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Bishops, Activists Express Frustration on Abuse Issue

A victims advocacy group praises the response of just one prelate. Some clerics say they aren't getting credit for what they have done to prevent molestation.

June 21, 2003|Larry B. Stammer | Times Staff Writer

ST. LOUIS — As the nation's Roman Catholic bishops gathered here, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, the main advocacy group for victims of clerical sexual abuse, staged a sidewalk demonstration aimed at a single bishop -- not to denounce him, but to offer congratulations.

Standing across the street from the hotel where the bishops were gathered, the group held up placards saying Bishop Paul Bootkoski of Newark, N.J., had reached out to victims with personal apologies, cooperated with law enforcement and paid settlements even in cases in which the statute of limitations had expired.

"We want to thank him for his leadership, for setting the right example for his brother bishops. We hope a year from now to see hundreds of bishops" like him, said Mark Serrano of the survivors network. But right now, the group says Bootkoski is the only bishop in America who rates its stamp of approval.

That sort of near-blanket condemnation bothers many bishops gathered in St. Louis. In news conferences this week, several have objected that they are not getting credit for the good things they have done to end sexual abuse of minors.

Indeed, only two hours after the demonstration, Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., was saying much the same things as the demonstrators.

Sheehan was appointed this week by Pope John Paul II to temporarily take over the administration of the Diocese of Phoenix, replacing Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien, who was charged in the hit-and-run death of a pedestrian earlier this week.

Sheehan said he knew the struggles that bishops face in choosing between protecting the institution and reaching out to those whom the church hurts. In his case, he said, he had decided to ignore attorneys and be a pastor.

In 1993, when he was bishop of Lubbock, Texas, he was sent to New Mexico after the resignation of Archbishop Robert F. Sanchez. Sanchez had been accused of having sexual relations with several women in the 1970s and '80s.

"I felt like I needed to be a priest and to talk to people and to assure them of the apology of the church for what's happened to them. I felt it was better to make a mistake by being too conciliatory than by listening too much to the attorneys," he said.

"If somebody said they were a victim, and I found out about that, I called them, got in touch with them," Sheehan said. He said that he had personally spoken with 150 victims over the years and that in 95% of the cases, they were grateful. He also said his pastoral approach did not cost the diocese any additional money in lawsuits.

Many victims advocacy groups have faulted Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony for not taking a similarly pastoral approach. It is a contrast that Mahony says leaves him frustrated.

His personal instinct is to take a pastoral approach, but Sheehan's example does not fit the reality of Los Angeles, Mahony said Friday. The Archdiocese of Los Angeles is not only far larger than Santa Fe's, but the church here must comply with California's privacy laws.

"The problem is there are so many intertwined pieces to this. It's really very difficult. Until we can get a lot of these legal things settled, I'm afraid some of the other can't happen," Mahony said.

Attorneys for accused priests as well as for victims often won't let him speak to their clients, he added. "So you end up in a very frustrated box where you can't really reach out pastorally, which normally I would want to do," he said. "The legal issues are swirling around.

"That's the heart-wrenching, soul-wrenching part of this for me. My instincts as a priest are to get in the car and go knock on the door of the victims and say 'Can I come in and can we talk?' ... However, we're dealing with so many unknowns in terms of victims and cases and histories that at the moment, that just doesn't seem to be possible."

On both sides, the litigation and lack of trust have reduced communication.

"We haven't reached out, because we don't want to be re-victimized," said Mary Grant, a California leader of the survivors network who was molested by a priest in Orange County when she was a teenager. Private meetings with Mahony would not be appropriate, because he needs to be held publicly accountable for any statements or promises he makes, she said.

"Anything we did, we would want to do publicly with Cardinal Mahony, not privately," she said. The issue, she added, is trust.

Grant said she is aware that continued failure to talk won't heal the church. "It's this wound that gets bigger and bigger and bigger if he's avoiding the inevitable," she said. Because of that, she added, victims and their advocates will continue to call news conferences, file lawsuits and lobby for tougher state laws against sexual abuse.

For his part, Mahony said some victims are open to "healing and reconciliation and cooperation and moving on together. We know a lot of those. But there are some who remain angry and strident. I feel at times very frustrated on how to help them and how to reach out to them."

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