By Jeannette Neumann
For many of Brooklyn’s faithful, the holiest week in the Catholic calendar was marred by accusations of anti-Catholic bigotry on the one hand and claims of criminal cover-ups on the other.
The Vatican spent much of Holy Week doing damage control on a sexual abuse scandal that has ensnared the Pope himself. Reports last month that Pope Benedict XVI may have failed to act on two cases of pedophile abuse within the Church has widened a rift in Brooklyn’s Catholic community between those who say local Church authorities have been aggressive in ferreting out and removing sex offenders from the ministry and those who insist the institution’s focus is still on protecting its reputation rather than its parishioners.
“I think there is no one doing more to protect children than the Catholic Church today,” said Monsignor Kieran Harrington, spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn.
He said ongoing coverage in The New York Times of the sexual abuse story unnecessarily stirred up controversy among Brooklyn’s Catholics during Holy Week, which drew to a close yesterday on Easter Sunday.
“Doing this during the holiest weeks of the year for Catholics smacks of their own bigotry and bias,” Harrington said of the Times.
That sentiment was echoed by Bishop Nicholas A. DiMarzio of Brooklyn during a Tuesday mass for nearly 400 priests. In the ceremony, the priests renewed their pledge to live a simple life of celibacy and obedience.
“Two weeks of articles about a story from many decades ago, in the midst of the Most Holy Season of the Church year is both callous and smack of calumny,” Bishop DiMarzio said. “I ask you to stand up with me and send a message loud and clear that the Pope, our Church, and our bishops and priests will no longer be the personal punching bag of The New York Times.” He raised the possibility that Brooklyn Catholics should cancel their subscriptions to the newspaper, but then cautioned against it because “we need to know what the enemy is saying.” (Read the full sermon here.)
Mary Caplan, who was sexually abused by a priest in Jersey City from age 13 to 16, said articles like those in the Times are necessary to expose criminal actions that have been covered up for decades.
“The gospel (of Holy Week) is to stand with the powerless, the poor, the hungry, the children. And somehow that has gotten lost,” said Caplan, a member of the New York branch of the advocacy and support group The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP. “I hope for them that they could find their soul and take responsibility,” she said of Church officials.
Brooklyn is a microcosm of the U.S. Catholic community: The Diocese, which includes Kings and Queens counties, has 1.6 million parishioners, making it the largest in the U.S., according to the Diocese’s Web site.
Most Catholics agree the sexual abuse scandal that exploded in Boston in 2002 was a watershed moment in their community. But they disagree fervently over what has been accomplished since that benchmark.
The Brooklyn Diocese says their response has been “aggressive” and successful.
The Diocese has spent $750,000 each year since 2003 to train tens of thousands of volunteers and clergy in a sexual-abuse prevention program, Msgr. Harrington said.
“Basically the whole idea is to keep the protection of children at the forefront of your mind,” he said. Since 2003, anyone who is employed by or volunteers at a Brooklyn parish has to undergo a background check and six hours of training, which instructs trainees to never be alone with a child and how to spot signs a child may have been sexually abused, for example.
“If you’re not on board, you’re not involved,” Harrington said. “We take it very seriously.”
If any parishioner raises an allegation of abuse, two parallel investigations are immediately launched – one by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office and a second internal one by a five-person Diocesan Review Board. Before the new procedures went into effect in 2003 the Diocese investigated most allegations internally.
Brooklyn District Attorney spokesman Jerry Schmetterer confirmed his office’s involvement since 2003. He wasn’t able to say how many priests have been investigated over the past decade because his office doesn’t break down criminal charges by profession.
Harrington estimates that 20 priests have been found guilty of sexual abuse since 2003, but was unable to confirm that number before publication of this article. Harrington said that at least two priests have been falsely accused over the past decade. He said the majority of charges are raised by parishioners who were abused decades earlier.
Church critics say the measures launched a decade ago are steps in the right direction. But the steps are too small, they say.
Most importantly, Caplan and other critics say, attempts at reform smack of disingenuousness because Brooklyn church officials have lobbied against the passage of a bill that would extend the statute of limitations for sexual abuse claims.
The Child Victim’s Act of New York, as the proposed bill is known, has languished in the state legislature. It would extend the statute of limitations to 28 years old. Currently in New York State, anyone alleging sexual abuse by a priest must bring those charges before he or she turns 23.
New York Catholic authorities “have been working very hard to keep the Child Victim’s Act from going through,” said Caplan, 65. New York’s Orthodox Jewish community has also actively opposed the legislation.
“This bill is going to bankrupt the Church,” Bishop DiMarzio told the New York Post last year. Similar legislation had passed earlier in Delaware and in California, where claims cost the Church an estimated $1 billion in damages and settlements.
For Church critics, what happens with the proposed changes to the statute of limitations is the litmus test for real reform.
“As a survivor, they haven’t done enough,” said Glenn Echevarria, a Brooklyn member of SNAP. “The Catholic Church is the poster institution for not caring for victims – for apologizing and not doing anything.”
Echevarria, 41, would prefer no age limit for victims to press charges and points to his own story to illustrate what he says is the absurdity of a statute of limitations.
Echevarria grew up in Bedford-Stuyvesant where he says he was molested as a young child by his female babysitter and then later by his neighborhood baseball coach when he was 13 years old.
Echevarria turned to a Catholic youth group at a church in Brooklyn. At 15, Echevarria says, he was abused by a priest—the leader of the youth group.
“I thought, ‘the devil is trying to get me everywhere I go,’” Echevarria said.
He says the abuse lasted more than a decade, but he didn’t tell anyone. “I kept it locked inside my soul for most of my adult life,” he said.
Echevarria, like many victims, said he often blamed himself for the abuse and was “mortified” to tell anyone until five years ago, when he publicly acknowledged the abuse.
He said many victims take decades to be able to speak openly about being abused by a priest or a nun, which New York’s statute of limitations on child abuse lawsuits doesn’t take into account. Until the Church stops lobbying against a change in the statute of limitations, it can’t talk about real reform, Echevarria said.
Meanwhile, priests across Brooklyn are coping with the increased scrutiny.
Father Kevin Sweeney from St. Michael’s Roman Catholic Church in Sunset Park said his congregation, predominantly Latino immigrants, hasn’t expressed much interest in the headlines from the Vatican, seeing it as something that doesn’t affect their faith.
Sexual abuse is often portrayed as only a widespread problem within the Catholic Church, Sweeney cautioned. He attributed that to “some of the moral stands that the Church takes – so people want to see the Church’s credibility questioned.”
Over a recent two-hour meal with several priests, Sweeney said they only addressed the allegations against the Vatican for 10 minutes. “There’s a fatigue factor,” he said. “It’s been a lot of years that it’s been going on.” Still, Sweeney said, “I’m embarrassed by what priests have done even though it was 10 or 20 or 30 years ago.”
“It’s inexcusable,” he said.
Reverend Thomas Ahern, the pastor at St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Park Slope, says the reaction in his parish has varied. “There’s disappointment and anger” from his parishioners, he said, “but also understanding about human nature and sin. It’s a mixed bag. I don’t think there’s any one reaction.
“I understand they’re angry, I’m angry at times too,” Ahern said. “It’s not foreign to me. I wonder myself how things could have spiraled out of control like that.”
Ahern said the scandal in Boston in 2002 laid the groundwork for how his parishioners have dealt with subsequent allegations of sexual abuse and cover-ups. “Each parishioner has grappled with this and taken a look at their faith,” he said. “Their focus is Jesus Christ – that’s their center.”