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New bishop faces old problem

By MARGOT PATTERSON

03/14/03

If Catholics in Palm Beach feel dismayed by a sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church that has removed not one but two bishops from the diocese, the new bishop of Palm Beach, Sean O’Malley, may himself be suffering from a case of déjà vu.

O’Malley was transferred to Palm Beach from the diocese of Fall River, Mass., where he was also called on to clear up sex abuse in the diocese that predated his installation as bishop in 1992. Over a period of seven years, from 1960 to 1967, Fr. James Porter had molested scores of children in the diocese before leaving the priesthood to marry. When O’Malley became bishop, he instituted criminal background checks for priests and other church workers and special training for church workers and volunteers in detecting child abuse. The preventive programs he instituted in Fall River have been held up as a model for other dioceses.

O’Malley said one of his first priorities in Palm Beach is restoring a sense of normalcy to the diocese. He described the challenge confronting him in Palm Beach as rather different from that which he faced in Fall River.

“In Fall River when I arrived, there were scores of victims of Fr. Porter. Here this is not the case,” O’Malley told NCR in a phone interview. “The incidents the former bishops were involved in didn’t take place here. Here it’s more one of the credibility of the church. There it was really trying to meet with those victims and to meet with the parishes Fr. Porter had been stationed at. But of course it’s all part of the same problem, issues of sexual abuse that took place many, many times and at that time, for whatever reason, were not adequately resolved and dealt with and, years later, picking up the pieces and dealing with the consequences.”

The crisis of credibility O’Malley faces extends beyond just the Catholic community. The resignation of Bishop Anthony O’Connell in March of last year was covered extensively in the secular press, and local television stations interrupted their regular programming to cover the news conference in which O’Connell resigned. Residents of all faiths have an opinion on the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church.

“I’m very shocked,” said Paige Lloyd, a 20-year-old African-American Pentecostal who with her mother just opened a small candy shop on a courtyard off Palm Beach Island’s Worth Avenue, a chic street lined with expensive stores and boutiques. “I just think it’s ridiculous all that’s going on in the Catholic church. I think they need to get rid of some of those people doing those things instead of just leaving them in those positions.”

“I think it’s terrible,” said Mike, a Federal Express worker making a delivery who was raised Catholic but now describes himself as a born-again Christian. “What’s terrible is the cover-up.”

But it was Paul Scharf, a neurosurgeon shopping for a video to watch on his day off, who was most devastating in his criticism.

“I think it cannot be viewed as the failure of a few individuals. It must be viewed as a failure of the entire institution to regulate, educate and make proper amends, and the fault must lie ultimately with Rome. The church should have been smart enough to realize that in this time we live in, the way to deal with a moral crisis and a failure of theological responsibility is to define the problem before the public does,” Scharf said.

Scharf noted that pedophilia is an age-old evil but one that he said the Catholic church has protected. “I think it’s much worse in the Catholic church because it’s a more centralized, bureaucratic religion than almost any religion on earth. There’s a direct relation between bureaucracy and an inability to correct problems because of self-interest and power.”

Among Catholics, probably the most outspoken critic of the church in the Palm Beach diocese has been lawyer Edward Ricci. A Florida Catholic who said he has raised millions of dollars for Catholic churches, colleges and schools, Ricci started a Web site last year that urged Catholics to withhold contributions until the diocese did more to put its house in order. The Web site is no longer active, but Ricci continues to be publicly critical of the diocese for, in his opinion, turning a blind eye to a priest accused of molesting women and for not taking stronger action against a financial manager who embezzled $400,000 from the diocese several years ago.

Ricci, whose face appears on the back of the Palm Beach telephone book in an advertisement for his law firm, has urged the diocese to institute polygraph tests for priests and to have priests sign an affidavit swearing they are not guilty of sex abuse.

National Catholic Reporter, March 14, 2003