Joseph F. O’Callaghan
The announcement on March 20, 2012 that William E. Lori has been appointed by Pope Benedict XVI as archbishop of Baltimore is an opportunity to assess his tenure as bishop of Bridgeport since 2001. From the beginning he has presented himself as a protector of survivors of priestly sexual abuse and as a champion of religious liberty.
As the successor to Edward M. Egan, Bishop Lori had to confront the terrible tragedy of priestly sexual abuse, especially acute in the Diocese of Bridgeport. He announced on February 15 2004 that 107 persons made 109 allegations of sexual abuse against 32 priests in the Diocese from 1953 to 2003. While he served on the American Bishops’ committee that drew up the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002, he also established a Safe Environment program aimed at preventing similar abuse in the future.
Although those administrative actions were necessary, neither he nor his predecessor displayed any real compassion for the survivors of sexual abuse. For many years the Diocese fought tooth and nail to avoid giving them financial compensation. In legal settlements reached in 2001 just before Bishop Egan was promoted to New York and in 2003 under Bishop Lori the Diocese paid $37,700,000 to the survivors. The faithful were assured that none of that money came from the Annual Bishop’s Appeal or parish collections, but rather from insurance, investments, and the sale of unneeded property. Nevertheless, as all diocesan funds come out of the pockets of parishioners that explanation is misleading and disingenuous. During their meeting in Dallas in 2002, the American bishops emphasized the need for greater accountability and transparency. Despite that neither Bishop Egan nor Bishop Lori issued a financial statement detailing the expenditures involved in processing claims by survivors.
Moreover, Bishop Lori labored mightily to keep under seal court documents relating to sexual abuse (the so-called Rosado Files). In the eight years that elapsed since the sexual abuse cases were settled in 2001, a succession of Connecticut courts ruled against him and the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered the release of the documents in question. Bishop Lori, however, was adamant in his determination to prevent the public from reading about the cover-up by Bishop Walter W. Curtis and Bishop Egan and their subordinates, as well as the testimony of abusive priests and the survivors of their abuse. Thus, claiming the protection of the First Amendment, he attempted to present the dispute to the United States Supreme Court. The Court, however, refused to hear the case. Consequently, the documents were finally made public in the fall of 2010. Countless sums, perhaps in the millions, that could better have been used to alleviate the suffering of the poor, were expended on this legal battle. The First Amendment guarantees the separation of church and state, but it does not guarantee Bishop Egan or Bishop Lori the right to conceal criminal behavior on the part of the clergy, the bishops, and their subordinates.
While Bishop Lori noted that he had apologized to individual survivors of priestly sexual abuse, he has steadfastly rejected overtures from Catholic organizations concerned about this grave scandal. When Catholics of long-standing service to the Church organized Voice of the Faithful in the Diocese of Bridgeport in 2002 and offered their support in restoring the Church’s good name, Bishop Lori spurned them and, without a hearing, accused them of not adhering to orthodox teaching and banned them from meeting in their parish churches. In like manner, when the newly formed Connecticut branch of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) asked Bishop Lori’s permission to place notices of meetings in the diocesan newspaper and in parish bulletins, his response was a deafening silence.
Financial scandals in at least two parishes prompted Bishop Lori in 2008 to require all parishes to utilize the Parish Administration and Finance Manual. Though intended to protect against similar abuse in the future, it also centralized control of parish finances in the diocesan office. Just as bishops have often been described as branch managers of a corporation centered in Rome, Bishop Lori has transformed pastors into branch managers of the diocesan corporation. At the same time, he has neglected to provide a financial statement for the Diocese since 2008.
That point became very clear in 2009 when the Judiciary Committee of the State Legislature began to consider a bill that would modify the existing structure of parish corporations as established by the State of Connecticut. The parish corporation, according to the current statute, consists of the bishop, the vicar general, the pastor, and two lay members appointed annually by the other three. The proposed modification would provide for greater participation by the laity. Realizing that enactment of that bill into law would undermine his absolute control of each of the 87 parishes, Bishop Lori, wrapping himself in the banner of the First Amendment, led a rally in Hartford to denounce it. Whereas the Second Vatican Council affirmed that the Church was the People of God, Bishop Lori used the First Amendment to oppose this challenge to his authority and to reject the right of the faithful to participate effectively in the governance of their Church.
Most recently Bishop Lori has gained national attention as the spokesman for the American bishops on religious liberty. A photograph depicting Bishop Lori and four other male clerics appearing before a congressional committee has become iconic, as evidence of insensitivity to women who queried: what is wrong with this picture? If the hearing was to discuss contraception, why were there no women at the witness table? Bishop Lori’s “Parable on the Kosher Deli,” delivered on that occasion, is not likely to take its place with the parables of Jesus.
Now that Bishop Lori embarks on a new stage in his ecclesiastical career, we wish him well. We pray too that the clergy and laity of Bridgeport will have the opportunity to voice their concerns about the needs of the Diocese and the qualities desirable in a new bishop. We also pray that the faithful of the archdiocese of Baltimore will discover in Bishop Lori the type of leader described by Jesus when he said: “You know that among the Gentiles their seeming rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mk 10:42-45).
Posts Tagged ‘Diocese of Bridgeport’
Joseph F. O’Callaghan
The American bishops during their recent visit to Rome discussed the issue with Benedict XVI and various Vatican officials. Last fall Bishop William E. Lori announced the closing or merger of several parishes in Bridgeport. The restructuring was the result of a three-year study conducted by the Bridgeport pastors who considered five indicators of viability: Worship; Education; Service; Community; Administration.
As reconfiguration seems inevitable several issues must be considered. First, are the parishioners brought into the process at the beginning and actively involved in reaching a final determination to close or merge the parish? Secondly, the parish is primarily a spiritual community of the faithful, not a territorial division of the diocese or a collection of buildings. People develop strong ties of affection for their parish and will suffer a great sense of loss if it is closed. What steps can be taken to preserve that community and to avoid destroying it by dispersing the members? Thirdly, will the proceeds from the sale of the buildings and grounds go directly to the diocese or be distributed among the surviving parish or parishes? Similarly, will the liturgical vessels, furniture, fixtures, etc., be distributed to another parish or parishes? Finally, what will you do if your parish is closed? Where will you go?
Recent news stories have raised the question: when did the Vatican first become aware of the problem of priestly sexual abuse? As early as 1966 Archbishop Egidio Vagnozzi, the Apostolic Delegate in Washington, informed then Bishop Walter W. Curtis of Bridgeport of the Vatican’s advice on how to deal with a family distraught over the abuse of their son, Mark Frechette, by Lawrence Brett, a diocesan priest. The family hoped that the diocese would help to pay for Mark’s psychiatric care, but Bishop Curtis denied any responsibility.
Commiserating with Curtis, Vagnozzi remarked that recounting such a sad story “must have caused you great heaviness of heart. We expect failures in our life but we never become accustomed to experiences as sordid as that involving one of the young priests of Bridgeport. I am anxious too for the Frechettes that there may be manifested to them the concern and understanding that they expect from their father in Christ. . . . They obviously now need reassurance that the Church is interested. In this situation I believe that it will be helpful if Your Excellency receives them and tries to be as sympathetic as possible. Such an expression of pastoral concern may relieve them while an official attitude may leave them bitter.
In December 1366 Vagnozzi conveyed to Curtis the observations of the Sacred Congregation of the Council in Rome concerning the matter: “The Holy See notes that neither the Ordinary [the bishop] nor the diocese of Bridgeport are obliged in strict justice to meet the expenses in the illness of the young man. This would be true even if it were proved that the priest in question was the cause of his condition. In such a case action for damages could be taken against the priest as an individual. However, in a larger non-juridical sense the authorities in the Church have a responsibility for the actions of the priests subject to them. Most Catholics think, in a vague way, that the Bishop is accountable for the transgressions of his priests and that he should protect the faithful. They would not press a claim, though, to the extent that the Frechettes have. The comment I have [made] recognizes the difficulty of your own position. If you admit a claim of this kind, you cannot know where it will end. Moreover, if acceptance of responsibility in such a case becomes publicly known, you might be vulnerable in any number of other situations. The suggestion is made that the diocese of Bridgeport may have some funds at its disposal for charitable purposes. Some allocation might be made from them to the Frechette family in such a way that the Church itself and not the diocese of Bridgeport will be thought of as offering assistance. This would safeguard the position of Your Excellency and at the same time meet the allegations that the Church is not interested in the welfare of her children when they are in trouble.”
While expressing pastoral concern for the Frechette family, Archbishop Vagnozzi seems more concerned with the burden imposed on Bishop Curtis, who was attempting to evade financial responsibility in this matter. While acknowledging that Catholics have a vague notion that bishops are responsible for their priests and that Curtis should make some charitable gesture toward the Frechettes, the Vatican also recognized that if news of this got out, others might make financial demand on the diocese. A truly compassionate, pastoral response!
If you would like to hear more evidence from court documents concerning priestly sexual abuse in the Diocese of Bridgeport, save the date, Saturday, November 13, and come to the Concert Hall at Norwalk City Hall for a dramatic presentation entitled “Bless Me, Father, For I Have Sinned!”
The Diocese of Bridgeport, still blithely spending the money of the Catholic faithful, has appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Presenting itself as a victim of injustice, the Diocese alleges that its First Amendment rights have been violated by the order of the State Supreme Court to unseal court records relating to priestly sexual abuse and episcopal cover-up. The Diocese further claims it has not been treated fairly by a succession of state courts that have heard the case. The Diocese complains that all of this happened long ago and that the newspapers only want to rehash old news.
In the eight years that have elapsed since the sexual abuse cases were settled in 2001, the Diocese has taken its case to court and lost consistently. It is difficult to believe that the diocesan right to due process of law has somehow been neglected. In the course of those years the Diocese has spent countless thousands of dollars – shall we say millions? -contributed by the people that could better have been spent to alleviate the suffering of the poor and needy. The diocesan spokesman, Joseph McAleer, refused to state how much money the Diocese has spent on this legal battle.
This is not about the First Amendment. This is not about the intrusion of the government or the media into the internal affairs of the Catholic Church. The First Amendment guarantees the separation of church and state. It does not guarantee the Catholic Church the right to conceal criminal behavior on the part of the clergy, the bishops, and their subordinates.
This is about secrecy. It is not about the priest predators whose names are known. It is about concealing from the public eye the conduct of bishops and their subordinates, who, when informed that some of their priests had committed crimes, chose to hide them rather than report them to the police. This is about bishops and their lieutenants who knowingly loosed the criminals on an unsuspecting public by transferring them from parish to parish without telling anyone. This is about Bishop Walter W. Curtis who shredded documents concerning guilty priests because he did not want anyone to know about their crimes. This is about the diocesan official who described the pretext to be used to explain the transfer of a guilty priest.
This is about the arrogance of power. This is about Bishop Edward M. Egan who airily disclaimed any responsibility for his priests by declaring that they were self-employed, independent contractors. Even he soon realized how foolish that was and sent a letter to all the faithful attempting to clarify his statement. This is about the black wall of silence. This is about bishops and priests closing ranks to prevent anyone from knowing their guilty secrets. This is about the right of the Catholic faithful to know that their priests and bishops are honest, moral, and upright men, not criminals or abettors of criminals.
Above all, this is about little boys and girls whose innocence was ripped away by priests whom they were taught to trust. This is about bishops, who, on learning of these crimes, paid off the boys and girls, now grown to adulthood, under the obligation that they not tell anyone.
This is not about saving the reputation of the hierarchy. This is about the great sin committed in our midst. This is about the duty of the Diocese to confess that sin publicly; to do public penance for that sin; to publicly ask forgiveness of the children whose defenseless bodies were violated; to publicly ask forgiveness of the Catholic community.
This is the time to stop wasting money on legal stonewalling. This is the time for the Diocese to abandon forever its policy of secrecy and to exhibit the humility of Jesus Christ, the head of the Church.