In Dealing With Abusive Priests, Bishops Stood Along Wide Spectrum

New York Times/April 23, 2002
By Sam Dillon

Pittsburgh, Pa. -- While some American bishops transferred predator priests from parish to parish, the leader of one diocese, Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh, battled for seven years to remove a sexually abusive priest from the ministry.

Bishop Wuerl suspended the priest, the Rev. Anthony Cipolla, in 1988 after a former altar boy sued him for damages and at least one other victim stepped forward. And when Father Cipolla persuaded the Vatican's highest tribunal to reinstate him, Bishop Wuerl traveled to Rome with suitcases full of papers to document the priest's sex crimes.

The Vatican reversed course in 1995, upholding the bishop's sanctions and vindicating what he describes as his effort to protect the safety of his flock. "You have to assure your people that their needs are first," he said in an interview last week.

Bishop Wuerl stands on one end of a broad spectrum of how Catholic leaders have responded to the sexual abuse crisis in the church. While he and some other bishops in the nation's 194 dioceses have sought in various ways to prevent abuse and to hold pedophiles accountable, others have seemed more concerned with protecting the church's name and its bank accounts, church leaders and religious scholars said in interviews.

"Where Catholics have had real leadership and responsiveness from their bishops, the church has done O.K.," said Deal W. Hudson, publisher of the Catholic magazine Crisis, who travels frequently to address church audiences. "But where the cardinal or archbishop is inaccessible behind three desks of secretaries and nobody answers the phone, then there's a willingness to believe the worst."

Nearly all United States dioceses have adopted some formal sexual abuse policies, but they vary widely. Some church officials hope that tough, uniform national guidelines may eventually result from the meeting at the Vatican this week between the pope and American cardinals.

One possibility is that canon laws might eventually be amended to make it easier to remove abusive priests like Father Cipolla from the ministry.

Yet new guidelines will not bring change on their own. The bishops enjoy much autonomy and can apply guidelines vigorously or with little force. It has been 10 years since the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops recommended to its members a set of principles for handling sexual abuse cases, but the current scandal shows that they have been applied selectively or not at all.

One reflection of the bishops' uneven record came last week when the conference moved to shore up the credibility of its Ad Hoc Committee on Sex Abuse. Three of the committee's five members, including its chairman, Bishop John B. McCormack of Manchester, N.H., had been criticized for their handling of abuse cases. On Friday, the conference announced that Bishop McCormack was stepping aside, being succeeded by Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis.

A survey by The New York Times, carried out through phone calls to diocesan offices and a search of computer databases, suggests that many bishops themselves concluded recently that despite their sexual abuse policies, some priests were holding positions that were inappropriate. In about 40 dioceses, more than 100 priests were suddenly removed this year, as news accounts of the scandal that began in Boston spread concern nationwide.

The closest thing the church has to a set of national guidelines is "Five Principles to Follow in Dealing With Accusations of Sexual Abuse," issued by the bishops' conference in 1992. The principles urged bishops to respond promptly to credible accusations of abuse, to relieve offending priests from their ministries, to comply with laws requiring the reporting of sexual abuse to civil authorities, to treat victims with compassion and to deal with sexual abuse as openly as possible while respecting the privacy of those involved.

The dioceses have applied the principles in divergent ways. Some dioceses, for instance, appear to have fully embraced laws requiring the clergy to report cases of sexual abuse to the police, while others seem to have applied a narrow interpretation of those laws.

"We're talking about crimes," said Marianna Thompson, a spokeswoman for the Diocese of Paterson, N.J. "Our policy is get on the phone and call the cops." In contrast, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles recently argued that although individual priests were obliged by California law to report abuse cases, his archdiocese was not.

Many bishops have met personally with abuse victims, but some appear to have responded more genuinely than others to their conference's call to treat victims with compassion. Some dioceses have acquired reputations as insensitive through the aggressive legal tactics they have used against victims who sue the church.

Sylvia Eklund, a lawyer who sued the Diocese of Cleveland on behalf of a 19-year-old man who claimed to have been abused years earlier by the principal of a parochial school, said in an interview that lawyers for the diocese verbally brutalized her client during a two-day deposition in 1998. They forced him to describe the abuses in such excruciating detail, she said, that he eventually refused to proceed with the suit.

"I felt like I'd brought my client into the slaughterhouse," Ms. Eklund said. "They were merciless."

The Cleveland Plain Dealer detailed the diocese's rough legal tactics in a lengthy article last month, and Robert D. Tayek, a spokesman for the diocese, said on Friday that the article had provoked considerable reflection among Bishop Anthony M. Pilla and his aides.

Bishop Pilla, who has now appointed a commission to review his diocese's sexual abuse policies, said in a statement on Friday, "Obviously in the minds of many victims, we have not reached out to them adequately, and if we are going to restore trust, we have to do a better job."

Scott Appleby, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism, at the University of Notre Dame, said that not only Cleveland but several other dioceses had used legal tactics that "while legal, strictly speaking, are not charitable or compassionate."

The Survivors' Network of Those Abused by Priests has criticized the Dioceses of Philadelphia, Honolulu, Chicago, Jefferson City, Mo., and Providence, R.I., for tactics it has called harsh.

About three-quarters of all bishops have responded to the crisis by establishing committees of lay Catholics who participate in the review of sexual abuse complaints. The Diocese of Dallas has established four parallel lay boards that oversee priest assignments and examine sexual abuse complaints. Bronson Havard, a spokesman, acknowledged that the diocese would not have established the elaborate system, which the bishops' conference hails as a model, had a jury in 1997 not awarded 12 victims of a Dallas priest $120 million, later reduced by settlement to $31 million.

Today every priest, every employee and every volunteer in the Diocese of Dallas must undergo a criminal background check before going to work for the diocese. Two priests were transferred out of their parishes this month after an outside auditor discovered that they had failed to carry out the mandatory criminal checks on prospective employees, Mr. Havard said.

But Gary Schoener, a Minnesota psychologist who as a consultant to the St. Paul-Minneapolis Diocese and several others has evaluated hundreds of priests accused of abuse, said lay review boards in some dioceses had brought little improvement. "They can be like medical boards made up of doctors' wives," Mr. Schoener said. "When they're made up of people who are too close to the bishop, or who simply don't believe priests can do these things, they're ineffective."

In an interview on Thursday at his downtown Pittsburgh chancery, Bishop Wuerl said that shortly after assuming leadership of the diocese in 1988, he paid a visit to the shattered family of two brothers who had been abused by priests. The meeting had a profound effect on him, he said.

"You cannot visit with someone who has been abused without coming away with deepened resolve that this should never happen again," he said.

That same year, he removed Father Cipolla as a chaplain at a Catholic home for handicapped children, after Timothy A. Bendig, a Pittsburgh paramedic, accused the priest of having repeatedly abused him when he was an altar boy earlier in the 1980's. Mr. Bendig, the second Pittsburgh Catholic to step forward with accusations against Father Cipolla, sued the Diocese of Pittsburgh for damages, eventually obtaining a settlement.

Father Cipolla appealed his removal all the way to the Vatican's highest court, the Signatura, which in 1993 ordered that he be reinstated, on the ground that Bishop Wuerl had violated his rights under canon law. But in 1995, after the bishop went to Rome to offer details of the priest's behavior, the court reversed itself.

"Bishop Wuerl took a brave stand in my case," Mr. Bendig said in an interview. "He just insisted, `This man should not be a priest.' "

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