NEW YORK — Priests, nuns and canon lawyers who advocate for molestation victims urged Pope Francis on Wednesday to use the new Vatican tribunal he formed on negligent bishops to investigate the archbishop of Newark, New Jersey, who has long been accused of sheltering abusive priests.
The plea comes as Francis prepares for his first visit to the U.S. in September, a trip which will take place against the backdrop of the broad unfinished business of the molestation scandal. The crisis erupted in 2002 with the case of one pedophile priest in the Archdiocese of Boston before spreading nationwide, then engulfing the Roman Catholic Church.
The advocates, who call themselves the Catholic Whistleblowers, said they will present evidence to the Vatican that Archbishop John Myers has been persistently hostile toward people who come forward with abuse allegations, and had left guilty clerics in parishes in the Newark archdiocese and in his previous post as bishop of Peoria, Illinois. Myers has repeatedly defended his record, noting that he has removed many guilty priests, but he has been dogged by revelations about cases bungled on his watch in both states.
“When Pope Francis last month announced the new tribunal, instantly — within 24 hours — we were saying, ‘Myers has to be one,'” said the Rev. James Connell, a canon lawyer and retired priest from Milwaukee, who is part of the whistleblower group. “It’s a place to start.”
Three American dioceses — Gallup, New Mexico, Milwaukee and St. Paul and Minneapolis — are in bankruptcy court trying to limit settlements with victims and preserve church assets; the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is being prosecuted on charges of failing to protect children from a now-convicted priest, and the Diocese of Honolulu is facing a raft of new claims after Hawaii lawmakers temporarily abolished time limits on lawsuits over child sex abuse.
Francesco Cesareo, president of Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, and head of the National Review Board, a panel formed by the U.S. bishops to monitor child safety in dioceses, said accountability for bishops is the most pressing issue for restoring trust, after revelations that church leaders for decades had moved guilty clerics from parish to parish without warning parents or alerting police.
Hundreds of accused clergymen have been barred from serving as priests under the reforms the U.S. bishops enacted following intense public pressure in 2002, but there has been no direct penalty for bishops who covered up allegations and kept the clerics on the job.
A few prelates have stepped down. Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Missouri, resigned last April, three years after he was convicted of failure to report suspected child abuse by a now-imprisoned priest. Archbishop John Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis also resigned this year — just days after the Vatican announced the new tribunal and after prosecutors filed child endangerment charges against the archdiocese. Nienstedt said he wanted to give the archdiocese a “new beginning.” Nienstedt is also accused of misconduct with adults. He said he left his post with “a clear conscience.”
“The problem is that every time a new incident emerges, it erodes the good work that the bishops have done,” Cesareo said in a phone interview.
In Newark, Jim Goodness, a spokesman for Myers, said the archbishop has been “very aggressive” in pursuing abuse claims and has removed 19 accused priests from ministry since he was installed in Newark in 2002.
But the archbishop came under heavy criticism in 2013 after news reports that now defrocked priest Michael Fugee, who had been accused of groping a teenage boy, attended youth retreats and heard confessions from minors despite an agreement with prosecutors and an archdiocesan official barring him from contact with minors. The archdiocese also had privately allowed another priest who had been removed over molestation claims to live in the rectory of a church with a school and youth groups.
In Peoria, Larry and Helen Rainforth, whose son Lance was among 13 people who received settlements from that diocese over abuse by former priest Norman Goodman, said Myers threatened people who came forward with libel lawsuits and excommunication.
Within about two months of taking over from Myers in Illinois, Bishop Daniel Jenky ousted several accused priests, a development that Connell and others point to as evidence of Myers’ negligence. (Goodness said he did not have information about specific claims from Peoria.)
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, said it was “premature” to comment on what cases would be considered by the tribunal, which he said has not yet been organized.
Francis’ decision last month to form the tribunal was his biggest step yet toward tackling that issue. The pope has said he takes personal responsibility for the “evil” of priests who raped children. He formed an advisory commission on protecting young people led by Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley and including abuse victims. A year ago, he met with European victims at the Vatican, begging for their forgiveness.
Nothing on the official Vatican itinerary for the pope’s U.S. trip starting Sept. 22 indicates Francis plans to address the issue. Still, he is widely expected to do so in some forum.
In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI, on his only trip to the U.S. as pontiff, held an unannounced private meeting with a few victims in the chapel of the papal embassy in Washington. The extraordinary gathering, revealed only after it was over, had been organized by O’Malley. Don Clemmer, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said of any meeting of Francis and American victims, “we would not be able to confirm such an event until it had already taken place.”
Francis will end his three-city tour in Philadelphia, where a 2011 grand jury investigation threw the archdiocese into turmoil. The panel alleged about three-dozen offending priests were still working in the archdiocese. The then archbishop, Cardinal Justin Rigali, retired a few months later.
In 2012, Monsignor William Lynn, who had overseen Philadelphia clergy for about a dozen years ending in 2004, was convicted of felony child endangerment for covering up abuse claims. In an awkward moment for organizers of Francis’ trip, after the Vatican announced he would visit a prison in Philadelphia, it was learned that Lynn was housed there. He has since been moved.
Bernie McDaid, now 59, of Marblehead, Massachusetts, was among victims at the 2008 meeting with Benedict, which McDaid said had made him “hopeful” that the Vatican was ready to acknowledge the scope of the problem. But he said now, such a meeting with Francis would serve no purpose, because it would be symbolic and not substantive.
“It’s already been done,” said McDaid, who argued church leaders continue to treat victims poorly. “They want to say, ‘This is over.'”
McDaid said he’d be more encouraged if the pope came to Boston and told the church, “We still have a long way to go.”
Associated Press writer Frances D’Emilio contributed reporting from Rome.