Philadelphia priests gather amid abuse crisis

Roman Catholic priests in the conservative Philadelphia archdiocese have formed an independent association amid “a vacuum of information” with the latest clergy-abuse scandal, the Rev. Chris Walsh confirmed Friday.

Father Walsh, one of the organizers of the Association of Philadelphia Priests, said the group was created for priests to learn more about how the archdiocese is handling the problem. The association is still finalizing its bylaws.

A grand jury in February charged three priests and a teacher with rape and a monsignor with endangering children by reassigning priests. Prosecutors found that 37 suspected abusers remained on duty. The archdiocese later suspended about two dozen of them.

The grand jury report stunned priests across the five-county archdiocese, which has about 500 active priests.

“How could this be happening again? The guys, they were at a loss,” Father Walsh told The Associated Press.

In 2002, U.S. bishops ordered reforms in how dioceses handle abuse complaints. And in 2005, priests endured a blistering grand jury report that 63 Philadelphia priests had been credibly accused of sex assaults over several decades.

The Philadelphia Inquirer first reported Friday on the Association of Philadelphia Priests.

Father Walsh, who also is pastor of St. Raymond of Penafort, said that over several meetings this spring, concerned priests decided to form the new group. About 100 priests have attended each of three meetings held at various parishes. Also, two archdiocesan officials have attended a meeting, including the Rev. Daniel Sullivan, the vicar for clergy.

But no one wants to challenge incoming Archbishop Charles Chaput on priest celibacy, the ordination of women or other hot-button issues.

“They are, like most Philadelphia priests are, very orthodox men who love the church,” Father Walsh said. “We’re not looking to be adversarial. We’re part of the church. We respect and look forward to working with Archbishop Chaput.”

Father Walsh said priests in the diocese are struggling, along with the laity and non-Catholics in the region, to understand how the sex-abuse problem was allowed to fester. They also want to protect the rights of the suspended priests whose cases are now under review.

“Speaking for some of the [priests] who have been removed, they don’t know what’s next or how long it will take,” Father Walsh said. “In the criminal process, it’s pretty clear. … With the case of these guys, it’s really nebulous. Many of them feel very uninformed.”

Priests in other dioceses have long formed independent organizations, and many dioceses contribute $30 per priest annually to the National Federation of Priests’ Councils, a Chicago-based group that serves as a liaison between priests and the dioceses they serve.

But priests in the famously insular Philadelphia archdiocese have never joined the 43-year-old group, according to the Rev. Richard Vega, the federation president.

“Their bishops never wanted them to belong. We were seen as too radical,” Father Vega added.

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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.

http://tinyurl.com/3cnmonz

Catholic Bishops put Lives at Risk in the Name of “God”

The Filipino Struggle for Reproductive Health Rights & Justice

There has been a long struggle for reproductive health (RH) rights in the Philippines. This is not uncommon as there are many countries where some aspects of reproductive rights are not guaranteed. However, the Philippines is one of five countries worldwide with no reproductive health law.

Many pro-RH activists have come about as a result but they are outnumbered by the power of conservative Filipino Catholics. Not all Catholics are conservative and opposition to reproductive rights is led mainly by the Hierachy of the Catholic Church. Activists are fighting for access to contraceptives and family planning education – something many of us young people in North America, Latin America, Caribbean, Europe and parts of Africa take for granted. Most of my friends are at this stage advocating comprehensive sex education and universal access to contraceptives, even for persons below the age of consent in their country. Many of us are unaware of the ongoing struggles in the Philippines for reproductive rights and justice.

The Philippines at a Glance
Like my own country, Jamaica, abortion is illegal in the Philippines. In 2000, former Mayor Jose “Lito” Atienza made the situation worse when he passed a blanket ban on all forms of contraception in Manila City. Although there are 4,000 new births daily, which continue to hamper the country’s economic growth, women in the Philippines are unable to prevent pregnancy, even when it would jeopardize their lives, health, or ability to feed their families. The consequences of this — poverty, spousal abuse, illiteracy, hunger, among others are the lived experience of many Filipinos.

Pro-RH advocates continue to challenge this grave violation of the human rights of Filipino’s, especially women, despite much opposition from the Catholic Church. The Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has threatened to excommunicate any politician who supports the Reproductive Health Bill. You can’t help but ask “why are they so intent on violating the human rights of Filipinos and perpetuating their suffering in the name of God?”

There are over 90 million persons living in the Philippines; 85 percent of them are Catholic. I am not Catholic, nor do I know much about Catholicism. I am not atheist. I must also confess that my understanding of the Catholic’s position on reproductive rights and justice is perhaps a biased one. You could easily blame this on my own beliefs, religious and otherwise, and the video documentary “Trouble with the Pope.” I decided to write this blog because I believe every human, regardless of their religious persuasion, should have a right to protection from sexually transmitted infections, including HIV and unplanned pregnancies.

I am happy that not all Filipinos (perhaps not the majority) support the conservative views of some Catholics. According to a survey conducted by Social Weather Stations (SWS), a public opinion polling body, 71 percent of Filipinos are in favour of the passage of the RH Bill. 76 percent also want family planning education in public schools. This would be a step in the right direction to provide universal access to methods and information on birth control and maternal care. This would be welcomed with open arms in many of our countries.

Catholic groups have said that the RH Bill promotes a “culture of death and immorality” by promoting abortion and promiscuity among youth. What about the freedom of choice — a fundamental human right? I guess this has its distinctions too.

Reproductive Health Rights Are Important
It is very important that we all remember family planning is a fundamental human right. Any attempt to take this away from a man or woman constitutes discrimination. In 2008, based on an investigation led by the Centre for Reproductive Rights, twenty women from Manila City filed a case claiming that the policy violated their rights and should be removed. The case was dismissed on technical grounds.

I visited the Anti-RH BILL (Philippines) page on the popular social networking website, Facebook, to learn more about why people are so opposed to something so very important to millions of Filipinos. The comments that were in English were shocking to say the least. Many of them are the same we would hear when we talk about abortion in the United States or even in Jamaica.

A comment from one user was:

SEX is for MARRIED LIFE which they can PRO-CREATE. After having babies, it’s their decision for doing NATURAL FAMILY PLANNING or ABSTINENCE if they want to.
Where did we get the idea that relationships are for the sole purpose of procreation? And if that is the case, does it mean then that a relationship between a woman and man, where one is infertile is illegitimate? Where does love, adoration and companionship find place in relationships then? Furthermore, if a couple decides they only want two children, since we know that withdrawal (a natural family method) isn’t very effective should they stop having sex or wait to have sex until they are ready to have children? Who told Catholics that sex isn’t for enjoyment too?

Another user said:

Protect Lives, Preserve the Productivity of the Nation, Protect our Moral Values
The rates of unintended pregnancy in the Philippines are high. Where does the protection of the lives of poor women who struggle to feed numerous children while living in abject poverty come in? Public hospitals are a hub for those who resort to unsafe abortion. Contraception save lives. That is what everyone in the Philippines should care about.
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Archbishop tries to evade responsibility for clergy sex abuse

Five years ago, a handful of Colorado legislators sought to make it easier for victims of decades-old sex abuse to sue their tormentors and the organizations that protected them.
The Archdiocese of Denver fought back hard.

The state’s Catholic hierarchy — through jeremiads delivered from the pulpit and alliance-building with municipal interest groups and teacher unions — turned an initially popular bill to extend the civil statute of limitations on sex crimes into something politically toxic. By the end of 2006, the bill was dead on the statehouse floor.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, then head of the state’s largest archdiocese, stood at the center of that debate.

His vocal opposition made him an enemy to victims’ groups, who viewed his political protest as a cunning effort to protect church coffers. But to those who saw their church as under siege from profiteers, Chaput emerged a hero.

‘‘They thought they were fighting for their lives,’’ said Annemarie Jensen, a political strategist who lobbied for the bill on behalf of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault. ‘‘It was about as ugly a political fight as I’ve been involved with at the Capitol.’’
Chaput — who is set to take the helm of Philadelphia’s archdiocese next month — says he was just doing his job.

‘‘The Catholic Church wants to be treated like citizens with equal access to protection of the law,’’ Chaput said at a news conference in Philadelphia last month. (The Denver Archdiocese did not make him available for an interview for this article.) ‘‘That’s all we were asking for in Colorado.’’

Little resistance
Since the nationwide church scandal began about a decade ago, five states have passed bills temporarily reopening the civil statute of limitations on sex-abuse cases. Eight others, including Pennsylvania, have considered them.

This so-called window legislation allows victims to seek justice years after their abuse by temporarily extending the period in which they can file claims. Although none of the adopted bills specifically mention the Catholic Church, archdioceses became the primary targets of litigation in each of the states that have passed them.

In California, one of the first to pass such legislation, more than 850 claims flooded courthouses during the one-year window that legislators opened, costing the church millions in damages and settlements.

The Diocese of Wilmington declared bankruptcy in 2009 after it was named in more than 175 suits following the state’s passing of a two-year window. Last month, a judge agreed to a reorganization plan that includes a $77.4 million settlement for clergy sexual abuse. Last week, the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales agreed to pay $24.8 million in suits filed by 39 survivors of priest sex abuse in Delaware.

But before the Colorado fight, Catholic bishops had responded to window bills with begrudging acceptance — such measures were seen as a necessary evil to heal the rifts clergy abuse had caused.

California’s church hierarchy barely pushed back when that state’s bill passed in 2002. In Ohio, bishops appealed to state lawmakers quietly and directly to help kill a bill in 2005.
Colorado’s bill, introduced in 2006, differed little from its predecessors elsewhere. It proposed lifting the statute of limitations on sex-abuse cases going forward and opening a two-year window for expired claims.

At that point, the Denver Archdiocese had had a relatively minor brush with the sex-abuse scandal involving fewer than 20 lawsuits with allegations involving only two priests. Chaput later offered victims in those cases a mediation process that resulted in $5.5 million to settle most of their claims.

‘A duty I can’t avoid’
But his response to the bill marked a sharp break. Chaput spoke out, condemning the legislation as ‘‘unfair, unequal, prejudicial,’’ and anti-Catholic. He took to the Catholic press, accusing colleagues in other states of acquiescing out of an overabundance of ‘‘guilt, confusion, and a desire to take what they perceive to be the ‘high road.’ ’’
‘‘I have an obligation — a duty I can’t avoid — both to help the victims and to defend innocent Catholics today from being victimized because of earlier sins in which they played no part,’’ he said in an interview that year with the national Catholic newspaper Our Sunday Visitor.

Marci Hamilton, a Bucks County, Pa., lawyer who has represented several victims of clergy abuse and whose 2008 book ‘‘Justice Denied’’ tracked statute-of-limitations fights across the country, described Chaput’s outspokenness as just the first element in the Denver Archdiocese’s multipronged opposition to the bill.

‘‘It was Chaput who decided public relations would change the course of this fight versus any other tactic,’’ she said. ‘‘Things changed with Chaput’s packaging in Colorado.’’
What separated the Denver Archdiocese’s response from those that had come before was its direct appeal to the public and a degree of savvy political maneuvering unseen elsewhere.

Within weeks of the bill’s introduction, Chaput sent a letter to all parishes to be read from the pulpit during Sunday Mass. The missive excoriated the legislation as unfairly targeting the Catholic Church while ignoring sex abuse in other institutions.
State Rep. Gwyn Green, a sponsor of the legislation, recalls jumping from the pew of her parish in the Denver suburbs the day the letter was read and objecting to what she described as a blatant misrepresentation of her bill.

Nearly 25,000 protest cards were distributed to those attending Masses, asking them to sign and mail them to their state representatives.

‘Full-blown war mode’
‘‘The archdiocese went into full-blown war mode,’’ said John Kane, a religion professor at Jesuit Regis University in Denver. ‘‘They worked through the parishes. They rallied straight from the altar. It was a full-court press in the media and everywhere else.’’
Behind the scenes, the church’s political arm, the Colorado Catholic Conference, hired one of the state’s top lobbying firms, owned by the former campaign manager of then-Gov. Bill Owens, to run the ground game on legislative votes.

It began by appealing to the Catholic faith of several top legislators and leaking stories to the media that plaintiff attorneys had helped craft the bill.

(The bill’s leading sponsor, Colorado Sen. Joan Fitz-Gerald, later opened her files to show she had had only minimal contact with plaintiff attorneys, including Hamilton.)
From the start, the archdiocese had characterized the proposals as unfair, noting they would affect private institutions such as the church but exempt governmental entities such as school districts.

School districts and other public institutions were protected under Colorado law by immunity from the worst of civil suits. State law gives plaintiffs six months after an incident to file claims and caps damages at $150,000.

Window-bill backers argued such limitations were appropriate because taxpayers funded these government entities, which were also required to share their files under open-records laws. Private institutions, meanwhile, could opt to shield records of abuse from public review.

But church lobbyists pushed. And by May 2006, they had persuaded Colorado lawmakers to alter the bill to subject government groups to the same $700,000 damages limit that private institutions would now face.

The battle is lost
In so doing, the bill’s backers unwittingly opened the door to its demise.
Teachers’ unions, lobbyists for local governments, and insurance companies soon joined the fight. And with mounting opposition from the capital’s most powerful interest groups, the bill that had sailed through committee months earlier suddenly was resoundingly voted down.

‘‘They boxed us into a corner,’’ Green said. ‘‘We had no moves left.’’
It remains difficult to ascertain exactly how involved Chaput was in developing this strategy.

Francis X. Maier, Chaput’s chancellor in Denver, maintained in an email that the archbishop played a minimal role.
‘‘There was nothing tactical or strategic about our approach,’’ he said. ‘‘The archbishop saw that it was a bad bill and said so.’’

Chaput’s influence can be seen in the final result. Tactics such as allying with unions and municipal leagues, direct appeals to the Catholic faithful, and refusing to simply concede to the state’s political powers all sprang from his speeches and writings at the time.
And in the years since, he and his staff have emerged as leading advisers to other archdioceses — including Wilmington — facing window bills in their states.
That has some Pennsylvania legislators worried.

State Reps. Mike McGeehan and Louise Williams Bishop filed bills in March that would eliminate the civil statute of limitations on childhood sex crimes and open a two-year window for filing expired civil claims.

On the heels of a damning grand-jury report outlining years of alleged abuse cover-ups in the Philadelphia Archdiocese, the Philadelphia Democrats hoped their legislation would coast through.

So far, though, they’ve seen only halting progress. Both bills remain stuck before the House Judiciary Committee with no hearing dates and no planned schedule to bring them to a vote.

Chaput’s arrival in Philadelphia next month will likely only complicate matters, Bishop said. Still, she remains hopeful.

‘‘I believe the tide is rolling in our direction,’’ she said. ‘‘I do believe there is a movement of sympathy for child sex-abuse victims.’’

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