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From the Cheap Seats

John Rondy is a Bay View-based freelance writer.

Catholic Church at a crossroads

Writer’s note: The following is the longer, unedited version of a story I wrote that went out on the Reuters national news wire on 4/9. To see the shorter, edited Reuters version, go to:

http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE6380S620100409

MILWAUKEE – Amid allegations that church and legal officials didn’t do enough to discipline Father Lawrence Murphy, a now deceased Catholic priest who is accused of sexually assaulting some 200 deaf boys at St. John’s School for the Deaf dating back to the 1950s, the Catholic Church finds itself at a crossroads as it faces renewed public criticism for its handling of cases of sexual misconduct by Catholic priests.

In many ways, the Milwaukee Archdiocese serves as a microcosm for the litany of troubles facing the Catholic faith, as it is forced to respond to allegations by victims that local church leaders and the Vatican were more concerned with protecting abusive priests than prosecuting them.

Beyond the tarnished reputation of the Catholic Church, the financial fallout from paying settlement claims with victims is being felt in Milwaukee and Catholic dioceses across the nation. With four lawsuits pending,the longtime home of the Milwaukee Archdiocese, the Cousins Center and its 44-acre tract, is up for sale to help pay for more than $28 million in claims already paid out that several years ago threatened to bankrupt the church. 

Nationally, an estimated $2 billion has been paid in settlements and related costs for sexual abuse by Catholic priests since 2004, according to a report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Membership in the 10-county Milwaukee Archdiocese has dropped a reported five percent in two years from 675,000 Catholics two years ago to just under 644,000 at the end of last year.

Nationally, one in 10 American adults are former Catholics, and Catholic losses due to religious switching far outnumber gains, with those leaving Catholicism outnumbering converts to Catholicism by roughly a 4-to-1 margin, according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. More than half of former Catholics say they left the religion because they stopped believing in its teachings.

“There is no other religious group we’ve looked at where we see that kind of ratio of people leaving versus people joining,” said Greg Smith, a research fellow with the Washington, D.C.-based Pew Forum.

Another troubling trend for Catholics is the drop in the number of those entering the priesthood. From a high of 35,070 diocesan priests in the U.S. in 1966, there was a 40 percent drop in that number in 2005, with a projected 46 percent drop of 16,000 diocesan priests leveling off by 2015, according to Lawrence A. Young, a contributing author to the 1993 book "Full Pews and Empty Altars: Demographics of the Priest Shortage in U.S. Dioceses." 

“The rationale for entering the priesthood for some young men may no longer look as favorable, given the negative kind of aura that surrounds the priesthood with the current crisis,” said Young, who currently heads the Department of Conservation and Social Sciences at the University of Idaho. “It creates a real crisis for the church as it continues to try to recruit priests to the priesthood. Our projections have turned out to be highly accurate, but may turn out to be too optimistic given the current climate.”

Cases mount

The 2004 John Jay Report commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that about four percent of all priests who served at Catholic churches between 1950 and 2002 had allegations of sexual abuse substantiated against them. The known number of abuses increased in the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s, declined in the 1980s and by the 1990s returned to the levels of the 1950s.

According to a report by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the majority of new allegations (71 percent) made by victims of Catholic priests last year in the U.S. occurred or began between 1960 and 1984. The most common time period for allegations reported in 2009 was 1975-1979, the report said.

Victims’ rights groups assert that a Vatican office headed by Pope Benedict XVI in the mid-1990s failed to act on a recommendation from the Milwaukee Archdiocese that Father Lawrence Murphy should be defrocked. The Vatican’s response – that the renewed claims are the result of a smear campaign by victim’s rights groups and fueled by the media – is a tactical error reminiscent of the Nixon administration during the Watergate scandal, says Patrick Whelan, President of Boston-basedCatholic Democrats, a national organization with 16,000 members.

“I think it hurts church dramatically,” Whelan said. “I think the worst is probably yet to come. Pope Benedict took this all upon himself when he was the head of the Office of the Doctrine of Faith, so this is going to be a real drama playing out. I very much hope that they follow Father Tom Reese’s advice and get everything out in the open and get the bad news out of the way.”

“The church was so anxious to hold on to every last priest, that they went to great lengths to try and counsel and rehabilitate these priests. I think in the larger scheme of things, the church has lost it’s moral voice,” Whelan said, adding that weekly Catholic church attendance among of self-identified Catholics in greater Boston is down 16%.

Author and psychologist Eugene C. Kennedy of Chicago wrote last year in the National Catholic Reporter that the Catholic Church’s “profoundly flawed ecclesiastical defense, its lingering insensitivity to its victims and its inherent resistance to attempts to resolve it” have longstanding roots in the hierarchy and authoritarian culture of the Catholic Church.

“The sexual wounds in Catholicism can never be healed and the Sex Abuse Crisis never resolved in the unhealthy atmosphere, acknowledged or not, that prevails in the full court press to restore dead Old Church hierarchical practices and privileges to a Church that can only thrive collegially,” wrote Kennedy, a former Catholic priest who is retired from Loyola University in Chicago.

Kennedy is a noted dissident in the Catholic Church and has argued for a post-clerical, de-centered priesthood, in which the adjustments to celibacy are varied. For Kennedy, the priesthood must be changed to include “the love and understanding of a specific woman, or, in some cases, a certain man.”

Faith tested

Tim Flanner, a 51-year-old Catholic from Brookfield, says he disagrees with the “shoot the messenger” mentality coming from the Vatican and various Catholic bishops who have defended the Pope in the current crisis that was rekindled by a recent New York Times report.

“The church needs to address its own failures, acknowledge it’s own guilt, and ask for forgiveness, and heal as a family,” said Flanner, who noted that attendance at an Easter vigil at his church, St. John Vianney, was noticeably down from last year. “The church is at a crossroads. They have the opportunity to be an example. There are people who are really ticked off, and there are a lot of ‘em.”

Flanner says the Catholic Church could take a lesson from the Boy Scouts of America, which has been proactive in promoting a high level of awareness of older adults who prey on young boys.

“Scouting had a problem with this.. society has a problem with this,” Flanner said. “Whatever church you want to name, it’s there. The story does not appear to be going away. I believe that the church has an opportunity to meet this head-on, and do it in the right way, which, in my opinion, they are not.”

Sister Mary Rose Accetturo, a Franciscan Nun with Sisters for Christian Community at the Marian Center located just up the road from the Milwaukee Archdiocese, says the Catholic Church needs to become more transparent in the way it handles the priest sex abuse crisis.

“To me the greatest pain in this is not the abuse,” Accetturo said. “It’s the cover-up, it’s the lies. Am I disappointed in my institution? Yes. People are leaving the church.

“We can’t erase the past, but we can take responsibility and go forward,” she said. “We are talking about forgiveness and reconciliation. Money is not going to do it. Money is not going to heal the heart. I like what [Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome] Listecki did. He apologized – he said we messed up. Ok, so let’s fix it.”

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