The stories of sexual abuse of youth by Catholic priests exploded 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 our local story.
William Lori, Bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, went to the 2002 US Conference of Catholic Bishops meeting in Dallas that addressed the clergy abuse problem. He never asked the people in the pews to gather and discuss this subject nor did he reveal Diocesan history in this regard. But he did come home with ‘his solution’, the Safe Environment program that he installed in the Diocese. More than 90,000 persons have taken several hours of VIRTUS training intended to help them understand and look out for sexual predators. What are the results of the training? What has been the expense of this effort? A Diocesan Review Board was initially appointed to receive reports of abuse. The Diocese initially disclosed who served on the Board. Why are they secret today? And why not tell the faithful what their work entails and the results of their process?
The Diocese of Bridgeport under former Bishop Edward Egan and more recently under Bishop Lori has a Bridgeport headquarters on Jewett Avenue and includes the entirety of Fairfield County where 50% of the population is identified as Catholic by the Diocesan website. Early in the decade more than $37 million was paid to claimants in two major Diocesan settlements. Evidence of additional confidential settlements has come to light more recently. Thirty-four priests have had public allegations made against them. At least two have protested their innocence publicly but still serve as priests because the allegations of sexual abuse of youth were not found “credible” by the Diocese. Those priests neither got a chance in court to clear their names and reputations, nor did they have recourse to Canon Law rights set out for clergy. Why not? There has been no answer to this question. 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. Why is he still serving as a priest when the Diocese has provided funds for counseling and/or confidential settlement to one or more of the people naming him an abuser?
Perhaps it is because the power of the Bishop is 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’ promise 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 all 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, they are notified that 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.
Diocesan governance is thus to be experienced rather than expressed by the majority of the faithful. 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. And there is no mechanism for the governed to express exception or displeasure to such appointments other than a “quiet exit”. One of the trappings of the “Bridgeport” office includes a super-sized 10,000 square foot residence on 2 acres in the “‘burbs.” 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 become 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! The “freedom of the press”, one of our dear American freedoms, in this case becomes “freedom of the publisher”!
Bishop Lori can review the finances of all Catholic activities with a new accounting system including the 87 parishes because significant funds were discovered missing or ill-spent during the decade in Darien, Greenwich and other parishes. However, the ‘people in the pews’ still have no annual audited comprehensive Diocesan financial report. Assets certainly exceed $1 Billion. Significant revenue flows can be 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 NGOs to support service programs, are not fully reported. Why such secrecy? Are there scandals here as well?
Bishop Lori’s major effort during the decade, 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 sexual abuse. 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. The Bishop, 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. How much was the total expense to the Diocese? What did it cost the people in the pews? These are fair but also, unanswered, questions.
How could Bishops provide multiple “secret settlements” of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars except that the Catholic ‘citizenry’ has been expected to pay, pray, and obey, with no say? For the most part they have stayed for a long time, too. But today many Catholics have abandoned the pews, exited their practice or have begun to send dollars targeted on Matthew 25 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 secret Diocesan books’! When the Bishop Appeal decreases in revenues for one or more years, what does that portend? If a $1 Million shortfall in 2010 causes ten or more employees to be terminated, how many parishes caused the deficit? Aren’t they obligated to make it up in a succeeding year? Do they do it?
What is the impact on Bridgeport and its environs and all types of human services from the true causes as well as trailing effects of the sexual abuse and cover-up? Are parochial school closings near? How many more employees will be terminated when revenues wane, yet assets remain untouched? Can parish clusters be distant? What ‘re-form’ of freedoms or structure awaits adult American Catholics in the coming decade to free the God given promise and gifts of faithful Catholics of all stripes bringing them together to face these challenges?
Copyright @ 2010 John Marshall Lee (Reviewed copy and revised draft-approved 7-21-2010)