Eugene Peterson's memoir: 3-4-11
Faith's accessible language: 3-7-11

The sad abuse scandal: 3-5/6-11

I was struck again recently by how sad and unnecessary the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has been. What prompted this -- and it's been a recurring thought for most of a decade -- was e-mail from someone who works on behalf of abuse victims and then e-mail from the person who handles media relations for the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph.

Priest scandal David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), wrote to me expressing distress over the fact that a priest in the KC diocese, Father Michael Tierney, has not been removed from his work at Christ the King parish despite being sued last September by a man who claimed Tierney sexually abused him when the plaintiff was 13 years old.

Clohessy, citing policies of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), said that "church officials are to suspend accused clerics if the allegations are 'credible.'" And then he listed these reasons for considering the allegations against Tierney credible: "1. The victim’s story hasn’t changed over several years. 2. He’s filed a civil suit. 3. He’s hired (and been deemed credible) by an experienced clergy sex abuse attorney. 4. A second person is now accusing Tierney of being sexually inappropriate." (For the USCCB site devoted to child protection and the abuse scandal, click here.)

I checked with Rebecca Summers, who handles media relations for the diocese, to get copies of any statements the bishop or the diocese had issued in response to the Tierney matter, and received copies of these two statements:

This first statement was issued last month:

 Through a media release issued by the Survivor’s Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph has learned of a civil lawsuit filed in Jackson County Circuit Court alleging sexual abuse by a former priest of the diocese – Thomas J. O’Brien.  

The release indicates that the suit was filed by an anonymous individual. As the diocese does not know the identity of the person filing the suit or have any further information, it cannot comment on the substance of the complaint.  

The diocese can confirm that Thomas O’Brien retired from parish ministry in 1984. He was permanently restricted from any form of public ministry or from representing himself as a member of the clergy in 2002. 

The SNAP media release further claims that two priests – Thomas M. Reardon and Father Michael Tierney -- were aware of the abusive situation and made inappropriate remarks to the individual. Thomas Reardon left ministry in 1989, when his faculties were withdrawn by former Bishop John J. Sullivan. Since that time, Reardon has never functioned in any ministerial capacity for the diocese. 

An unrelated lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by Father Michael Tierney was filed in October 2010. (Diocesan statement below). Upon learning of that complaint and in accordance with diocesan policy, the Independent Review Board of the diocese considered the known facts concerning those allegations.  Formed in 1993, the board is a panel of six laypersons -- including clinical psychologists and law enforcement personnel-- who advise the bishop on matters of clerical sexual misconduct.  After consultation, the Independent Review Board did not find any credible claim of sexual abuse and recommended to the bishop that Father Tierney should remain in ministry. 

The diocese was one of the first in the nation to implement strong policies regarding clerical sexual abuse. These policies include:

  • ·        protecting children in all church and school settings;
  • ·        prompt removal from ministry of the credibly accused, pending a fuller
  • ·        counseling and pastoral support for persons making a complaint ;
  • ·        advising people making complaints that they are free to go to police, civil
    authorities or the media; and
  • ·        ensuring that lay persons respond to and give advice for the disposition of

This next statement from the diocese was issued last October:

 Through a media representative, the Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph has learned that a civil lawsuit was filed  on September 29, 2010, in Jackson County Circuit Court alleging sexual misconduct with a minor by Father Michael Tierney nearly 40 years ago.

The plaintiff, identified as John Doe BP, contacted the diocese anonymously through a third party in 2008 to report a 1971 incident involving Father Tierney. In order better to determine the nature of this complaint, which was not described as sexual in nature in 2008, the diocese invited the individual to meet with the Diocesan Response Team. The individual declined the meeting.

At the time this report was made in 2008, the diocese interviewed Father Tierney, who denied any sexual misconduct involving this individual or any other minors. In 41 years of ministry, no allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of Father Tierney have been made. He will continue to serve as pastor of Christ the King Parish, and he and the diocese will defend the lawsuit vigorously.   

As early as 1988, the diocese had adopted a written policy for responding to allegations of sexual abuse. The policy required full compliance with laws for the reporting of child sexual abuse. The policy further provided for lay involvement in responding to complaints. Through the Diocesan Response Team and the Independent Review Board, the diocese has established procedures for listening to a complaint, investigating the circumstances, and making recommendations to the bishop. Membership always includes at least one person who is professionally mandated to report child sexual abuse. These procedures anticipated the requirements of the
national plan endorsed by the U.S. Bishops in 2002.

I am not in a position to make any judgment about the merits of the charges against Tierney or against any other accused priest whose case has yet to be resolved. But what fills me with sadness is that these kinds of statements from advocates for victims and from church officials have been pouring forth all over the country for years now, in large part because church officials failed to handle this whole matter of abusive priests properly in the first place, meaning that in the past bishops routinely and quietly moved abusive priests out of one situation to another, where the same kind of abuse then happened.

My assessment is that on the whole the church now is doing better at preventing abuse and at properly dealing with abusive priests than it was when this scandal broke nationally in 2002 (though there was coverage of it before that). But all these old cases continue to generate press releases, statements, court filings, hard feelings and a terrible suspicion that the church's first interest was not the vulnerable children but, rather, protecting its officials.

And I find all of that incredibly sad. My hope is that people of good faith on all sides of this matter will find a way to do whatever is possible to make the victims whole and then do whatever can be done to prevent abuse in the future. The rights of priests, who can be falsely accused, must be protected, but as that is done it's also crucial for church officials to be as aggressive and thorough as possible in finding the truth in such cases and acting in ways that prevent more abuse.

Finally, to add even more perspective to all this, see John L. Allen Jr.'s recent interview with veteran journalist and author Massimo Franco in which Franco says, "What the Twin Towers attacks were for the United States, the sex abuse scandals are for the church."

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The reverberations continue from the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming that the odious and homophobic Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka must be free to picket. I thought the head of the Chicago Tribune's editorial board said it well in this piece: "They're small, they're aging and they thrive on the hate they inspire. The First Amendment lets them wither away in the open air."

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P.S.: What are faith communities to make of the new social networking tools, such as Facebook and Twitter? And how best can they use those tools? Kansas City area pastors and ministry leaders have a chance to do an all-day training session on this subject on April 7. Emergent church movement leaders Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones will be here to lead the "Social Media Bootcamp" event. For details about the workshop, click here. Look for the Kansas City event listed on the right side of that page to register. For a pdf to download and share with others, click on this link: Download KCFlyer[1]


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