuse of minors constituted "the single most serious and far-reaching problem facing our church today." And it flatly urged: "Those presumed to be guilty of sexual misconduct, especially if it involves child molestation, must never be transferred to another parish or post as the isolated remedy for the situation."

Since early this year, the nation's newspapers have been flooded with reports of priests who were transferred from parish to parish to cover up their sexual abuse. Only now--as the church reels from hundreds of millions of dollars in payouts to victims and a stunning loss of credibility--are the nation's bishops ready to reexamine the issue.

The bishops, some of whom were involved in cover-ups of the sexual abuse of minors by priests and bishops, are talking about ideas such as "zero tolerance," and "one strike and you're out." They are also calling for far greater oversight by rank-and-file Catholics--an attitude adjustment in a hierarchical church where cardinals are called princes and bishops are addressed as "your excellency."

Yet as determined as bishops say they are to deliver, what happens in Dallas at the spring meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops belong to a lineage of repeated scandals, denials, half-actions and missed opportunities.

Nothing shows this more vividly than the 1985 report by Father Thomas P. Doyle, the late Father Michael Peterson and attorney F. Ray Mouton, confidentially delivered to the nation's bishops when they met in Collegeville, Minn.

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"The entire issued of child sexual abuse ... is displayed prominently across the front pages of newspapers, where it shall remain for at least the balance of the decade....The general awareness and consciousness of the public in regard to sexual abuse of children has reached a previously unattained level and shall continue to escalate with each new revelation of discovered cases of sexual molestation."

--The Doyle Report

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"Their backs are against the wall, and that is why this is happening," Doyle said in a telephone interview this week. "There is no evidence of any proactive steps taken by the bishops since 1985. They have reacted to critical press and lawsuits but never solely because people were being devastated by sexual abusers." He called the expected Dallas vote on reform proposals "too little, way too late."

It is a view shared by victims of clergy sexual abuse, and by one of the nation's leading church watchers, publisher Tom Fox of the National Catholic Reporter.

"Had the U.S. bishops taken Tom Doyle and Michael Peterson seriously, the unspeakable pain of thousands of victims, potentially billions in lawsuit settlements, and the tragic shredding of the church's Gospel message of compassion could have been avoided," Fox said. His newspaper is believed to be the first to cover the Doyle report beginning in the mid-1980s. It ran the full text for the first time two weeks ago.

Doyle, Peterson and Mouton called for some of the steps that will be before the bishops in two weeks, including more involvement by Catholic laity in overseeing sexual abuse cases and policies, and national standards that every bishop must meet in guarding against the sexual abuse of minors.

Many church leaders say they have made incremental progress and complain that the media and abuse-victims groups have not given them enough credit for what they have done.

But it is also clear that the nation's bishops were for a long time determined to avoid public scandal. Doyle said that to even suggest a problem, as he and his co-authors did in their 1985 report--which was not made public at the time--resulted in institutional retribution.

Doyle, who had a promising career in the Vatican's Washington, D.C., embassy as a priest who many thought was destined to become a bishop, was virtually exiled after he delivered the report. Today he is an Air Force chaplain stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. "We were unwelcome then and still are, because what we had to say was too blunt, threatening and true," Doyle said.

The scandal's current phase erupted in January with revelations in Boston that a known pedophile priest had been transferred from parish to parish, where he allegedly molested up to 130 boys.

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