The scandal of pedophile Catholic priests in the Diocese of Phoenix has distressed Bishop Thomas O'Brien so much that he no longer will talk publicly about it--except to excoriate reporters for writing about the topic.
But there was no escaping from the topic earlier this month, when O'Brien and his fellow American bishops were confronted on the ugly issue by an angry group of Catholics in Baltimore.
O'Brien arrived in Maryland for what was supposed to be a gala gathering of the National Conference of Bishops. But the bishops barely got their bags unpacked on November 4 when a handful of conservative Catholics, meeting in a hotel across the street, publicly accused Joseph Ferrario, the bishop of Hawaii, of being a pedophile--an adult who craves sex with children.
The angry Catholics also blasted the Church hierarchy for putting the lid on pedophile-priest cases. They accused Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee and Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago of covering up several incidents. The group chastised all the bishops for not adopting a national policy on pedophilia and urged them to reconsider a 1985 secret document written by church officials that suggests such a policy. (New Times profiled the pedophilia crisis--locally and nationally--in its October 25 issue.)
"Going through the proper channels has not produced the necessary reforms," Michael Schwartz, chairman of Catholics for an Open Church, said at a press conference. "We have no recourse except to bring the matter before the bar of public opinion . . . in the hope that this might give our spiritual leaders the opportunity to take the steps necessary to free the Church of this plague."
At the press conference, a young man using the pseudonym "Damian de Veuster" claimed the Hawaii bishop began sexually abusing him when he was in the eighth grade. Damian charged that the bishop continued the sexual relationship thirteen years, sometimes paying the boy money. Damian, speaking behind a screen to protect his anonymity, had a special message for Ferrario: "You are a pedophile. You are a common criminal, and you should be behind bars. You may have escaped the secular courts, but there is a higher court we all must one day face."
Ferrario immediately denied the allegations and said a recent Vatican investigation had cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Nevertheless, Catholics for an Open Church, which is based in Washington, D.C., called for Ferrario's immediate suspension pending a second investigation by the Vatican.
Conservative Catholics such as Schwartz support celibacy in the priesthood and are outraged by clerics who engage in any type of sexual activity. Insiders within the Church say the conservatives also may be using the growing nationwide pedophilia scandal within the priesthood as a weapon to try to dethrone liberal prelates like Cardinal Bernardin. Ironically, liberal Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle has been one of the more open Church officials on the subject of pedophilia, even instructing priests to talk to their flocks about it.
Schwartz is a senior fellow with the Washington-based Free Congress Foundation, a conservative group headed by prominent conservative activist and political fund raiser Paul Weyrich. Robert Bogley, a foundation official, says that his organization is not in any way connected to Catholics for an Open Church.
In the past five years, dozens of priests throughout the country have been criminally charged because of pedophilia, and the crisis has cost the Church at least $90 million in legal claims, says Jeffrey Anderson, a St. Paul, Minnesota, lawyer.
Anderson, known among anti-pedophilia activists as the "Priestbuster," says his practice is confined to representing victims of pedophile priests. He claims to have 38 lawsuits pending against 24 priests in eight states. Anderson says he has no cases pending in Arizona.
Anderson says he's not surprised by the allegations and demands from Schwartz's group, calling it just another "manifestation of a growing awareness of the problem of pedophilia." Many groups of Catholics of all types are fighting "to preserve the institution" in the face of the pedophilia crisis, he adds.
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In the past five years, three Phoenix priests have been criminally prosecuted for sexually abusing young boys. Fathers John Giandelone, Joseph Lessard, and George Bredemann all pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Bishop O'Brien was forced to call a press conference earlier this year to defend his handling of the Bredemann case. O'Brien had been accused of being insensitive to Father George's victims and had been criticized for pleading leniency for the pedophile priest.
O'Brien's spokeswoman, Marge Injasoulian, noted at press time that she was unable to get the bishop's response to the conservatives' complaints in Baltimore.
Injasoulian said that O'Brien wouldn't consent to an interview with New Times to discuss pedophilia "even if you call every week." Injasoulian added that her boss was not among several bishops who were reportedly summoned to the Vatican last month to discuss their handling of the pedophilia crisis.
The National Conference of Bishops usually meets twice a year to grapple with moral issues--for instance, whether the Church should approve of the use of condoms as a way to prevent AIDS. At this particular meeting, the bishops also planned to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the Baltimore diocese, America's first Catholic diocese.