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San Diego bishop opens listening tour to hear local Catholics' views on sex abuse scandal

San Diego bishop opens listening tour to hear local Catholics' views on sex abuse scandal
Catholic Bishop Robert Walter McElroy speaks with the congregation at Our Mother of Confidence in University City. (Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Parishioners at a Catholic church in University City got their first opportunity Monday night to tell San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy how upset they are about the ongoing scandal involving sexual abuse by priests.

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The session drew an overflow crowd of 335 people to the parish hall at Our Mother of Confidence church. Seven other “time to listen” sessions are scheduled in the coming weeks.

In his opening remarks, McElroy said, “We are in a terribly wrenching moment in the life of our church,” and he encouraged the parishioners to help point the way forward.

But he quickly ran into rough waters — and some booing — from audience members who felt he was downplaying the abuse case of recently resigned Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., and mischaracterized a scathing letter by former U.S. nuncio Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano that accused higher-ups in the church of protecting McCarrick.

“More cover-up,” one of the audience members said.

Many of the questions from parishioners were heated. Several asked when bishops would be held accountable for failing to root out and remove abusive clergy. “We have no confidence that the bishops can police themselves,” one woman said.

Others wanted to know what the church was doing to protect seminarians from sexual predator priests, and several criticized what they called “a homosexual subculture” in the Vatican that encouraged abuse of young boys.

McElroy said he supported more accountability from bishops, including himself. But he challenged the idea that sexual orientation has anything to do with clergy abuse.

“Abuse is not about sex,” he said. “It is about power and domination.”

“Thank you,” a woman in the audience said. “Thank you.”

McElroy outlined “zero-tolerance” reforms the diocese adopted in 2003 that are designed to curb abuse, including reporting credible allegations to police or social welfare authorities, appointing an independent review board to evaluate accusations.

He said there have been no credible allegations involving a living priest in more than three years, although there have been a handful of valid cases against lay employees.

“I think we’re in an OK place,” he said.

“That’s the problem,” an audience member shouted.

For all the hostility in the room, the night’s loudest applause came when a parishioner said she wanted to thank all the good priests in the diocese.

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McElroy announced the listening sessions on Sept. 13 to address what he called “the terrible moment we are in.”

He pointed to a 1,400-page report released a month earlier by a grand jury in Pennsylvania whose investigation that found more than 300 priests across the state had sexually abused at least 1,000 children over the past seven decades — and that the church hierarchy covered it up.

“The individual stories of abuse that robbed the souls and violated the bodies of so many innocent children and young people during the past 70 years are shattering,” McElroy wrote in a letter to San Diego County parishes.

“For me as a bishop there is an additional level of shame, because in many instances, this abuse was magnified by the leadership of the church that placed fear of scandal and the culture of clericalism ahead of the protection of young people,” the letter said.

At the same time, the local diocese added eight names to its own list of priests believed to have molested children. They joined 48 priests and one lay employee who had been named earlier as part of a massive lawsuit involving 144 claims of sexual abuse.

The suit ended in September 2007, when the diocese agreed to pay $198.1 million, the second-largest settlement by a Catholic diocese in the United States.

Zero-tolerance reforms adopted in San Diego are based on “an unswerving focus on protecting minors and vulnerable adults and a binding voice for the laity in determining whether an allegation is true,” McElroy said in his letter. “Any genuine reform must forcefully integrate these principles in a framework of accountability that applies to bishops in their personal lives and administrative actions.”

Monday’s session will be followed by seven more over the next month, including four this week,. McElroy said church leaders are “seeking input from people in the pews on the pathway to such reform, listening to those who have been victimized by clerical sexual abuse either directly or in their families, and praying for God's grace to be our only guide.”

The schedule of remaining listening sessions:

Wednesday, 7 p.m. : St. Joseph Cathedral, 1535 3rd Ave., San Diego.

Thursday, 7 p.m.: Our Lady of Grace, 2766 Navajo Road, El Cajon.

Friday, 7 p.m.: Saint Charles Parish, 990 Saturn Blvd., San Diego.

Saturday, 9 a.m.: Saint Mary Parish, 795 La Brucherie Road, El Centro.

Oct. 17, 7 p.m.: Church of the Nativity, 6309 El Apajo Road, Rancho Santa Fe

Oct. 18, 7 p.m.: St. Gabriel Parish, 13734 Twin Peaks Road, Poway

Nov. 5, 10 a.m.: University of San Diego, Joan B. Kroc Institute, 5998 Alcala Park, San Diego

Wilkens writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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