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Diocese Seeks Healing After Sex Abuse Crisis

As the church settles cases, Catholics in northern Kentucky look to resolve pain.

June 05, 2005|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

COVINGTON, Ky. — Florence Valton arrives on the steps of the Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption most Saturday afternoons, drawn to the towering stained-glass windows by friends and faith.

But this weekend, the retiree said she came for hope and answers.

On Friday, the Diocese of Covington announced it had agreed to pay as much as $120 million to alleged victims of child molestation in cases stretching over five decades. The settlement, if approved this week by the Boone County Circuit Court, would be the largest sum the Roman Catholic Church has paid in its sexual abuse crisis.

"People are talking about wanting to start the healing process," said Valton, 62, who lives outside Covington. "I'm glad there is a conclusion to this, but it makes me ill to think this had been happening all those years."

Friday's announcement came after a class-action suit was filed against the diocese in February 2003 on behalf of more than 100 plaintiffs.

Two years ago, the diocese estimated that there had been more than 150 credible allegations of sexual abuse involving 30 priests since 1950.

Nationally, the crisis doesn't appear to be waning. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that 1,083 people reported in 2004 that they had been abused at some point. More than 300 of the reports identified new alleged abusers.

Such news has shaken the faith of some parishioners in this northern Kentucky diocese, church officials say. Some have stopped attending church. Others, confused and torn, come infrequently.

The diocese, which stretches across 14 counties, encompasses rural farm country and thriving suburbs that sit along the crossroads of the Ohio and Licking rivers.

Both the political and religious centers of the diocese are here in Covington, a once-impoverished river town that has slowly developed into a suburb for those who work in downtown Cincinnati.

Part of the growth also comes from the city aggressively trying -- and succeeding -- to woo businesses from Cincinnati with tax breaks, cheaper property costs and other incentives.

The push has been driven by the need for survival, say city officials: With a population of more than 43,000, fewer than half of the residents can afford to own a home. The median annual income was less than $31,000 in 2000.

Throughout the years, residents say, the Catholic Church has been a constant and prominent figure here in northern Kentucky.

The Basilica's Gothic stonework towers above Covington's landscape of brick row houses and numerous bistros. Its parish is filled with locals as well as residents from Ohio and Indiana drawn to the ornate mosaics and cozy gardens.

The church has also been bolstered by a growing Latino population, which swells in the spring and summer as migrant workers come to northern Kentucky for seasonal work in farming and construction.

The influx of Latinos led to the creation of Cristo Rey, the only Latino parish in northern Kentucky. It started several years ago at the Basilica, where priests began introducing Spanish-language Masses.

Last summer, a group decided to venture out on its own and began holding services at the diocesan-run Catholic Center in nearby Erlanger, about 8 miles southwest of Covington.

Now the group will need to find a new home. The bulk of the offered $120-million settlement will come from the diocese's insurance, though it will still need to raise $40 million in cash.

To do so, the church is planning to put its Catholic Center and its Marydale Retreat Center -- which sit on a parcel of about 300 acres in Boone County -- in escrow to raise the money.

There have been other settlements in Kentucky in recent years.

In 2003, the Archdiocese of Louisville agreed to pay 243 alleged victims more than $25 million. The Diocese of Lexington -- which split off from the Covington Diocese in 1988 -- has reportedly spent more than $5 million to settle more than two dozen cases.

Last year, the Diocese of Covington released a report stating that it and its insurance company had settled other claims for an estimated $14.2 million.

On Saturday at the Basilica, most of the wooden pews were empty for the afternoon Mass.

As sunlight cut through the cathedral's rose window, painting the marble floor in streaks of blue and red, Father William Fitzgerald walked toward the altar. As he reached a lectern, he took a deep breath and began to speak.

He encouraged parishioners to hold on to their faith, to believe that all was not lost despite the diocese's "painful" and "disgraceful" past.

"Some bishops and priests have betrayed their sacred trust when they assaulted the innocent," Fitzgerald said. "There are those who believe it is now better to be an atheist" than to be a bad Christian.

Those leading the congregation in prayer spoke in somber voices about the crisis created by the abuse. They asked God to give them the strength to forgive and for the resolution to pay for "the sins committed against the innocent."

They also prayed for the future: "That many young people will follow the path to the priesthood."

Toward the back, two elderly women clasped hands. One began to sniffle, and her eyes grew teary. From a nearby pew, a tissue was offered.

After the service, Fitzgerald, the cathedral's vice rector, shook hands with the parishioners as they left.

"I had hoped more would come today," he said.

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