Prestonwood saga shows clergy abuse database is overdue

COMMENTARY

Most major faith groups in the United States have denominational processes for assessing reports about clergy sex abuse. The Southern Baptist Convention does not. Instead, the SBC has chosen to denominationally do nothing. That choice makes the world a more dangerous place, especially for children.

The danger was revealed most recently in news about a former minister of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Dallas. The minister, John Langworthy, admitted to his Mississippi congregation that, while at prior churches, he “had sexual indiscretions with younger males.”

When this “disturbing revelation” made headlines, Prestonwood’s executive pastor, Mike Buster, acknowledged that, in 1989, Prestonwood had received an allegation that Langworthy “acted inappropriately with a teenage student.” But Buster claimed Prestonwood officials had acted “firmly and forthrightly” because Langworthy “was dismissed immediately.”

Coming from a top official at one of the SBC’s largest churches, Buster’s statement should cause parents serious concern. Confronted with allegations of clergy sex abuse, Prestonwood got an accused minister off its own turf, but the minister was left free to church-hop to other congregations.

This quiet dismissal served to unleash Langworthy into the larger body of Baptist churches and to place other kids at risk. And to this day, Prestonwood officials seem to think they handled things appropriately.

The ways in which Prestonwood failed will appear obvious to many, but the problem is really much bigger. Within the Southern Baptist Convention, many other churches, big and small, have made the same dreadful mistakes in dealing with reports of clergy sex abuse. When church after church makes the same mistakes, there is something wrong with the system.

A systemic problem requires a systemic solution. That’s why, in 2006, I worked with the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests in urging Southern Baptist officials to establish an office through which clergy abuse reports could be assessed by trained professionals, and to keep records on ministers determined to be credibly accused.

There was nothing radical in this request. Other major faith groups are already doing more in that their denominational assessments can result in defrocking. But we didn’t ask for that. We simply asked for a denominational system of objective assessments and record-keeping — i.e., a database.

Recently, Southern Baptist pastor Wade Burleson renewed the call for a denominational database. I pray that people will listen.

Consider the difference such a system could have made in the Langworthy case. Amy Smith was a young staff intern during Langworthy’s tenure at Prestonwood. She knew there had been abuse allegations. In early summer of 2010, Smith started contacting everyone she could think of to try to assure that Mississippi kids would be protected.

She contacted Prestonwood officials, hoping they would work to remediate their earlier mistake and warn Mississippi parents about Langworthy’s past. But Smith didn’t get any help from Prestonwood, and so she persevered on her own for over a year until, finally, Langworthy resigned his ministerial position.

That’s over a year in which more kids were left at risk. If there had been a denominational office to which Smith could have provided her information, kids could have been better protected much sooner.

That office could have assessed the allegations, reported on its assessment to the Mississippi congregation and kept a record if the allegations were found credible. And if a church chose to keep a convicted, admitted or credibly accused minister, the SBC could conceivably choose to disfellowship.

If Southern Baptists provided such an office, and if it were truly a safe and welcoming place, there would be many more clergy molestation survivors who, in adulthood, would bring forward their reports. This could greatly diminish the incidence of clergy sex abuse, because one of the best ways to prevent abuse in the future is to institutionally listen to those who are trying to tell about abuse in the past. But Southern Baptists have no system for even hearing clergy abuse survivors.

“Go to the police,” you say? Of course. But typically, by the time an abuse survivor grows up and is capable of bringing forward a report, it is too late for criminal prosecution. Tell churches to do background checks? Sure. But over 90 percent of active child molesters have never been criminally convicted and so they won’t have criminal records.

Other safeguards are needed, and most other faith groups have realized that by now.

Einstein said “the world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” For too long, Southern Baptists have done nothing to effectively address clergy sex abuse. A denominational database of convicted, admitted and credibly accused clergy is overdue.

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Ireland Faces Down Vatican as Kenny Demands $1 Billion Abuse Compensation

Ireland is squeezing the Roman Catholic Church to hand over cash and real estate toward a 1.4 billion-euro ($2 billion) child-abuse bill amid the bitterest stand-off yet seen between the Vatican and the government.

In the sharpest language an Irish leader has ever used against the church, Prime Minister Enda Kenny said last month the Vatican’s handling of the scandals has been dominated by “elitism and narcissism.”

“The relationship between the state and the Vatican has never been worse,” David Quinn, a religious commentator who is also director of the Dublin-based Iona Institute, which promotes religion in society, said in an interview. “I struggle to think of a stronger attack by a Western European leader on the church than Enda Kenny’s.”

Kenny said the church needs to be “truly and deeply penitent for the horrors it perpetrated, hid and denied” after three government reports on clerical abuse and cover-ups rocked one of Europe’s most devout societies. With the focus now moving to who compensates the victims in talks starting next month, the church’s riches and dominance of Ireland’s educational system face their most direct threat in the country’s modern history.

“The speech was a seminal moment in that Enda Kenny made clear that the state sees local bishops as the Vatican’s foot soldiers, but it’s the Vatican that is directing policy and practice,” Tom Inglis, a sociology professor at University College Dublin, said in an interview. “He’s following public opinion, not molding it, but it takes an adroit politician to know when the timing is right.”

Compensation Meetings
Kenny’s education minister, Ruairi Quinn, will begin meetings in September with 18 religious orders to call on them to pay half the compensation bill for abuse in children’s homes they ran. The 2009 government-commissioned Ryan Report said abuse in those homes was “endemic.”

The orders have paid or offered about 300 million euros to date in cash and real estate, and Quinn is proposing that they hand over control of more land, including schools. About 90 percent of elementary schools remain Catholic-run, according to the Education Ministry.

“Quinn knows that control of the education system is key now and control is about both land and patronage,” said Inglis. “He’s now making the running, not the church.”

Constitutional Role
For much of Ireland’s history since independence from Britain in 1922, it was the other way around. In 1937, the government consulted the archbishop of Dublin while drafting the constitution, which recognized the special position of the Catholic Church “as the guardian of the faith of the great majority of the people.”

Though that clause was later removed, Catholic thinking continued to underpin Irish legislation. Up to 1985, condoms couldn’t be bought without a doctor’s prescription. Divorce was only legalized after a 1995 popular vote, and abortion still isn’t allowed in most circumstances.

As revelations of abuse and the church’s concealment of it have emerged, the relationship has soured. Last month, a government-commissioned probe into the handling of abuse allegations in Cloyne in southern Ireland concluded that the Vatican “effectively gave Irish bishops freedom to ignore” state guidelines, prompting Kenny’s intervention.

Prosecution Halted
The report examined the handling of allegations against 19 clerics between 1996 and 2009. To date, one priest from the diocese has been convicted of child sex abuse, while a second prosecution was halted on the grounds of ill health, delay and age.
“The rape and torture of children were downplayed or managed, to uphold instead the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and reputation,” Kenny said in parliament on July 20.

The Vatican pledged to respond “expediently” to the report in an e-mail sent by a spokesman, Federico Lombardi, the day after Kenny’s remarks. Four days later, the Vatican recalled its ambassador to Dublin citing the “reactions” that followed the Cloyne report, in what David Quinn said he interpreted “as a pretty strong protest.”
Eighty-five percent of the Irish population are nominally Catholic, according to the Central Statistics Office. Mass attendance was around 78 percent in 1992, falling to about 65 percent in 1997, according to Diarmaid Ferriter, author of “The Transformation of Ireland: 1900-2000.” A poll conducted for the Iona Institute in 2009 found that 65 percent go to church at least once a month.

Payments to Victims
The government has made about 14,000 payouts averaging 62,878 euros to victims of abuse in residential homes, according to the agency which handles the awards. A further 157 million euros have been paid been out in legal fees.

In 2002, the government agreed to cap the religious orders’ contribution at 128 million euros. Now, with the bill rising and a budget deficit forecast at 10 percent of gross domestic product this year, ministers are pushing for a 50-50 contribution, amounting to about 680 million euros. The shortfall on what’s been offered so far is about 350 million euros.

Already, some orders are resisting. The Sisters of Mercy, which controls schools across the country, refused to attend a meeting with Quinn last month. The order, which said it had been “misrepresented and demonized,” said it never agreed to the 50-50 split.
“It has been wrongly suggested that the congregation has disadvantaged the state in that it has failed to honor a debt,” the Sisters said in a statement on July 22. “The congregation has met and will continue to meet all of its commitments to former residents and to the state.”

The order may be fighting against the weight of public opinion.
“I’m disappointed with the Vatican’s handling of it,” said Anne McCarron, 71, a retired nurse from Inishowen in northwest Ireland. “The Vatican has been too aloof, I share Enda Kenny’s anger. The church should pay more money to victims.”

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Bishop in Missouri Waited Months to Report Priest, Stirring Parishioners’ Rage

In the annals of the sexual abuse scandals in the Roman Catholic Church, most of the cases that have come to light happened years before to children and teenagers who have long since grown into adults.

But a painfully fresh case is devastating Catholics in Kansas City, Mo., where a priest, who was arrested in May, has been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of taking indecent photographs of young girls, most recently during an Easter egg hunt just four months ago.

Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph has acknowledged that he knew of the existence of photographs last December but did not turn them over to the police until May.

A civil lawsuit filed last week claims that during those five months, the priest, the Rev. Shawn Ratigan, attended children’s birthday parties, spent weekends in the homes of parish families, hosted the Easter egg hunt and presided, with the bishop’s permission, at a girl’s First Communion.

“All these parishioners just feel so betrayed, because we knew nothing,” said Thu Meng, whose daughter attended the preschool in Father Ratigan’s last parish.

“And we were welcoming this guy into our homes, asking him to come bless this or that. They saw all these signs, and they didn’t do anything.”

The case has generated fury at a bishop who was already a polarizing figure in his diocese, and there are widespread calls for him to resign or even to be prosecuted.

Parishioners started a Facebook page called “Bishop Finn Must Go” and are circulating a petition.

An editorial in The Kansas City Star in June calling for the bishop to step down concluded that prosecutors must “actively pursue all relevant criminal charges” against everyone involved.

Stoking much of the anger is the fact that only three years ago, Bishop Finn settled lawsuits with 47 plaintiffs in sexual abuse cases for $10 million and agreed to a long list of preventive measures, among them to immediately report anyone suspected of being a pedophile to law enforcement authorities.

Michael Hunter, an abuse victim who was part of that settlement and is now the president of the Kansas City chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said: “There were 90 nonmonetary agreements that the diocese signed on to, and they were things like reporting immediately to the police. And they didn’t do it. That’s really what sickens us as much as the abuse.”

The bishop has apologized and released a “five-point plan” that he described as “sweeping changes.”

He hired an ombudsman to field reports of suspicious behavior and appointed an investigator to conduct an independent review of the events and diocesan policies.

The investigator’s report is taking longer than expected and is now due in late August or early September, said Rebecca Summers, director of communications in the diocese.

The bishop also replaced the vicar general involved in the case, Msgr. Robert Murphy, after he was accused of propositioning a young man in 1984.

The diocese has delayed a capital fund-raising campaign on the advice of its priests, a move first reported by The National Catholic Reporter.

Bishop Finn, who was appointed in 2005, alienated many of his priests and parishioners, and won praise from others, when he remade the diocese to conform with his traditionalist theological views.

He is one of few bishops affiliated with the conservative movement Opus Dei.

He canceled a model program to train Catholic laypeople to be leaders and hired more staff members to recruit candidates for the priesthood.

He cut the budget of the Office of Peace and Justice, which focused on poverty and human rights, and created a new Respect Life office to expand the church’s opposition to abortion and stem cell research.

He set up a parish for a group of Catholics who prefer to celebrate the old Tridentine Mass in Latin.

Father Ratigan, 45, was also an outspoken conservative, according to a profile in The Kansas City Star. He and a class of Catholic school students joined Bishop Finn for the bus ride to the annual March for Life rally in Washington in 2007.

The diocese was first warned about Father Ratigan’s inappropriate interest in young girls as far back as 2006, according to accusations in the civil lawsuit filed Thursday.

But there were also more recent warnings.

In May 2010, the principal of a Catholic elementary school where Father Ratigan worked hand-delivered a letter to the vicar general reporting specific episodes that had raised alarms: the priest put a girl on his lap during a bus ride and allowed children to reach into his pants pockets for candy.

When a Brownie troop visited Father Ratigan’s house, a parent reported finding a pair of girl’s panties in a planter, the letter said.

Bishop Finn said at a news conference that he was given a “brief verbal summary” of the letter at the time, but did not read it until a year later.

In December, a computer technician discovered the photographs on Father Ratigan’s laptop and turned it in to the diocese.

The next day, the priest was discovered in his closed garage, his motorcycle running, along with a suicide note apologizing to the children, their families and the church.

Father Ratigan survived, was taken to a hospital and was then sent to live at a convent in the diocese, where, the lawsuit and the indictment say, he continued to have contact with children.

Parents in the school and parishioners were told only that Father Ratigan had fallen sick from carbon monoxide poisoning. They were stunned when he was arrested in May.

“My daughter made cards for him,” said one parent who did not want her name used because the police said her daughter might have been a victim. “We prayed for him every single night at dinner. It was just lying to us and a complete cover-up.”

A federal grand jury last Tuesday charged Father Ratigan with 13 counts of possessing, producing and attempting to produce child pornography.

It accused him of taking lewd pictures of the genitalia of five girls ages 2 to 12, sometimes while they slept.

If convicted, he would face a minimum of 15 years in prison.

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Vatican reveals Irish priest files

The Vatican, reeling from criticism over its handling of sexual abuse cases in the Republic, has taken the unusual step of publishing its internal files about a priest accused of molesting youngsters in Ireland and the United States.

The files published on the website of Vatican Radio are part of the documentation the Holy See plans to turn over to US lawyers representing a man who says he was abused by the late Rev Andrew Ronan.

The man, known in court papers as John V Doe, is seeking to hold the Vatican liable for the abuse.

A federal judge in Portland, Oregon, ordered the Vatican to respond to certain requests for information from Mr Doe’s lawyers by Friday, the first time the Holy See has been forced to turn over documentation in a sex abuse case.

The documentation includes the 1966 case file with Ronan’s request to be laicised, or removed from the clerical state, after his superiors learned of accusations that he had molested youngsters in Ireland.

The Vatican said that the documentation proved that it had only learned of the accusations against Ronan in 1966, after the abuse against Mr Doe occurred.

The Vatican’s decision to publish a selection of the discovery documentation on its website comes amid unprecedented criticism of its handling of sex abuse cases in Ireland, and as it still seeks to recover from the fallout over the abuse scandal that erupted last year.

Thousands of people in Europe and elsewhere reported they were raped and molested by priests as children while bishops covered up the crimes and the Vatican turned a blind eye.

Last month, an independent report into the Irish diocese of Cloyne accused the Vatican of sabotaging efforts by Irish Catholic bishops to report clerical sex abuse cases to police.

The accusations prompted Irish lawmakers to make an unprecedented denunciation of the Holy See’s influence in the predominantly Catholic country, with heated words in particular from Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

In a statement accompanying the document release, Vatican lawyer Jeffrey Lena said it should help “calm down those people who are too quick to make sensational and unfair comments without taking the time to get an adequate understanding of the facts” – an apparent reference to Kenny’s denunciation.

The Vatican recalled its ambassador to Ireland over the row to help prepare an official response, which is expected in the coming weeks.

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Trenton Diocese to pay $1M to settle sex abuse claims

The Catholic Diocese of Trenton has agreed to pay $1 million to five men who claimed their parish priest sexually abused them when they were altar boys 30 years ago.

The settlements, announced today, bring to $1.3 million the amount the diocese has paid to alleged abuse victims of the Rev. Ronald Becker. Becker was removed from the ministry in 2002. He has since died.

Becker molested the five boys at Incarnation parish in Ewing hundreds of times between 1972 and 1984, in spans that ranged from six months to four years, according to Mitchell Garabedian, the Boston-based lawyer who represented the men. The abuse occurred in the church, the rectory and on trips.

The men came forward after another of Becker’s victims went public with her allegations two years ago. The settlements followed months of mediation.

One of the victims, 45-year-old Otis Roberts, said he came forward in part to protect his 11 year-old-son, who is now the same age he was when Roberts was molested. Trembling as he read a statement, Roberts said the abuse destroyed his life and his faith.

“I don’t believe in the church anymore,” Roberts said. “I believe it’s a business. And I saw that during mediation.”

The Diocese admitted no liability and did not apologize to the men, their lawyers said.

In a statement released today, the Diocese confirmed the settlement and noted that in addition to the $200,000 for each victim, “an additional $25,000 [will be} made available for counseling needs of the five victims in the next two years.”

Further, it said, “The settlement is being paid from a self-insurance fund previously established by the Diocese.

The settlement is the latest in a series of payouts nationally over abuse claims. Earlier this month, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, a Delaware-based religious order with priests throughout the region, agreed to pay $24 million to settle 39 lawsuits by alleged sex abuse victims. And the Diocese of Wilmington, which was forced by a wave of abuse claims to file for bankruptcy, has agreed to set aside more than $77 million for 150 abuse victims. Other settlements have been reached in Corpus Christi, Pueblo, Colo. and Kansas City, Mo.

More than a half-dozen similar claims are pending against the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, all filed in the wake of the arrests of four current and former priests and grand jury report that accused the archdiocese of failing to reform.

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