Friday, June 14, 2002

Bishop's words restore some faith


But many Catholics unhappy with church's actions

By Dan Horn, dhorn@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The leader of America's Catholic bishops declared Thursday that sexual abuse scandals have created “a rupture in our relationship with the faithful.”

        Catholics in Cincinnati say it's about time the bishops noticed.

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        After months of controversy and confusion, the comments by Bishop Wilton Gregory were welcome news to Catholics unhappy with the way their leaders have responded to the sexual abuse crisis.

        The bishop, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, made his statement on the opening day of the group's meeting in Dallas.

        A cross section of priests, parishioners and sexual abuse victims in Cincinnati said the bishop's address was a surprisingly strong attempt to restore trust in the church's leadership.

        But they also cautioned that the troubled relationships between bishops and their flocks will not improve unless Bishop Gregory's strong words lead to action.

        “I think people are hoping and praying the bishops get it right this time,” said John Bookser Feister, assistant editor of the St. Anthony Messenger magazine in Cincinnati. “But it's too soon to tell.”

        The bishops' meeting, their first since sex abuse scandals erupted nationwide early this year, has focused almost exclusively on the abuse crisis.

        The bishops, including Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, spent most of the day Thursday meeting with victims of abuse and representatives of Catholic congregations.

        What they heard was a litany of complaints about the church leadership's handling — or mishandling — of priests accused of sexual misconduct.

        Many of the speakers laid blame for the recent scandals at the feet of bishops who failed to protect children from known abusers and, at times, moved those abusers from parish to parish.

        Bishop Gregory bluntly addressed those concerns in his opening address Thursday.

        “We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance, or — God forbid — with knowledge, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them to communities where they continued to abuse,” Bishop Gregory said.

        Those comments led to expressions of relief and cautious optimism in Greater Cincinnati, even among those who have been staunch critics of church leaders.

        “That is the most straight-forward statement I've heard from the leadership,” said Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen, a Catholic who is investigating complaints of abuse by priests in Cincinnati.

        “It's an acknowledgement that a problem is there,” he said. “Hopefully, there is a will to fix it.”

        Another frequent critic of church leaders, Guy Guckenberger Jr., also found reason for optimism. Mr. Guckenberger has complained that church officials in Cincinnati did nothing when he was abused by a priest at a summer camp more than 20 years ago.

        “I think they don't have a choice any more,” Mr. Guckenberger said. “If they don't change, they're going to lose everything.”

        Frustration and, in some cases, anger toward church leaders has been growing in recent months as more details have emerged about the failure of bishops to weed out abusive priests.

        Parishioners have reacted to the scandals with a mix of anger and confusion. Even those who support the accused priests have been critical of church leaders.

        “I feel a great amount of anger toward leaders of the church for the way they've handled it,” said Julie Dubel, a member of St. Albert the Great parish in Kettering, where an associate pastor was suspended last week.

        “Instead of taking responsibility for how they handled it in the past, they jump to the sidelines and point fingers,” she said.

        Ms. Dubel said she was encouraged Thursday to hear a high-ranking church official acknowledge that the bishops — as well as the abusive priests — must bear responsibility for the scandals.

        Tricia Hempel, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, said acceptance of responsibility shows that bishops are beginning to appreciate the depth of frustration among Catholics.

        “Before any decision can be made or any policies can be put in place, there has to be a clear understanding of the feelings of the laity,” Ms. Hempel said. “The bishops have to walk in their shoes.”

        The Rev. Ed Smith, director of spiritual formation at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Mount Washington, welcomes any effort by the bishops to clarify their stand.

        “Having a clear statement — This is where we're going; these are the principles we believe in — would help when I have to talk about it on Sunday,” Father Smith said. “People are looking for leadership.”

       



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