Removing numerous diocesan priests from ministry — men he’d trusted to carry out the work of God — has been among the most painful aspects of Bishop Matthew H. Clark’s role in addressing the clergy sexual-abuse crisis over the past decade.
"It’s a terrible experience," he remarked.
Even more gut-wrenching have been Bishop Clark’s meetings with those who have been victims of the priests’ abusive acts, mostly as minors.
"To sit with victims goes to the core of your being," Bishop Clark said. "You have some sense you’d never have otherwise of the intensity of their pain."
The bishop acknowledged that he sometimes grows weary from discussing the subject of sexual abuse because it’s so disturbing. Yet he also stressed that he’ll address it as often as necessary so that victims receive justice, the odds of further incidences of abuse are reduced, and the Diocese of Rochester can remain consistently transparent.
To further that spirit of openness, Bishop Clark has called for implementation of a new measure: publication on the diocesan website of a comprehensive list of diocesan priests who have been removed from ministry since 2002. The list is published in a related article on this website and also can be accessed — along with related information — under the "Creating a Safe Environment" link at www.dor.org.
Bishop Clark said he hopes publishing the list will encourage more people to report allegations of abuse. "If there are, God forbid, victims that have not come forward, we hope the publication shows that we take their concerns seriously and act on them," he said.
Publication of this list illustrates a marked shift in the Roman Catholic Church’s approach since the abuse scandal exploded nationwide in 2002. U.S. dioceses now are charged to support victims and safeguard in all ways possible against further sexual abuse.
"We never put our response (to sexual abuse) on automatic pilot and take it for granted. We’re constantly renewing our efforts, continually training and supporting our communities and being alert to this danger that has caused such pain," Bishop Clark said.
New level of vigilance
The list of diocesan priests who have been removed from ministry was compiled at Bishop Clark’s request by Father Daniel Condon, diocesan chancellor. Approximately 30 U.S. dioceses and archdioceses are making such lists available. The Rochester listing is modeled after a database developed by the Archdiocese of Boston, where news coverage in early 2002 of clerical sexual abuse triggered a wave of national outrage and a crackdown by the U.S. bishops that June.
Although some of the men on the Rochester list had been removed from ministry before 2002, their cases under church law were not resolved until after tougher measures went into effect that year as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the landmark Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and Essential Norms. Among the charter’s stipulations is a zero-tolerance policy under which any priest, deacon, diocesan employee or volunteer will immediately be removed from service if found credibly accused of at least one past instance of sexual abuse.
In keeping with the intent of the charter, Bishop Clark said he stands behind the decision to publishthe priests’ listing even though doing so "will stir up painful memories, not only for individuals but parish communities."
Barbara Pedeville, diocesan victims’ assistance coordinator, said the listing also will be disconcerting for the overwhelming share of diocesan priests who have remained in good standing. They are "good, holy dedicated men who have served the church well," she said. "I’m sure it’s difficult for them to see their brother priests in the news. But it’s helpful for the public to see the church acknowledges that these men have harmed their children in some way."
Pedeville said the listing is one of many examples of vigilance under the safe-environment program begun in the Diocese of Rochester back in 1993. Another example is the required criminal background checks and training of all diocesan priests, deacons, employees and volunteers who work with children, teenagers and vulnerable adults to prevent and detect sexual abuse. Pedeville said an "astounding" total of more than 28,000 diocesan people have gone through this process.
Diocesan spokesman Doug Mandelaro added that the diocese has invested $320,000 in child-protection efforts over the last five years.
Compassion for victims
The priest sexual-abuse crisis has been so severe that some dioceses have been forced into bankruptcy by the size of monetary judgments rendered against them in the past decade. By contrast, Mandelaro said the Diocese of Rochester — which was a leader in safe-environment practices long before the U.S. bishops’ charter was adopted — has paid out $57,000 to victims in settlements in the last five years.
Pedeville said past inaction by church leaders both nationally and internationally can be partially attributed to a lack of understanding about abusers’ tendencies, with many bishops having believed psychologists’ assertions that abusers could be "cured." Another misconception — still held by many Catholics today — helping to fuel the proliferation of abuse was thatpriests were holy representatives of God and would never use their authority to commit criminal acts, she said.
"People are still in disbelief that these charismatic men could possibly have abused anyone, especially a child. People need to look beyond that characteristic and understand that they’re human beings who have flaws," Pedeville remarked.
Although she said false allegations are few and far between, she emphasized that the Diocese of Rochester takes great care in the processing of abuse reports to ensure the detection of unfounded charges against priests. Mandelaro noted that there currently are no cases under review in the Diocese of Rochester, but Pedeville said she senses there are many victims who have yet to report abuse they suffered.
She noted, however, that the current diocesan sexual-abuse policy has encouraged many people to come forward. Pedeville observed that many victims were made to believe as children that they were at fault for the abuse they suffered, so being heard and believed by diocesan authorities promotes the healing process.
"They are most appreciative to tell their story to Bishop Clark, who has been most compassionate and kind," she said.
"To meet with victims, it’s a very powerful experience," Bishop Clark remarked. "They want and need and are entitled to be heard without argumentation, without resistance, without stonewalling."
The bishop added that he has observed hurt and anger in victims, but rarely vindictiveness or a thirst for revenge.
"My experience is, they want to be sure no one else is harmed," he said. "They expressed hope that the offender will come to a better place."
The Diocese of Rochester as well seems to have come to a better place. Mandelaro said the vast majority of allegations filed during the past decade were related to incidents that occurred in the 1960s and 1970s.
Bishop Clark added that the diocesan sexual-abuse policy has been found to be in compliance with all independent audits related to the charter since it was adopted by the U.S. bishops. He noted that the diocesan safe-environment program has only been successful due to the "high level of cooperation and interest" of all involved.
"In the beginning I think some people felt it was intrusive, and some even felt hurt when we asked them to (submit to) background checks and the like," he said. "I’m deeply gratified with what we’ve been able to accomplish."
Meanwhile, Pedeville said such other organizations serving children as public schools, the Boy Scouts and the churches of other denominations have sought advice from the Catholic Church on how to handle in their own ranks allegations of sexual abuse involving minors. Yet due to the poor example it set in the past, she acknowledged, the church struggles to persuade people that it now has exemplary policies. Adding to this difficulty is ongoing news coverage of sexual-abuse scandals in Ireland and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, where officials are currently battling criminal charges related to their past handling of sexual-abuse cases.
"Many Roman Catholics still can’t believe what has happened (in the past), and it’s very difficult for them to remain faithful and have trust in our church while at the same time trying to understand what has happened and move forward," Pedeville said.
Moreover, comparisons will continue to be made whenever sexual-abuse allegations surface in other institutions, Bishop Clark acknowledged, and "our past dreadful experience will come up again and there will be all kinds of embarrassment."
Yet he and Pedeville said they hope such cases also will remind people that sexual abuse occurs all over, especially in the home.
"I wish (sexual abuse) would stop forever and ever in all levels and aspects of society," Bishop Clark said. "But so long as human beings are human beings, we have our weaknesses and so we have to be careful and attentive to this. We have taken serious efforts — and unless we keep them high profile, the next generation will forget this history."
EDITOR’S NOTE: Victims of abuse always are encouraged to report to civil authorities. To report a case of possible sexual abuse and receive help and guidance from the Diocese of Rochester, victims should contact Barbara Pedeville at 585-328-3228, ext. 1215 (toll free 1-800-388- 7177, ext. 1215), or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.