'We are the church'

The schedule for the "listening sessions" set up by Baltimore's Cardinal William H. Keeler arrived too late to be included in the Sunday bulletin distributed to parishioners at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Essex. Mary Rose Mueller, 46, found out about it by reading the Catholic Review.

She wanted the cardinal to know how she felt about the church that linked her to the ages, the church she had been brought to as an infant and to which she had returned every Sunday since. It was, after all, her church, too. But up until now, communication had been one way. This was her chance to speak about something that for so long had been hushed up: sex abuse of children by priests in the Roman Catholic Church.


The night of the meeting, only she and two other parishioners turned out. On a metal folding chair at a row of long tables, within easy sight of the electric bingo board, she sat and, for a long time, listened.

Another woman had been relating her discomfort at the thought of confessing to a priest who himself had awful things to confess when Mueller spoke.


Going to confession to a priest who might be a sex abuser didn't affect Mueller nearly as much as thinking about such a priest consecrating the Eucharist, the host that Catholics believe is transformed into Christ, during Mass.

It's so disturbing, she told the others, because every Sunday she sees a couple, long married and leading good lives but who, because they were not free to be married in the church, are not allowed to receive communion. Yet the sin of the abusive priest who celebrates Mass is so much greater.

How did it happen, she asked, and why? The church is facing the scandal, she thought, but not what's behind it. It's hard to believe the number of priests involved, she said. "This has rocked me to the core."

Firmly she rejected a fellow parishioner's suggestion that the low turnout this night was a sign Catholics are ready to move on.

"I'm not there yet," she said.

There was only one thing the bishop present that night could do about the distress in her voice. W. Francis Malooly looked straight at her. "I am sorry this has happened to you," the bishop said.

Distress. Anger. Those were the sounds of voices heard at a series of listening sessions held over the last three weeks and organized by Keeler in a bid to restore trust in the church. There were faltering voices, and rational ones. Pleading ones and argumentative ones. Damning ones and very sorry ones.

They are mad, these Catholics, about the sex abuse scandal in their church, and sad. Some are mad about the release by Keeler a few weeks ago of the names of 57 priestly sex abusers; others about the cover-up before it. Some are mad about a top-down hierarchy, and about their letters to the cardinal going unanswered.


They are mad as - shall we say? - hell about the four-page application they now must complete to serve as a parish volunteer. And sad beyond belief about the impact of the scandal on good priests.

But sitting in on five of the 10 listening sessions - the final one is scheduled for tonight at 7:30 at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Cockeysville and comes after the Vatican rejected a "zero-tolerance" plan by U.S. bishops - one could hear bishops talk of pain as much as their parishioners, and see tears shed as often by critics of the church as by the devout.

These sessions, some of which drew a few dozen people, others just a handful, are hardly a complete picture of the archdiocese. Perhaps meetings last spring that drew hundreds of people in some parishes better expressed the anger over the refusal of the church to be upfront about the scandal and to protect children. But the unusual airing of views reveals how many ideas there are about what now should be done, and how much has changed since spring.

For one thing, it would have been unimaginable six months ago to hear a bishop explain to a skeptic why abusive priests should be publicly identified.

Yet there it was, in the school gym at St. John's in Westminster, when Agnes Geraghty, a retired insurance company worker with gray hair and glasses, stood to say she didn't buy the idea that publicizing the names of abusive priests was the way to help victims come forward and heal.

Couldn't the church organize a media blitz with that aim, instead of publishing the names of priests whose parishioners, family and friends knew nothing about the accusations against them? "We've all been victimized," she said. "I do not condone child sexual abuse. In my own family there was a case, with devastating effect, but at the same time I cannot accept publication of those names. Three of them denied it, and if only one of those men is innocent, haven't we done a grave injustice?"


What if there was only one offense, she said, and the man led a saintly life for 37 years? Wasn't it in grade school where we learned that telling about another person's sin is itself a sin?

"This is a crime, not a sin," Malooly replied.

Malooly said he had taken calls from victims, some of them 60, 70, and 80 years old, opening up for the first time because of the list. As the employer of these men, the church had a moral responsibility to victims, he said. "Maybe," the bishop said of those victims, "you feel you are the only one, and maybe [you feel] it's your fault."

There were other goals in naming the priests - to protect children from future abuse, and to remove suspicion from other priests, he said. The names were going to come out anyway, he said, in dribs and drabs, or under order from prosecutors, as happened in Boston the day after the Baltimore archdiocese published its list.

As for those who denied the allegations, well, the files behind each priest on the list contain some "terrible, terrible" facts, added Monsignor Richard Woy, the chancellor and right-hand man to Keeler. Credible facts, he said. Enough for the diocese to believe something awful happened.

It was a mystery to him, Malooly said, why none of these abusers were in jail. He didn't know why they weren't prosecuted, when priests in other dioceses seemed to be going to jail every few days.


The cardinal can take away their licenses to practice, he said, when asked how to get rid of these priests, but only the pope can remove them. If their licenses are taken away, they are not supposed to wear a collar and distribute communion, Malooly said, but it's hard to check up on defrocked priests.

There's one man Malooly has spoken to about taking off the collar for 10 or 12 years, and he still won't pay any attention. That's another reason, the bishop said, why the list is helpful.

But Agnes Geraghty was not swayed.

Your primary job is to take care of souls, she told the bishop, and what if those souls get disillusioned by all this?

Releasing the names of abusive priests is painful for everybody, the bishop acknowledged. "It's hard for you, sitting there, hearing neighbors say, 'Oh, yeah, those Catholics,'" he said. "I know you are hurting."

He's hurting, too, he said. These have been the worst five months of his life.


"But if one victim comes forward because of it," he said, "I think it was a major move forward."

Naming names was the hardest decision Cardinal Keeler ever made, his bishops told those at the sessions. Evidently, he didn't look back. Seeking comments from lay people and apologizing to them was one thing. Inviting victims who were free to take their shots at the cardinal was another.

At St. John the Evangelist in Severna Park, Bishop William Newman came to listen. Sitting next to him, at the invitation of the archdiocese, was Mark Serrano, regional director of SNAP - the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Newman began by apologizing to Serrano for what he had experienced at a priest's hands as a child in a tiny parish in New Jersey.

"It's a rare bishop who shared those words with me," Serrano said, "and thank you, because it is those words, 'I'm sorry,' that could begin healing in the church. It's about time bishops look at us as fellow Catholics, not as enemies."

Serrano's story began when he was 7 and was introduced to pornography and sex by an alcoholic priest, a priest who drew in his parents and siblings, leaving the boy assuming he had no choice. Tearfully told against the backdrop of his adult life, his story seemed to tone down the anger at the cardinal among some in attendance for releasing the list of priests.

But then Serrano demanded the cardinal do more.


The decision to release the names, he said, "appeared bold, because no other diocese put names on the Internet. It appeared outrageous to some, because some priests denied the accusations. Yet for us to bring our kids to church, it is not enough. It doesn't tell me where these men are today. We must worry about children. God will take care of the priesthood. I call upon the diocese to say where these people live."

His own abuser lives in a nursing home, Serrano said, where he still serves communion on Sunday to grandparents and their visiting grandchildren.

"Sex offenders hunger for the touch of a child," he said. "There is no rehabilitation."

Such searing criticism and pointed questions were typical at the listening sessions. Was the cardinal taking an active role to change the law preventing victims from suing three years after the crime, some asked? Was the cardinal going to reveal the names of dead priests who had abused people, so that their victims, too, could heal? There were questions about how seminaries screen priest candidates, and how bishops have educated themselves and others about sex abuse.

Malooly told of speaking to seminarians about the victims he has met in the past 18 years, and about how abusers are never the ones you suspect. Ninety percent are the "good" priests, he said, those with a gift. He had served with three priests who were on the list and back then, more than 20 years ago, he said, "I didn't have a clue."

There was sympathy, and gratitude, on occasion. Some parishioners thanked the bishops, saying the "change in attitude" signaled by the release of the names and the meetings has given them hope. Some felt compassion for the bishops over what they guessed was an embarrassing and painful task. Others wanted to know who was counseling defrocked priests and comforting the newly ordained.


Arriving one rainy night at St. Matthew's in Northwest Baltimore, Bishop William Newman called the evening's session a major step in the purification of the church.

"If you read the saints, it seems like every other one is a reformer of the church," he said. "This [the need for reform] is true today, unfortunately."

And while the news he brought, that 20 more victims had come forward, was offered as evidence that openness and healing had begun, some in the group of 25 parishioners disagreed.

One of the first to speak was Bob Toohey, 51, an investment adviser descended from a large Catholic family in Maryland that dates to the 1600s.

"We laity have known for years it's wrong. The fact that the people in charge, the bishops, the cardinal, made the decision for decades to cover up is a huge violation of trust.

"I asked my 85-year-old mother, have you ever heard of this, a listening session? She said, 'No.' I'm wondering why this is. I think it's an insult. You've educated us. We've got brains now. I think it's revolting, and a lot of my friends are leaving the church.


"You are not listening to us. The sound you are listening for is the sound of money in the collection plate ... "

His voice faltered and he couldn't continue. Others picked up for him.

One, Joe Chamberlin, knocked the cardinal's pastoral committee, which meets only when the cardinal calls it in session. Another was Tom Gibbons, 30, vice chair of a group of lay people who help run the parish.

The church is run from the top down, Gibbons said. After this scandal, as an American in a culture run from the ground up, he was no longer comfortable with clergy who employ a "because I said so" rule.

A lot more people would be here, he added, if the session had been better publicized. "Why the kettle is exploding? It hasn't just been this. It's been women left out of the priesthood, gays left out of the church. Other churches do not have this problem."

After more of this kind of criticism, a woman in the front row shook her shoulder free of her husband's arm and stood up.


She hadn't planned to speak, she said. "I am one of the 20 people who has come forward [to report abuse]. Although I struggle with some of the hierarchy's decisions, I was one of those who gained the courage to come forward because of the list. Whether or not Cardinal Keeler or the rest are doing this as damage control, or as a way to get another dollar into the collection basket, is not mine to judge. God will judge. But it has given me courage for the first time in 30 years."

In another parish hall, under another bingo sign, this time at the Church of the Resurrection in Ellicott City, there were more ideas about what it would take for the church to heal: a suggestion that Keeler resign, or that he persuade bishops around the country who had covered up for abusers to resign.

Gina Ciaudelli Maclean, 40, wanted to talk about what is at stake. For her, it is the historic social mission of the church, and the reason she says she is a Catholic. She blamed the scandal on an insular clerical culture and said it is time for the church to seize upon the energy of angry lay people to reinvent itself.

"I don't think this crisis would have happened if priests were parents, frankly. I'm the mother of three small children. I can't imagine this crisis getting so enormous if there were people in the hierarchy who understood how incredibly damaging sexual abuse is to children.

"This has led to a question from the laity: What is this hierarchy and how is it serving us? We are the laity. We are the church."

Mark Serrano, the victims' advocate, was again in attendance. He listened to Malooly and Woy explain that the diocese moves more rapidly when an allegation is made and is a lot more critical than civilian authorities, about how the diocese is powerless to stop paying suspended priests until the pope removes them. And then he spoke again. He wants abusers stripped of their priesthood, not just their licenses, and sent to prison, he said.


"These 'terrible' facts, we don't know what they are," he said. "If you look at the [diocesan] Web site, the location of priests is not there. Where are they? Your money is going to feed felony sex offenders. Shouldn't you know where they live, who they are?

"You have a unique situation in Maryland - there is no statute of limitations on crimes. Yet these [priests on the list] are not prosecuted. What's it going to take?

"If Keeler pressures them to prosecute, do you think it would happen? This is the greatest buck passing ever."

In the back of the room, an old man began to speak. He was shocked, he said, to see on the list the name of a priest whom he regards as a family member. This priest baptized his children and grandchildren, gave them First Holy Communion, married them. This priest wore a collar when he came to visit the man's wife in the hospital six months ago, and recently gave communion on the altar. But according to the list, he'd been defrocked years ago.

The parishioner confronted the priest after seeing his name, he said, and the priest admitted to "one incident with a girl." The priest regularly visits the man's son and grandchildren, and the man is concerned.

What did the priest do? the man asked.


The bishop looked up. People cringed. Some called for him to be named. But the old man declined, saying he would speak to the bishop privately.

He has no pity for the priest, the man said.

"If he's guilty, I don't want him giving out blessings."

For the record

A photo caption in yesterday's Today section misattributed a comment by Bishop W. Francis Malooly to Monsignor Richard Woy. It was Malooly, not Woy, who described handling the crisis over Roman Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse as the worst five months of his life. The Sun regrets the error.