The Clergy's Uneven Atonement

"It's not a matter of sitting down with a bishop for five minutes and him apologizing and [me] being able to move on -- it's more than that," says David Fortwengler, 48, a North Carolina contractor who was abused as an altar boy at St. Columba Catholic Church in Oxon Hill. (By Laura Mueller For The Washington Post)
By Caryle Murphy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 31, 2005

One spring day last year, Baltimore Cardinal William H. Keeler and a dozen priests knelt before more than 100 people in a Maryland church. In an act of public atonement to victims of clerical sexual abuse, they recited the confiteor, the traditional Catholic confession of sin. For some in the audience, it was a long-awaited catharsis.

"You have no idea of the healing that came out of that for me," said Edwina Stewart of Frederick, who was sexually abused by a priest 40 years ago. She recalled breaking into tears during Keeler's prayer.

David Fortwengler never has had such a moment. The North Carolina contractor, abused in the late 1960s as an altar boy at Oxon Hill's St. Columba Catholic Church, appreciates that the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington is paying for his counseling and that an auxiliary bishop personally apologized to him. But all this has not quite closed his wound.

"It's not a matter of sitting down with a bishop for five minutes and him apologizing and [me] being able to move on -- it's more than that," Fortwengler, 48, said.

"I've never even received a phone call from Cardinal [Theodore E.] McCarrick" in his role as archbishop of Washington. "Not even a 15-minute phone call to say: 'Oh, I'm sorry. . . . I just want to make sure that we're fulfilling our obligations. . . . Are we doing okay?' I don't know. Just anything."

As those accounts make clear, U.S. Catholic bishops are responding in markedly different ways to their three-year-old pledge to promote healing and reconciliation with victims of clerical sexual abuse, a promise they made in a document issuing new policies to address the church's child abuse crisis.

The document, known as the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, states that dioceses are to reach out and "demonstrate a sincere commitment" to the "spiritual and emotional well-being" of "every person who has been the victim of sexual abuse as a minor." In addition, it says that each bishop or his representative "will offer to meet" with victims and their families "to listen with patience and compassion to their experiences and concerns."

In its second yearly audit of the charter's implementation, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops found that all 195 dioceses were following the document's directions on healing and reconciliation, according to results released in February. The audit, however, looked mainly at whether dioceses had put specific mechanisms and structures in place to deal with abuse victims' complaints. It did not measure the more intangible but essential components of empathy and compassion that many say promote healing.

Interviews with diocesan officials, lay Catholic activists, abuse victims and their advocates reveal differing perceptions on how best to achieve that healing. What diocesan officials see as generous and genuine pastoral outreach -- including healing Masses, offers to pay for therapy and referrals to support groups -- is often viewed as inadequate by victims.

"What's most important is the human connection," said the Rev. Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer who was among those first to alert the Church to predatory priests 20 years ago.

Doyle says bishops should meet personally with each victim. "Why is there not time to go to someone's home? It would heal so many wounds and begin to build credibility," he said. "The gap between the victims and the hierarchy is massive."

Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Washington archdiocese, said: "We've done our best to try to reach out to any person who comes forward, to respond to his or her individual needs and also to respond to the parish. There will always be someone who feels we could have done something differently."

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