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Despite Reforms, Scars Remain from Clergy Abuse
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Despite Reforms, Scars Remain from Clergy Abuse

Religion

Despite Reforms, Scars Remain from Clergy Abuse
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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The sex-abuse scandal that exploded in January 2002 forced the Catholic Church in this country to deal with a problem that it had long ignored or covered up. The faith and trust of many of the nation's more than 70 million Catholics was deeply shaken.

Today, we conclude our series on the abuse crisis five years later with a story about how the relationship between the church and its people has changed.

RACHEL MARTIN: It's Thursday evening, and John and Maryellen Rogers have just arrived at St. Francis Xavier Cabrini Catholic Church in Situate, Massachusetts.

(Soundbite of family)

MARTIN: This small room off the sanctuary is where the Rogers have slept every Thursday night for the past two years. Dozens of other people volunteer for other times, but someone is always here, keeping vigil. On this night a small group of parishioners have gathered to pray.

GROUP: Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.

MARTIN: Parishioners have been occupying this church since 2004, when the Boston Archdiocese decided to shut it down, along with dozens of others, as part of a restructuring plan.

But John Rogers is convinced his church has been made a casualty of the sex-abuse crisis, which has cost the church hundreds of millions of dollars.

Mr. JOHN ROGERS: They need the hard assets. They need the cash flow to solve the problems and the sins of their past, not ours.

MARTIN: It's not clear to what extent the sex abuse crisis can be blamed for parish closures in Massachusetts or elsewhere. A lot of it have to do with changing demographics and a chronic shortage of priests, factors that were in play before 2002.

But no question the church has hemorrhaged hundreds of millions of dollars in the past five years. And the whole thing is infuriating to parishioners here.

Mr. JIM CLIFFORD: This is God's church. This is our house.

MARTIN: Long time St. Francis parishioner Jim Clifford tells me he wants his parish to cut ties with the archdiocese altogether.

Mr. CLIFFORD: When the children were abused, they hid, concealed. And when it was finally forced upon them, they threw money at the kids instead of going out and loving them and holding them.

MARTIN: Four dioceses have filed for bankruptcy: Portland, Oregon; Tucson, Arizona; Davenport, Iowa; and Spokane, Washington, which just last week agreed to pay more than $48 million to settle claims. In California alone, settlement costs have exceeded $200 million. These are the hard costs; the long-term emotional damage is harder to quantify.

(Soundbite of church service)

MARTIN: St. Patrick's Church in Stoneham, Massachusetts, was home to seven abusive priests. I sat down here with parishioners still coming to terms with how the crisis has affected them and their church.

Mr. CHUCK DeCOST: My name is Chuck DeCost. I've been a parishioner since 1996. Father of five children.

MARTIN: DeCost is a devoted, lifelong Catholic. When the scandal broke open in 2002, he and many in the congregation felt disbelief one day, overwhelming sadness the next.

Mr. DeCOST: It's almost like peeling an onion. And every time you peel it a little more, you start to cry some more.

MARTIN: At first, DeCost played down the situation, refusing to believe the victims' claims. But soon several of his friends left St. Pat's in anger and sadness. Dozens more followed, and DeCost says eventually the evidence was too much.

Mr. DeCOST: It was smack in our face, so I just couldn't deny it anymore. You know, it's there, I had to deal with it. And so, you know, I had conversations with my wife and with friends, and I chose to do just that, to pray on it and to, you know, make my faith my own.

MARTIN: For him, that's meant separating the sins of the perpetrators from his personal faith, accepting that the abuse and cover-up happened, then moving on. Others here still question the scope of the abuse and say the crisis has been overblown by victims and the media.

Either way, the aftershocks of the sex-abuse scandal are still reverberating through this faith community.

Sister Mary Lou Cassidy is a senior staff member at St. Patrick's.

Sister MARY LOU CASSIDY (St. Patrick's Church): You think that everything is done, and then suddenly it re-emerges for someone else. I'm not saying a new allegation; I'm saying suddenly it strikes Joan in a way that Bill dealt with these years ago.

MARTIN: Cassidy has spent much of the past five years trying to win back parishioners in the wake of the scandal. She tears up when she describes how that work has distracted her from her own grief over what's happened in her church.

Have you been able now to more fully address how it's affected you personally?

Sister CASSIDY: Not until this very moment.

MARTIN: For Cassidy and others, it's taken years to tap into this grief, and it's just taking hold now, today.

Ms. BARBARA THORPE (Victims Assistance Coordinator, Archdiocese of Boston): Even though we're five years into this, there are days when we still feel like, you know, we're in the heart of the crisis.

MARTIN: That's Barbara Thorpe, the victims assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Boston.

Ms. THORPE: This was a deep and shattering wound of the soul. Faith-shattering. And the work to rebuild trust is - will engage us, I suspect, for as long as I'm alive.

MARTIN: In the summer of 2002, the American bishops met in Dallas and passed a set of guidelines called the charter. Among various reforms, now every diocese is required to set up a counseling office like this one in Boston. They help victims deal with a lot of issues here, but Thorpe says the most difficult challenge is trying to heal people's faith.

Ms. THORPE: And that's the task of the church, to stand in the breach right now and not to walk away. The aftermath of the horror of what happened is that there has to be this intense level of presence.

MARTIN: Presence and accountability, an idea central to the Dallas Charter. Article 3 says no more secret settlement deals that prevent victims from speaking out. Article 4: dioceses must report any allegation of sexual abuse to legal authorities. There are deeper background checks for clergy and an annual audit process to make sure these reforms are carried out. But ultimately, it's up to each bishop to decide whether to implement any of these reforms.

Bishop GREGORY AYMOND (U.S. Bishops Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People): There has been a cultural shift in the thinking of the bishops of the church.

MARTIN: Bishop Gregory Aymond is the head of the Diocese of Austin, Texas, and chairs the U.S. Bishops Committee on the Protection of Children and Young People.

Bishop AYMOND: There were times in the past, as we all know, where when someone was involved in pedophilia or sexual abuse of a minor, where we said, well, it's a moral issue. We get them spiritual direction and they go to confession and we get them some counseling and everything will be okay.

MARTIN: He says in retrospect that wasn't the right approach. To this day, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston is the only top-ranking church official to lose his job for covering up abuse, even though hundreds of other bishops were named in suits around the country, and many found negligent.

But Aymond says he and other bishops have repeatedly expressed regret for how the church handled or mishandled the crisis.

Bishop AYMOND: I apologize for the mistakes that we made as bishops of the church, maybe by not acting quickly enough, by thinking that treatment would heal someone and it didn't, by unknowingly putting other people in harm's way. I certainly as a bishop, I feel that we collectively and individually do need to apologize for that.

MARTIN: But many who have studied the crisis in the church say the apologies are not nearly enough.

Mr. RICHARD SIPE (Psychologist): You cannot have secrecy and accountability at the same time.

MARTIN: Richard Sipe is a psychologist and a former monk who's spent the last 40 years studying sexuality in the priesthood.

Mr. SIPE: Is sexual secrecy part of the core of this organization? And the answer is yes. Yes. That is what holds it together.

MARTIN: The church commissioned the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York to research the abuse scandal. That study found that between 1950 and 2002, four percent of priests were accused of sexually abusing a minor, and that abuse affected 95 percent of all American dioceses.

Sipe says the number of predators in the priesthood is actually much higher. He says the church has tried to downplay the extent of the abuse and to present it as a problem solved.

Mr. SIPE: It's like somebody who has a sore on their arm and you treat it with ointments and so on, and the sore gets healed over. There's maybe a scar there. But the source - the blood within the system that is causing the harm, it's still there.

MARTIN: As the church tries to heal itself and wash away the stains of abuse, a lot of that of work is being done on the ground by parish priests living the effects of the crisis every day.

Father DAVID GOODROW (St. Patrick's Church): This is the cup of my blood. The blood of the new and everlasting covenant.

MARTIN: At St. Patrick's Church, the one outside Boston that fell victim to seven abusing priests, Father David Goodrow leads a midmorning mass. His message today is a touchstone reminder of original sin, grace and forgiveness. After the service, Goodrow tells me that the crisis has had an irrevocable effect on his life as a priest. To begin with, Goodrow actually requested a transfer to this church.

Father GOODROW: This was my first choice.

MARTIN: Why?

Father GOODROW: Because this is what the church is about. This is about the church living through difficult times.

MARTIN: He has been here for a year and a half and has spent a lot of that time ministering to people still struggling with the abuse and cover-up. But for him, the saddest part of the scandal is how it has changed his relationship with parishioners, especially children.

Father GOODROW: Sometimes parents come up and say give Father David a hug. And I'll give them a hug, but I will never take the initiative. I never approach a child in that way. And it is sad. It's a shame. It really is, because we don't have our own children. You know, they are our families.

MARTIN: And that's a concern, not just for the priests doing the work now, but for the future generation of Catholic clergy.

(Soundbite of choir)

MARTIN: The acapella choir at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore practices regularly here in the cavernous entryway of the campus chapel. Twenty-seven-year-old Carlos Stebbings leads the group in a Latin Chant. Stebbings is a 27-year-old former special-ed teacher. He's got a passion and interest in theater and music and he's devoted to the Catholic Church. But when Stebbings started thinking about entering the priesthood a few years ago, he had serious reservations.

Mr. CARLOS STEBBINGS (Choir Leader): When I expressed it to friends of mine, they sort of laughed at me. Well, the priesthood, you know, just a bunch of child molesters. And that angered me. I'm like no, that's not the case. And it forced me to think what is it - how does a priest live? What does it mean to live as a priest?

MARTIN: This kind of soul searching is more important than ever, says Father Jerry Francik, who heads up the admissions program at St. Mary's. And the seminary is asking more questions, too. A candidate's psychological evaluation used to take a couple hours; now it takes a full day.

Father Francik says the best defense against sexual abuse is to make sure predators never enter the priesthood in the first place.

Father JERRY FRANCIK (St. Mary's Seminary): You would expect that when people come forward for something like service in the church that these would be holy people, righteous people. And I think what we've learned is that you have to be very wise and not take anything for granted. Ask every question and then be prepared to deal with the answers.

MARTIN: Father Francik says the crisis has been incredibly painful. But he says it also provides an opportunity.

Father FRANCIK: We can either shrink away and we we'll die. Or we can say no, this is not who we are. And we step forward and invite people to say this is what a good priest does. Come join us.

MARTIN: Sexual abuse by Catholic priests has broken lives, put dioceses into bankruptcy, shattered people's faith, and shrouded the church in a cloak of public distrust. Those who have been affected by this crisis may continue to disagree about how it happened and who is to blame for this tragic chapter in the church's history. But everyone agrees, if the church is to recover - and even if it's not - it is a chapter that can't be repeated.

Rachel Martin, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You can read more about the churches' reforms and find the other stories in our series at our Web site npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

When we continue, what David Beckham brings to American soccer, physically and financially. That story is next on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

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