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Spotlight Report

Catholic leader criticizes bishops

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 8/10/2002

PHILADELPHIA - The head of the national association of Catholic religious orders, in remarks released yesterday, pointedly criticized America's bishops for adopting a zero tolerance stance on sexual abuse by priests, accusing the bishops of scapegoating the abusers and siding with the media, the victims of the priests, and a partially informed Catholic laity.

The Very Rev. Canice Connors, a Franciscan priest and president of an umbrella group that represents a third of the 46,000 Catholic priests in the United States, said ''the predictable outcome'' of the June meeting of bishops in Dallas ''was a group paralyzed in remorse and shame.''

The heads of the country's religious orders, which operate independently of bishops and are not necessarily bound by the bishops' child protection charter, have said they will follow the child protection charter in ''spirit.'' But they also said they are unwilling to cast abusers out of the ''family'' of the priesthood and believe it is their duty to find some role for them within the church.

In a speech to the annual convention of the heads of religious orders, given Wednesday evening but released in written form to the media yesterday, Connors also denounced the church's leaders for their role in covering up the scandal.

''Through fear of losing the priceless gift of public respect ... we tolerated and purchased silence and colluded in secrecy about what we did not want to acknowledge as the crimes of our brothers,'' Connors said, according to the speech transcript.

A day after the group he heads, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, made clear that it does not agree that its religious order priests should be expelled from the priesthood for molesting children, the release of Connors's speech underscored the concern among leaders of religious orders that abusive priests were being lumped together as if they were all equally unredeemable. Evidence of that, Connors noted, is the fact that the bishops' rush to judgment has produced ''parishioner rage'' at the removal of pastors who offended in the past but are now ''effective and trusted pastoral leaders. ''

Some child molesters in the priesthood, he said, are incorrigible. But, he added, not all abusers are alike: some can repent and resume useful work. ''The soul of recovered abuser must be recognized,'' he said.

Connors' remarks drew quick denunciation from advocates for victims of clergy abuse.

Mark Serrano, a national board member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said the speech was an insult ''to victims, bishops, and regular Catholics.''

''Catholics want moral action for the safety for their children, but what they're getting from this church leader is arrogance,'' he said.

Connors focused on a question that divides church officials and victims of abuse: what to do with priests who sexually abused minors - sometimes only once, and sometimes decades ago - but have apparently lived model, celibate lives since. Many priests who fit that profile are beyond the reach of civil or criminal remedies, leaving it up to their diocese or religious order to decide their fate.

In his remarks, made in his presidential address to nearly 200 conference attendees, Connors made clear his view that the bishops in Dallas fell far short of dealing with the plight of such priests. He had harsh words for the child protection policy they approved in Dallas, which would enforce an inflexible one-strike-you're-out removal from public ministry of priests who engaged in even a single act of abuse, yet fails to offer consideration for priests who have repented for past misconduct.

Connors, who clearly hoped to shift the focus of the debate, opened his speech with an attention-getting stab at dark humor. After describing the ''continuous graphic public portrayal of abusive priest criminals that has left some Catholics lamenting a collapsing clerical culture,'' he finished his thought by saying, ''Are we having fun yet?''

In an interview last night, Connors said the remark was meant to be humorous. ''Like any speech, you're trying to win your audience over on a very tough topic,'' he said, adding that ''each and every part of the talk was meant to indicate our concern for victims and abusers.''

The Rev. Ted Keating, executive director of the conference, said at a briefing yesterday that he believed the speech had been ''very well received. ''

''I don't think it's flippant,'' said Keating, a Marist priest. ''I think it's trying to deal with the pain of many of the men in that room. I think if anything it was an effort to sort of lighten up.''

Near the end of his address, Connors did issue a potent mea culpa for the church's failure to discipline abusive priests and reach out to victims, saying, ''In doing so, we now know that we exacerbated the pain of abuse; we in effect re-abused the victim.'' Connors also called the tolerance and coverup of clergy sex abuse ''disgraceful, sinful behaviors.''

''How did it ever happen in our midst?'' he asked in a rhetorical musing. ''Were we really surprised? Or did we see and not say? Can our attention and attendance maintain their current zenith when the media turns its investigative eye towards other evil doings?''

But in his closing comments he renewed his attack on the child protection charter approved by the bishops in June, dismissing ''zero tolerance,'' which was the rallying cry of the bishops' meeting, as a ''war slogan'' that fails to allow for the possibility of recovery and reconcilation.

Connors, who has a doctorate in psychology and is minister provincial of the Immaculate Conception Province of the Conventual Franciscans in Rensselaer, N.Y., was president and chief executive officer of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., and executive director of Southdown Treatment Center in Ontario, which are both treatment centers for sexually abusive priests.

The issue of how the country's more than 300 religious orders fit into the charter is one of wide public concern. Many victims and their advocates maintain that the orders' relative autonomy make it difficult to ensure that they hold abusers accountable. Fueling those concerns, officials at this week's conference acknowledge that they do not know how many religious orders have policies to monitor and discipline abusive priests or how many religious order priests have been removed from ministry because of incidents of abuse. Nor do they have a system in place to find out.

Yesterday afternoon, conference members took in somber presentations by two medical experts who work with sex abuse victims and perpetrators. Also yesterday, conference members were addressed by Archbishop Thomas Kelly of Louisville, Ky., who did not specifically mention the clergy sex abuse crisis but referred to ''difficulties'' now facing many church leaders.

He also spoke broadly about the radical impact of the Second Vatican Council, which he said ushered in ''great, refreshing new attitudes'' about obedience, authority, and freedom, as well as intimacy and sexuality. But he said many priests and religious leaders ''didn't have the inner strength to cope with this whole new way of thinking.''

Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at pfeiffer@globe.com.

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 8/10/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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