Despite Reforms, Scars Remain from Clergy Abuse Since the scandal year of 2002, the Catholic church has faced declining membership, financial woes and erosion of moral authority. Reforms have produced mixed results and parishioners are still coping.

Despite Reforms, Scars Remain from Clergy Abuse

Despite Reforms, Scars Remain from Clergy Abuse

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Father David Goodrow ministers at St. Patrick's Catholic Church in Stoneham, Mass., which fell victim to seven abusive priests. Goodrow has been at the church for a year and a half. He has spent much of that time ministering to people still struggling with the abuse and cover-up. Evie Stone, NPR hide caption

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Evie Stone, NPR

On a recent Thursday evening, John and Maryellen Rogers arrive at St. Francis Cabrini Catholic Church in Situate, Mass. They walk into a small makeshift bedroom off the sanctuary. The room is furnished with an air mattress and a couple of pillows.

This is where the couple has slept every Thursday night for the past two years. There's a sign-up sheet in the lobby. Dozens of other people volunteer for different times, but someone is always at the church, keeping vigil. On this night, a small group of faithful has gathered to pray in the lobby of the church.

These parishioners have been occupying the 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 is a casualty of the sex-abuse crisis that has cost the Catholic church hundreds of millions of dollars.

"They need the hard assets," Rogers says. "They need the cash flow to solve the problems and the sins of their past, not ours."

Sex Scandal and Parish Bankruptcies, Closures

It's not clear to what extent the sex-abuse crisis can be blamed for parish closures in Massachusetts or elsewhere. Many of the closures are related to changing demographics and a chronic shortage of priests, factors that were in play before 2002.

But there is no question the church has hemorrhaged hundreds of millions of dollars in the past five years. And the situation is infuriating to parishioners such as Jim Clifford, who says he wants his parish to cut ties with the archdiocese altogether for how it treated victims of clergy sex abuse.

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

Four dioceses have filed for bankruptcy: Portland, Ore.; Tucson, Ariz.; Davenport, Iowa; and Spokane, Wash. The Spokane Archdiocese 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.

Aftershocks Still Reverberating in Community

St. Patrick's Church in Stoneham, Mass., was home to seven abusive priests. Parishioners there are still coming to terms with how the crisis has affected them and their church.

Chuck DeCost is a father of five, and he's been a parishioner at St. Patrick's since 1996. He is a devoted, lifelong Catholic. When the scandal broke in 2002, he and many in the congregation felt disbelief one day, overwhelming sadness the next.

"It's almost like peeling an onion," DeCost says. "And every time you start to peel some more, you start to cry some more."

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

"It was smack in our face, so I just couldn't deny it anymore," he says. "I had to deal with it. So I had conversations with my wife and with friends, and I chose to pray on it and I chose to make my faith my own."

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

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

"You think that everything is done and then suddenly it re-emerges for someone else," says Sister Mary Lou Cassidy, a senior staff member at St. Patrick's. "I'm not saying a new allegation; I'm saying suddenly it strikes Joan in a way that Bill dealt with this years ago."

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

When asked if she has now been able to more fully address how the whole thing has affected her personally, she fights back tears.

"No, not until this very moment," Cassidy responds.

For Cassidy and others, it has taken years for them to tap into this grief, and it is just taking hold now, today.

Barbara Thorpe is the victims' assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Boston. Her office was set up in early 2002 to counsel victims of clergy sexual abuse.

"Even though we're five years into this, there are days when we still feel like we're in the heart of the crisis," Thorpe says.

To put victims at ease, there are no crosses or religious symbols in her office. In the past year alone, her office provided counseling services to more than 300 people.

"This was a deep and shattering wound of the soul. Faith-shattering," she says. "The work to rebuild trust ... will engage us, I suspect, for as long as I'm alive."

The Ongoing Healing Process

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

"That's the task of the church," Thorpe says, "to stand in the breach right now and not to walk away, not to see all of the aftermath of the horror of what happened; there has to be this intense level of presence."

Healing will require presence — and accountability, an idea central to the Dallas Charter. Article 3 of the document forbids secret settlement deals that prevent victims from speaking out. Article 4 stipulates that 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 is up to each bishop to decide whether to implement any of these reforms.

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.

"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," Aymond says. "We get them spiritual direction and they go to confession and everything will be OK." In retrospect, he says, 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 were found negligent.

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

"I apologize for the mistakes that we made as bishops of the church, maybe by not acting quickly enough," he says. "By thinking that treatment would help someone, and it didn't, by unknowingly putting other people in harm's way. I feel that as bishops, we collectively and individually need to apologize for that."

'Apologies Are Not Enough'

But many who have studied the crisis in the church say the apologies are not nearly enough. Richard Sipe is a psychologist and a former monk who has spent the last 40 years studying sexuality and the priesthood.

"You cannot have secrecy and accountability at the same time," Sipe says. "Is sexual secrecy part of the core of this power and part of the core of the operation of this organization? The answer is yes. That is what holds it together."

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, 4 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.

"It's like somebody who has a sore on their arm and it's a horrible-looking sore and you treat it with ointments and so on," he says. "And the sore gets healed over. There's maybe a scar there. But the blood within the system that is causing the harm, it's still there."

Local Priests Feel Effects of Crisis

Parish priests on the ground — who are living the effects of the crisis every day — are doing much of the work to heal the church and wash away the stains of the abuse.

At St. Patrick's Church, Father David Goodrow says that the crisis has had an irrevocable effect on his life as a priest. Goodrow actually requested a transfer to this church.

"This was my first choice," he says. "Because this is what the church is about. This is about the church living through difficult times."

He has been here for a year and a half and has spent much 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.

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

What Lies Ahead for the Catholic Church

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

The a cappella group at St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore practices regularly in the cavernous entryway of the campus chapel. Carlo Stebbings, 27, leads the group in a Latin chant. He is a former special-education teacher with a passionate interest in theater and music and a devotion to the Catholic Church.

But when Stebbings started thinking about entering the priesthood a few years ago, he had serious reservations.

"When I expressed it to friends of mine, they sort of laughed at me," Stebbings says.

His friends said the priesthood was "just a bunch of child molesters," which angered Stebbings.

"I'm like no, that's not the case," he recalls. "And it forced me to think about how does a priest live? Do I have the right conception of what a priest is?"

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.

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

"You would expect that when people come forward for something like service in the church that these would be holy people, righteous people, good people," Francik says. "And I think what we've learned is that you have to be very wise and use a lot of common sense and not take anything for granted. Uncover every stone, ask every question and then be prepared to deal with the answers."

Francik says the crisis has been incredibly painful, but he says it also provides an opportunity.

"We can either shrink away and we will die," he says. "Or we can say, 'No, this is not who we are,' and we step forward and we show what seminarians are like, what priests are like, and then invite people ... to come join us."

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 that if the church is to recover — and even if it's not — it is a chapter that can't be repeated.

NPR's Evie Stone produced this report for broadcast.