Catholic Church leaves era of U.S. crisis


The U.S. Catholic Church is quietly entering a new season.

Settlement negotiations are under way in Los Angeles for the largest remaining batch of clergy sex abuse lawsuits. Polls have shown greater trust in the nation’s bishops than a few years ago. There’s even been a fundraising recovery in the city at the epicenter of the worst scandal to ever strike American Catholicism – Boston.

Five years after the national abuse scandal began there, triggering a long season of reflection, the church is moving out of crisis mode.

That isn’t to say the scandal is over. Earlier this year, San Diego became the fifth diocese to seek bankruptcy protection.

And the financial implications of a huge settlement in Los Angeles, the nation’s largest archdiocese, could be far-reaching.

But the Los Angeles situation can be viewed in a different light, as well: If a settlement in the tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars is worked out, it will be placed near the end of a list of American Catholic dioceses coming to financial terms with victims of clergy sexual abuse, not the beginning.

“I think the crisis mode is over, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Robert S. Bennett, a Washington, D.C., lawyer and former member of the National Review Board, a panel of lay Catholics formed by U.S. bishops in 2002 in response to the scandal. “The risk it presents is people will get comfortable, and won’t be alert and won’t be as responsive.”

Other developments support the view that the scandal’s hold on American Catholic life is loosening:

• The number of clergy sex abuse claims received by the nation’s Catholic bishops and religious orders declined in 2006, the second consecutive year those numbers have gone down, according to a report this spring. Even the claims newly brought to light for the most part involve decades-old events, the report said.

• Donations to the Boston Archdiocese’s annual Catholic Appeal, after a period of decline, increased by 15 percent in fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2006. Nationally, average gifts to annual appeals fell slightly as the scandal spread, then jumped 13 percent in 2006, according to a survey by the International Catholic Stewardship Council.

– A survey conducted in October 2005 found 74 percent of Catholics were either “somewhat” or “very” satisfied with U.S. bishops’ leadership, up from 57 percent in January 2003, according to the Georgetown University Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate.

– The nation’s pre-eminent victims’ advocate group, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, continues to press for reforms in the Roman Catholic Church but has expanded its lobbying efforts to Southern Baptists and other churches. Another group that emerged from the scandal, Voice of the Faithful based in suburban Boston, is facing a budget deficit and identity crisis.

“People had predicted early on the credibility of the bishops would be wounded forever,” said the Rev. James Heft, director of the Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies at the University of Southern California. “That’s a dangerous statement to make about anything – ‘forever.’ There is a way in which things move on. In general, I think people are willing to believe there have been positive steps taken, and life moves on to other issues.”

In Southern California, life hasn’t moved on – yet. After numerous delays, 15 civil trials involving 172 of 500 alleged clergy sex abuse victims with pending cases are scheduled to begin next week. The Los Angeles Archdiocese already has reached a $60-million settlement with 45 victims, and legal experts say more settlements are likely.

The volume of lawsuits is so great in large part because California lawmakers opened a one-year window for sex abuse victims to sue no matter how old the cases, temporarily lifting statute of limitations restrictions. Some observers expected other states would follow suit, causing the scandal to take on even greater proportions.

But so far, efforts by victims’ groups to convince other states to follow California’s lead have failed except in Delaware, where the governor this week signed a law giving victims two years to file lawsuits on otherwise time-barred claims.

Paul Lakeland, a Catholic studies professor at Fairfield University, a Jesuit institution in Connecticut, said the Los Angeles situation alone shows the U.S. church remains in crisis. He and others attribute the abuse scandal’s fading public profile to fatigue among Catholics about the issue, not in belief that the problem has been solved.

“If tomorrow we could declare the sex abuse scandal over, that would not mean that the church was in better shape because the problems of the church are much more deep-seated structural problems with episcopal leadership on a whole host of issues,” Lakeland said.

Even amid improving poll numbers and donations to the church, there are examples of dioceses repeating the sins of the past, said another former member of the National Review Board, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke.

Burke points to the case in her archdiocese of the Rev. Daniel McCormack, who was not removed from his parish and school until he first was charged in January 2006, several months after an allegations was made against him. McCormack, 38, pleaded guilty earlier this month and was sentenced to five years in prison for molesting five young boys, and the Archdiocese of Chicago apologized for its handling of his case.

“This idea that the culture has changed … I don’t think it has,” Burke said.

But Robert George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, said that on the whole, U.S. Catholics have been able to separate the failures of church leaders from the teachings of the church. He believes U.S. bishops ultimately did take the issue seriously, even if they needed to be pushed.

Some thought that the crisis would lead rank-and-file Catholics to reject the church, but George notes that didn’t happen.

“American Catholics did seem to exhibit a more sophisticated kind of thinking,” he said.

AP-ES-07-11-07 1737EDT