POPE BENEDICT XVI IN AMERICA
As Visit Nears, Sexual Abuse Victims Group Plans Protest
Monday, April 14, 2008
A decade ago, Toni McMorrow and her husband might have joined in the prayer and pageantry of the pope's visit to Washington. But now, she says, Benedict XVI's arrival and the throngs who will cheer him are "like daggers cutting into our broken hearts."
McMorrow thinks that her son was molested seven years ago by a priest at their Germantown church, she said. And, like many victims of clergy sex abuse and their families, she doesn't think the pope has done enough to punish bishops who engaged in or covered up abuse.
Together with lay Catholic groups, the victims' families are planning what they say will be respectful protests timed to coincide with the pope's trip, which begins tomorrow. "We won't be bringing any bullhorns into the stadium or disrupting anything," said Barbara Blaine, president of the largest victims support group, the 8,000-member Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. "But we do want people to know that the sex abuse scandal is not history."
Blaine spoke at a small protest yesterday afternoon by the Reflecting Pool of the U.S. Capitol, where members of the survivors network laid out 19 white paper crosses bearing photographs of children allegedly abused by priests. The group also issued a list of 19 U.S. bishops who have been accused of abusing minors; 13 of them are alive, and three are still in office.
"Bishops can remove priests, but only the pope can discipline a bishop," said Terry McKiernan, president of BishopAccountability.org, based in Boston. "As the country goes a little bit pope-crazy this week . . . we should remember that this is not just a 'meet and greet' for the pope with the American people. It's also a managerial moment for the pope with his bishops."
The percentage of Catholics who are satisfied with the U.S. bishops' leadership has jumped 14 points, to nearly 72 percent, since bottoming out in 2004, according to a survey released yesterday by Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. The report attributed the recovery in the bishops' approval rating to their efforts to protect children after the sex abuse scandal exploded in Boston in 2002.
By the U.S. bishops' count, more than 5,000 priests have been credibly accused of abusing about 12,000 children in the United States since 1950. The church has spent $2 billion on legal claims, six dioceses have declared bankruptcy, and hundreds of priests have been removed. Most dioceses now require criminal background checks on employees and are teaching children, parents and teachers how to respond to signs of abuse.
Archbishop Pietro Sambi, the Vatican ambassador to the United States, has said Benedict will speak about the scandal during his trip. But no meetings with victims have been announced, despite the urging of U.S. cardinals.
"I do know that some [cardinals] asked," said Bishop Gregory M. Aymond of Austin, chairman of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Sexual Abuse, "and I think it's a reasonable request, an appropriate request, because it would give further evidence that he's aware that victims have been hurt, that some people have left the church, that it's hurt the image of our church."
McMorrow, 46, a pediatric nurse in Frederick, said in an interview last week that she was disappointed that the pope did not respond to requests from survivors groups for a meeting. But her main concern, she said, is "where is the accountability of the bishops?"
In 2001, McMorrow sent her son, Brandon Rains, then 14, to be an altar boy at Germantown's Mother Seton Parish. She said a priest, the Rev. Aaron Joseph Cote, showed the boy pornography, then molested him for months.
"We didn't know what was going on, but now the timeline is clear," McMorrow said. "Brandon just started spiraling down really fast, using heavier kinds of drugs and alcohol, and acting out, and running away."
It's a familiar story -- except, perhaps, for the ending. McMorrow reported the abuse to the Washington archdiocese in 2003, a year after U.S. bishops pledged to permanently remove from ministry any priest who is credibly accused of abusing a minor. Cote disappeared from Mother Seton Parish. But, it turned out, he did not disappear from ministry.
"My wife and I really had complete faith and trust in the church for two years. We thought they were taking care of it," said Joseph McMorrow, Rains's stepfather. Then in 2005, he discovered on the Internet that the Dominican order, to which Cote belongs, had sent the priest to Providence, R.I., where he was serving as a youth minister.
In November 2005, Rains, who had turned 18, filed a civil lawsuit against Cote and the Roman Catholic Church. That same day, Cote was removed from ministry, and the suit was settled last summer for $1.2 million. But Cote has never admitted wrongdoing and remains a priest. Last week, a family in Springfield, Mass., filed another suit against Cote and the Dominicans, alleging that he abused their preschool-age sons after leaving the Germantown church.