The stories of sexual abuse of youth by Catholic priests exploded into public awareness in 2001 from Boston, but Diocese of Bridgeport legal documents ordered released by the US Supreme Court in 2009 and revelations of scandalous mishandling of clerical sexual abuse of youth in 2010 by Bishops in countries all over the world now frame the local story.
William Lori, Bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, attended the 2002 US Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas that addressed clergy sexual abuse of youth. He never asked the people in parish pews to gather and discuss this subject nor did he reveal Diocesan structure or history in this regard, but he did come home with his solution, the Safe Environments program he installed in the diocese. More than 90,000 persons have taken several hours of training from VIRTUS intended to help them understand and look out for sexual predators. A diocesan review board was initially appointed to receive reports of abuse. The diocese no longer publicly discloses who serves today, what their work entails, or results of their process. The Diocese of Bridgeport with a Bridgeport headquarters on Jewett Avenue includes the entirety of Fairfield County where 50 percent of the population is identified as Catholic on the diocesan website. In the early 2000s more than $37 million was paid to claimants in two major diocesan settlements. Evidence of additional confidential settlements has surfaced more recently. Thirty-four priests have had credible public allegations made against them relative to 109 victimizations. More than two of them have declared their innocence publicly and still serve as priests. Although supposedly the allegations of sexual abuse of youth were not found credible by the diocese, those priests neither got a chance in civil or criminal court to clear their names and reputations, nor did they have recourse to Canon Law rights set out for clergy. At least one Monsignor, still in service, with significant past diocesan responsibilities handling accusations of sexual abuse has had multiple allegations made against him personally, yet he still serves as a priest even though the diocese has provided funds for counseling and/or confidential settlement to one or more of the people calling him an abuser. The release of court documents in 2009, including depositions and affidavits, indicate threatening, conflicting and seemingly false statements by one of these clergymen during his office in diocesan governance.
The power of the Bishop appears to be such that only he gets to practice full freedom of religion (while reminding all who will listen that the Roman Catholic Church is not a democracy). Brother priests at ordination promise celibacy (that does not include any sexual activity) and obedience to him (in contrast to the “independent contractor status” delightfully explained by Bishop Egan about Catholic clergy during a deposition) and he in turn exercises full control over their appointments, recognition and aspects of their compensation. It becomes obvious that faithful Catholics who are the majority of the people of God, identified by Canon Law as laypersons, hold no real practical power in the institution. Even when laypersons are included in certain church or parish administration functions, they are notified they are appointed by a Pastor or Bishop, serve at their pleasure solely, and are there merely for their advisory potential, of course getting to that stage only if and when called. All power of the purse is exercised by the ordained. Suggestions have been made of a financial freeze on donations to the diocese, but evidence is sketchy as to the results of such advice. Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport governance seems even tighter than the Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Bridgeport. There are no district elections. Bishop candidates usually are not even part of the local citizenry when Rome is in a selection mode. They are usually from other states with little or no local acquaintance. Further, there is no mechanism for those governed in expressing exception or displeasure to such appointments other than a quiet exit. One of the trappings of that Bridgeport office includes an elevator equipped 10,000 square foot residence on two acres in the suburbs for Bishop Lori and his dogs with a 2009 appraised value of $1,407,800. The Bishop has a bully pulpit paid for by people in the pews that provides “well screened advertisements” through his own publication, The Fairfield County Catholic, which has decreased to a monthly, in which his words and photograph appear frequently. A faithful Catholic with a contrasting opinion may not get printed as a Letter to the Editor or even in a paid in advance advertisement! Freedom of the press, one of our dearest American freedoms, in this case becomes freedom for the publisher!
During the past decade the Bishop created an extensive system to monitor the finances of all Catholic activities including the 87 parishes because significant funds were discovered missing or misspent in the mid-’00s by pastors in Darien, Greenwich and other parishes. The people in the pews in 2010 have no comprehensive annual audited diocesan financial report. Assets certainly exceed $1 Billion. Significant revenue flows are noted: taxation without representation in the form of Cathedraticum tax paid by parishes for support of the diocese; educational assessments on all parishes by the diocese for parishes with schools; subsidies from the diocese to schools as a lump sum per school contrasted with former subsidies per capita; and a Bishop’s Annual Appeal that becomes an enduring parish obligation when Appeal goals are not met. Income flows from separate operations, from investments, and grants from governments or other organizations to support service programs are not fully reported. Such secrecy can only suggest there may be scandals here as well. The tax-free status of the Roman Catholic Church seems to provide no financial disclosure responsibility such as the required Form 990 annually for 501(c)(3) charities.
Bishop Lori’s major effort during the decade of the ’00s, aside from settling sexual abuse complaints with as little scandal as possible, focused on a legal battle to keep sealed and secret for the better part of ten years thousands of pages of court documents concerning handling of sexual abuse by those responsible. The documents reveal the clerical viewpoint and mindset as well as the confidential inner workings of the diocesan leadership to hide this information from the public and protect brother priests from facing consequences. He and his team of lawyers resisted major US newspapers waging battle in CT State courts and finally in the US Supreme Court, where after all appeals were exhausted in 2009 some of the 12,675 pages were released. This legal war was a major expense, costing the people in the pews untold additional millions. This secrecy apparently allowed Bishops to provide multiple secret settlements of tens of thousands of dollars, financed by the Catholic citizenry, which has been expected to pay, pray and obey, with no say. Although for the most part they have stayed for a long time, too, today many Catholics have abandoned the pews, exited their practice or have begun to send dollars targeted on Matthew 25:31-46 compassion and mercy to places where there is fuller public accountability. Works of mercy and justice are Christian activities certainly that can be directly supported. They do not require financial travel through the secrecy of diocesan records. The properties sold and the insurance benefits because of premiums paid came from the people in the pews.
The impact on Bridgeport and its environs and all types of human services from the trailing effects of the abuse and cover-up are yet unknown, but may include parochial school closings or employee layoffs, especially if the Bishops’ Annual Appeal falls below target. American Catholics may hope for a reform of freedoms or structure in the decade of the ’10s so that the God-given promise and gifts to all faithful Catholics can come together to face these challenges.
Sexual abuse, money problems and the power system have unfortunately been parts of the unraveling story. It has been a very human story, all too tragic because the victims have been children and their families. Faithful Catholics and pastoral clergy living their ordination promises have also been survivors in this story. Political ambition, reward structure and individual wrongdoings have been kept secret for too long. When it could no longer maintain the veil on Church-countenanced and -directed activity, the moral authority and teaching example of leaders has become compromised. All of the people of God must use the next decade to observe, listen and learn an alternative method of becoming adult American Catholics, and they must use their voice, as a community, to engage in discourse and dialogue for the good of all in the Church. May that reform, constantly urged on the Church, be the story of the next decade in the Bridgeport Diocese.
John Marshall Lee