by Jorge I. Domínguez-López
The Diocese of Brooklyn is producing an informational video to address parishioners’ concerns about the sexual abuse crisis in the Church. The action comes after the New York State Attorney General issued subpoenas to the state’s eight dioceses to hand over files that relate to sexual abuse cases going all the way back to 1950.
The video will feature four recent regional meetings with Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio and the lay faithful that took place in four parishes in Brooklyn and Queens over the course of a month.
Vicar General and Vicar for Clergy and Consecrated Life Auxiliary Bishop Raymond Chappetto welcomed approximately 1,000 people from different parishes to the four meetings. First, attendees listened to presentations, and then they participated in a candid question-and-answer session with Bishop DiMarzio.
“It is very important that the leadership in our parishes understands this very complex and very difficult issue,” Bishop DiMarzio said at the beginning of the fourth listening session, held at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Flatlands, Nov. 8.
That ‘very complex and very difficult issue’ was in the headlines frequently this summer. Bishop DiMarzio decided to hold the meetings to talk with the faithful and more importantly, to listen to what they had to say – or ask him – about sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.
“This was called an epidemic,” Bishop DiMarzio said while introducing a video about the sexual abuse crisis at the beginning of the night.
“An epidemic is something that has a beginning, a high point and then ends. This is the key thing we need to understand tonight, that the sexual abuse in the Church really has extinguished itself as an epidemic.”
In the video, participants saw several graphs showing how the sexual abuse crisis has subsided. The data and graphs came from an independent study conducted by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The bishop pointed out that the abuse crisis peaked in the 1980s and that the majority of abusers were priests who did their seminary studies in the 1950s and ’60s. He went on to explain how the selection of priest candidates and formation methods have changed in the Diocese of Brooklyn in response to the causes of crisis revealed by the John Jay study.
Participants also saw a video with testimony from survivors of clergy sexual abuse within the Diocese of Brooklyn. Survivors shared painful experiences and explained how the diocese has helped them overcome the trauma and challenges they had to face as a result of the abuse.
After the video, the diocesan Vice Chancellor and Victim Assistance Coordinator, Jasmine Salazar, explained what the diocese has done for the victims of sexual abuse by members of the clergy.
“I know this is not an easy topic,” she said. “As faithful Catholics, it is one many of us have struggled with through the years and have many feelings and questions about, especially with all that has been in the media lately.”
She spoke about programs the diocese has in place to assist victims and also the channels to report new cases, including the confidential diocesan sexual abuse reporting line 888-634-4499. She talked about how her office works with survivors on a regular basis and hosts the annual Mass of Hope and Healing, celebrated by the bishop, for survivors and their families.
Diocesan Safe Environment Coordinator Maryellen Quinn spoke about sexual abuse prevention. She explained how the diocese has implemented the guidelines of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002.
Among other programs, she mentioned that her office trains all children in Catholic schools and religious education programs on how to recognize and report sexual abuse. Any person who works or volunteers with the diocese must be trained to recognize and prevent sexual abuse, she said, and noted that every employee and volunteer goes through a background check.
Bishop DiMarzio then shared details about the Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program, or IRCP, initiated by the diocese last year. Under the program, the diocese invited victims to come forward and work with a law firm to reach a resolution with the diocese.
“We really did not understand how many people we had as victims,” the bishop said. “Before 2002, we only knew 14 percent of the people that have come in this program. The whole number is about 476, and it has not finished yet.”
“The number of perpetrators now has risen to 106 priests,” Bishop DiMarzio said, “which is still less than five percent of all the priests that have been working from 1950 to the present.”
Candid Questions and Answers
During the question-and-answer session, Julie, a parishioner from St. Saviour in Park Slope, said she feels “the Church will benefit dramatically if we put forward very strong women in key leadership positions to balance out this patriarchy that we have been living under since time began.” Her comment was followed by applause.
“I am flanked by two women that have great responsibilities within the diocese,” the bishop said. “I think that speaks for itself.”
He was referring to Salazar and Quinn who sat with Bishops DiMarzio and Chappetto at the presiding table.
Tom, from the Co-Cathedral of St. Joseph, Prospect Heights, asked the bishop when the diocese was going to release all the names of priests, dead or alive, historically accused of sexual abuse. He also asked if the diocese was planning to sell the bishop’s residence to pay for settlements as other dioceses have done.
Bishop DiMarzio answered that the diocese will release the names of all clergy credibly accused of sexual abuse at the end of the reconciliation program. He said it was important to wait because releasing the names sooner may motivate false claims against deceased priests.
Bishop DiMarzio also said that selling the bishop’s residence is not out of the question, even though it hasn’t been necessary so far.
Angela, from St. Augustine parish, Park Slope, asked the bishop about the culture that tolerated and covered up sexual abuse in the Church. The bishop explained that the sexual abuse issue was not confronted by society until recently. He used an example of when he studied social work in the 1970s. At that time sexual abuse was not part of the curriculum.
“The issue of sexual abuse has been hidden in our society,” the bishop said.
Sister Elizabeth from Resurrection parish, Gerritsen Beach, talked about her experiences back in the 1980s. Several boys told her about the improper conduct of some priests, she said, but when she tried to report those priests, nobody wanted to listen.
She asked the bishop, “The clerical culture didn’t allow [victims] to speak out. What are you going to do about that?”
The culture has completely changed, Bishop DiMarzio answered. “We have only two cases since 2002.” He said that while even two cases are too much, the data shows that the crisis has subsided. The reporting line for sexual abuse, the bishop also noted, was put in place two months after he arrived as bishop in 2003.
As he addressed other questions and comments, Bishop DiMarzio pointed out the efforts of the Diocese of Brooklyn and other dioceses to fight this crime. He also said that data shows the crisis of sexual abuse is mostly over. However, it is now through judicial reports that many people are finding out the details.
While sexual abuse has occurred in many other institutions, the scrutiny the Church has received is unique, Bishop DiMarzio said, adding that there is still a risk the diocese could end up bankrupt by the settlements related to sexual abuse.
There were pointed questions from the participants and positive reactions at the end of the sessions. Vincent, a parishioner from Holy Name of Jesus said, “I think it was very good that the bishop provided information on the accuracy of what’s actually happening. It’s important for us to get our own information from our bishop and not just through the media.”
Others saw the sessions as a moment of unity during a difficult time.
“I think it really raised our awareness about the issues that are going on in the Church, but it also brought us together to really strengthen our understanding and where to go from here,” said Tom, a parishioner from Sacred Heart Church, Glendale.
Spokesperson for the diocese, Adriana Rodriguez, said the video will be released in the coming weeks.