Wednesday, September 24, 2003

A 'wall of anger' confounds Pilarczyk


By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Church officials hear the same complaint whenever they talk to Cincinnati Catholics about the clergy sexual abuse crisis: Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk just doesn't "get it."

He doesn't get why rank-and-file Catholics are so upset, they say. He doesn't get that when he talks about rules and regulations, most people would rather talk about the suffering of victims.

And he doesn't understand that when he expresses remorse about abusive priests, as he did in several interviews Monday, he comes across as a cool-headed administrator instead of a warm, caring pastor.

"The archbishop suffers from a lack of personal warmth that would go a long, long way toward assuring people that we're on the road to some kind of healing," said Nan Fischer, chairwoman of Voice of the Faithful in Cincinnati.

The divide between the archbishop and his flock is as wide today as it was when the sexual abuse crisis began more than a year ago.

Church rules have changed, apologies have been made and priests have been suspended. But a crisis of confidence remains.

Many Catholics still believe Pilarczyk has not done enough to heal his church. And when he has taken action, some say, he seems to have done so grudgingly.

That perception is now one of the biggest obstacles in restoring trust between the archbishop and the thousands of Catholics he leads.

"There are a lot of misperceptions about what is actually happening in the archdiocese," said church spokesman Dan Andriacco, who has worked with Pilarczyk for six years. "There is a wall of anger that is hard for us to communicate through."

He said that wall has made it difficult for the archbishop to explain the many changes church leaders have made.

They have revised the church's Child Protection Decree, suspended five priests, launched sex abuse prevention programs in Catholic schools and revamped the Child Protection Review Board.

But for many, those changes are not enough. An Enquirer/WCPO-TV survey last month found that more than half of local Catholics polled said the handling of sex abuse cases had caused them to lose faith in church leaders.

Pilarczyk has been the focal point of that dissatisfaction. He disputes critics who complain that he doesn't get it, that he fails to appreciate the suffering of victims and the concerns of parishioners.

But he admits his calm demeanor and his focus on procedure and policy might give some people the wrong impression. He does care, he said. He just doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve.

"I'm not the kind of person who exudes warmth and goodwill," Pilarczyk said. "That's just the way I am."

Some say Pilarczyk also suffers from an affliction common to high-ranking church officials across the country: isolation. They have spent their entire adult lives in an insular, tight-knit bureaucracy.

They may be decent, compassionate people, but they were woefully unprepared to deal with an emotional crisis of such magnitude.

"The church is so isolated, particularly those in charge," said Geral Blanchard, a psychologist in Sheridan, Wyo. and author of Sexual Abuse in America. "With that distance, they don't appreciate what is going on" in the community.

He said church leaders who are virtual strangers to their congregations now are asking parishioners to trust them to do the right thing.

Many Catholics are skeptical.

"The bishops are really up against it," said Mark Laaser, a Minneapolis-based author who co-edited the book Restoring the Soul of a Church: Healing Congregations Wounded by Clergy Sexual Misconduct.

"Every member of the church or diocese has been victimized by a betrayal of trust," Laaser said. "That tends to really anger people."

Pilarczyk has encountered that anger first hand and, increasingly, has been frustrated by it. In his view, he has done what he was asked to do. He has changed policies and suspended priests, and he has apologized for past mistakes.

"I'm sorry for what they did," Pilarczyk said of the abusive priests. "I wish we weren't even talking about this. I wish we didn't have to talk about this."

To his critics, that's part of the problem. They say the archbishop views the crisis as an annoyance and doesn't seem to understand why an ongoing, public conversation is crucial to healing the church.

They say his approach has been a problem since early last year, when he announced that the church continued to employ five priests despite past allegations of abuse. He drew heavy criticism when he refused to identify the priests or to immediately remove them from ministry more than a year ago.

Although he suspended the last of the five priests on Monday, he stirred more anger when he insisted the priests were not a threat to children. "If I thought (they) posed a threat, I would have removed them a long time ago," he said.

Comments like those lead some Catholics to believe Pilarczyk hasn't changed much in the past year.

"It's just so sad to see bishops doing the bare minimum, patting themselves on the back and then saying they're done," said David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "That's a disservice to the church and a disservice to victims."

Blanchard said the problem in Cincinnati is no greater than it is in other dioceses and he is optimistic it can be solved.

He said bishops must be open about their mistakes, clear about how they intend to correct them and sympathetic to the victims.

And Catholics, he said, must be willing to give their bishops the chance to change.

"The church needs to be with these people, to acknowledge that they understand the pain," Blanchard said. "They need to say publicly: 'We didn't get it before, but we're being responsive now.'"


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