Juneau's Catholics respond to the scandal

Laity express anger, sadness at the abuse and cover-up

Posted: Sunday, May 12, 2002

Roman Catholics in Juneau have been saddened and angered at the child sex abuse scandal that has rocked the church nationwide, but it hasn't shaken their faith.

Jody Liliedahl, a Catholic layman who is caretaker at the church's Shrine of St. Therese in Juneau, said the public needs an apology from the church for the way its leaders' mistakes have affected Catholics.

"Catholicism in this country has been damaged," he said. "The ultimate and highest leaders certainly have to take responsibility for it. I know they are. I know they have. They're hurt and alarmed and deeply and totally concerned."

The crisis hasn't shaken Liliedahl's faith. But he said, "I think it probably may give the parts of the culture that doubt the church and would perhaps label the church as hypocritical some prima facie evidence.

"The church's main mission is to bring peace and love into the world."

Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher wrote in a recent Juneau diocese newsletter of her sexual abuse by a seminarian in Portland, Ore., 35 years ago.

"For me, it's something that's been part of me my whole life since I was 12, when I was abused," she said in an interview. "All this recent stuff brought up all these feelings again."

When the Catholic bishops meet in Dallas next month, they're likely to recommend that priests who molest children be removed from active ministry, said Bishop Michael Warfel of Juneau.

"I have received encouragement from people here to say, 'Yeah, you have to have zero-tolerance for someone who harms a child,' and I agree with that," said Warfel, spiritual leader for the Diocese of Juneau, which includes all of Southeast Alaska.

Zero tolerance, as the bishops use the phrase, refers to the removal from active ministry of a priest who sexually abuses a minor, he said.

If two-thirds of the bishops agree on a policy and the Vatican approves it, it will be the national norm for dioceses in the United States for handling allegations of sex abuse. Bishops now set policies regarding sex abuse for their own dioceses and follow procedures set out under what is called canon law to punish priests.

Although no priests in Southeast have been implicated, local Catholics have been distressed by the widely publicized sex abuse scandal.

The publicity began slowly in the winter, starting with news reports about a Boston priest who was convicted of molesting a 10-year-old boy and who faced other criminal charges regarding as many as 200 victims.

As time passed, more accusers, some detailing allegations from many years ago, came forth, sometimes in the context of civil lawsuits. Facing a crisis of trust that wasn't going to ebb on its own, Catholic cardinals met with the pope in the Vatican late last month.

Catholics and others have been angered both by the abuse and by the way some bishops or cardinals handled the allegations in the past. In some cases, abusers were reassigned to other parishes, where they harmed more children or teen-agers.

Mary Horton, wife of a deacon in the Juneau diocese, spoke of "the whole sadness of it happening and also the anger that I feel it's been covered up for as long as it has. The anger at knowing that there were priests who were abusing children, then sending them someplace so they had a chance to abuse another child."

As with sex abuse in the general population, it can't be known how many people abused by priests never have reported it. But church officials say the number of accused priests is a very small portion of the nation's 47,000 Roman Catholic clerics.

Rohrbacher said she was silent about her abuse for 17 years, until she told her husband and sought counseling.

"The guy who abused me told me not to tell or terrible things would happen," she said. "I was an adult before I realized it wasn't my fault."

Only very recently has she contacted prosecutors, the Portland diocese and the seminary. The seminarian has left the priesthood and married, Rohrbacher said, but the seminary's abbot said there would be an investigation.

"It makes me angry that anybody would do this to children," said Charles Rohrbacher, Paula's husband and a layman who works for the Juneau diocese. "Even though it is a very small minority of our priests (in the United States) - the vast majority are really good, holy, faithful men - it's a terrible thing to do to children."

Bishop Warfel said he knew of no allegations against priests in Southeast now or in the past. The diocese has not had a civil lawsuit against it for any reason, nor has it paid money to settle cases out of court, he said.

"That doesn't necessarily mean there wasn't somebody out there who was hurt," he said.

Juneau District Attorney Rick Svobodny said he couldn't think of any person who was in a position of authority in a religious organization, Roman Catholic or otherwise, who has been prosecuted in Southeast.

The Juneau diocese is small, with 10 priests including the bishop, and two new priests to be ordained soon.

"I know them all pretty well," Warfel said, "and I have complete confidence the priests we have here are the kind of priests that everyone expects."

Warfel said he recommended to Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., who is president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, that the bishops focus not on public relations but on saying where they stand and who they are as bishops.

"I think the most important thing we can do now is remember who we are in our deepest sense - pastors and shepherds," Warfel said. "With that in mind, you respond to all concerns appropriately."

The hierarchy's response to the crisis has been part of the issue. Pope John Paul II, in an address to American cardinals in late April, said the abuse is "an appalling sin" and is rightly considered a crime by society.

The pope said there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young, which some observers felt set a standard for "zero tolerance." But the pope also said the church can't forget the power of Christian conversion, "the radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God ..."

It seemed an equivocal statement to some observers. A public communication soon after from American cardinals said notorious, serial, predatory abusers should be dismissed from the priesthood, but it referred to another type of process for other types of abusers.

The pope has since said that some people who live in sin don't intend to change and can't be absolved of their sin.

Horton, a Catholic laywoman, said the cardinals' statement didn't address "the children whose parents have come and said, 'Our child has been abused.' What kind of process happens for them? That's never been addressed."

Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher said, "I'd like the solution to be led by what the victims would like to see happen."

She wants the church to report accusations immediately to child-protection and law-enforcement agencies, and to suspend accused priests from their duties without any delay.

Charles Rohrbacher said a group of laity and priests in each diocese should oversee implementation of the church's policy on sex abuse of children.

Some Catholics have said removing priests from active ministry while keeping them in the priesthood allows them to stay in an institution that could help them.

Liliedahl, the shrine's caretaker, said any priest convicted of a crime should be subjected to the legal consequences, like any member of society. Liliedahl said he hoped the church would not turn its back on convicted priests but would support them in their healing.

Tony Mander, a licensed clinical psychologist in Juneau who consults with the state on sex abuse programs for prisoners, said the Catholic Church should leave the investigation of sex abuse to law-enforcement authorities.

He thought the cardinals' statement about creating processes for handling priests who abuse children made it seem as if church officials think they're above the law.

And Mander said church officials should be required to report child abuse. Alaska law now requires health-care workers, teachers, peace officers, child-care providers, and drug- and alcohol-abuse counselors to report child abuse.

Mander, who has worked with sex offenders, said it's important to hold them accountable.

"The more secrecy you have, the harder it is to help somebody and keep them from reoffending," he said. "Certainly this has gone on for centuries in the church. It's about time it came to light."

Any type of sexual abuse of children is horrible, because the adult is always in a position of power, Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher said.

But Charles Rohrbacher said abuse by priests is particularly bad because they act in the person of Jesus Christ in the Mass and in the sacraments.

"The way in which they wound their victim is an attack, not just in their ability to trust others," he said, "but it is an assault on their relationship with God and the faith."

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.

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