Opinion Mixed on Idaho Bishop’s Role in Abuse

Share via
Times Staff Writers

Southern Californians who were sexually abused by priests left in ministry by Bishop Michael P. Driscoll want him to resign or be fired.

But in Idaho, where Driscoll now serves as bishop of Boise, Roman Catholic opinion appears far more divided after the release last week of internal church documents that detailed his past handling of clergy sexual abuse allegations in Orange County.

Many Idaho Catholics have remained supportive of Driscoll, who has apologized for what he described as his “horribly misplaced” priorities in California. Others say they have trouble reconciling the engaging “Bishop Mike,” who speaks passionately of his concern for children and the poor, with the portrait that has emerged from the files.


According to the documents, Driscoll moved priests accused of molesting minors from parish to parish in Orange County. He helped others relocate to other dioceses and countries to avoid prosecution, ignored or delayed acting on parents’ complaints, and accepted a convicted molester from Wisconsin into a local parish.

The files were released last week as part of a $100-million settlement involving 90 alleged victims of sexual abuse and the Diocese of Orange. Driscoll served as chancellor and later as auxiliary bishop in Orange County from 1976 to 1999, when he became head of the statewide diocese in Idaho.

Cathy Daley, a parishioner of St. Mary’s Parish in Boise, said the revelations from Orange County “make my knees shake.”

“How could he be involved in something like this? It’s scary. It’s very unnerving,” she said of Driscoll. She said it didn’t matter that the failings there occurred 20 years ago. “He is still in the church. They should never have made him bishop. I mean the thing is, don’t they [bishops] have background checks?”

Some in Idaho also are upset by a more recent incident in Boise itself.

A permanent deacon -- an ordained leader who is not a priest -- had been investigated, tried, convicted and sentenced on child pornography charges before parishioners at St. Mary’s Parish, where he served, were told of the case in February.

The deacon -- Robert “Rap” Howell -- was convicted of viewing child pornography, not at the parish, but at a foster child counseling service in Boise where he worked full time for 12 years, first as a social worker and then as a counselor.


Driscoll had known of the investigation nine months before the church told parishioners, the diocese said. The time lag outraged some at St. Mary’s.

“People were concerned that we were not told the truth. I think it stems from the bishop, bottom line,” said Mary Baker, 46, whose 13-year-old son attends the red-brick St. Mary’s Elementary School on busy, tree-lined West State Street not far from Idaho’s Capitol building. “You read about it somewhere else, and then it’s right here at home -- in our own parish, our own children.”

But beyond St. Mary’s Parish, the recent Orange County disclosures seem to have barely caused a ripple in Boise.

“In general, I don’t condone that. It doesn’t make me feel good that he’s done that in the past,” said Lucy Li, 40, who has a 12-year-old son at St. Mary’s school. But, she said, “everybody changes over time. What I would want to see is what steps he’s taking now to show us, the people, that he’s protecting us, that he’s on our side.”

Driscoll, 65, is not the first bishop to become entangled in decisions he made long before he headed his own diocese.

Cardinal Bernard Law was forced to resign as archbishop of Boston in December 2002 for his role in covering up pedophile priests. Two of his auxiliary bishops who had been promoted to run their own dioceses -- Brooklyn, N.Y., Bishop Thomas V. Daily and Bishop Robert J. Banks of Green Bay, Wis. -- resigned in 2003 under the cloud created by their roles in the Boston sex scandal.


But Boise is not Boston. The local daily newspaper didn’t find the incident involving the convicted deacon newsworthy. And there has been no hint of organized opposition to Driscoll.

A co-founder of the Idaho affiliate of Voice of the Faithful -- the lay reform group that began in Boston after disclosure of priest pedophilia there -- spoke approvingly of Driscoll after the Orange County disclosures. Darlyne Pape described the bishop as compassionate, pastoral and a good listener who had expressed “great remorse” for his decisions in Orange County.

Pape, who also is a member of the bishop’s Sexual Misconduct Review Board, spoke of the accepting culture of Boise.

“There’s a real sense of loyalty, which is admirable. I don’t know that we always ask critical questions,” Pape said. “There might be a little bit more of denial here. I think we’re isolated.”

The measured reaction here frustrates molestation victims in the Orange diocese, who said they still bear the scars of sexual abuse by priests whom Driscoll knowingly left in ministry.

The mother of one alleged victim said Driscoll simply didn’t have the moral standing to be a bishop.


“I’m not angry at God; I’m angry at the church,” said Minerva Guerrero, whose son said he was first abused at age 8 by Father Siegfried Widera, who previously had been convicted of molestation in Wisconsin.

“They knew about Widera. As he was shifted around by church leaders, other kids got molested. They should face a judge and be charged with molestation.”

One 37-year-old man, who received part of the recent settlement for his contention that he was molested in childhood by Widera, echoed other victims in calling for Driscoll’s resignation as bishop.

“Absolutely, the church should force Driscoll to step down,” said the man, who requested anonymity. “He should not even be in the church, but they’re not going to do it.”

Driscoll admitted in depositions taken in 1990 and 2002 that he never warned Orange County parishioners that a molesting priest was in their midst, at times didn’t interview the alleged victims, didn’t seek out additional victims and never reported the accusations to police.

Court papers in a 1985 lawsuit included a letter from Driscoll in which he asked a colleague in England to accept a priest accused of molesting an 8-year-old boy, so he could avoid U.S. prosecution on molestation charges.


Father Bill McLaughlin, a retired Orange County priest, worked with Driscoll for more than 20 years. He said the bishop had a reputation as being jovial, “one of the boys,” and a good decision-maker.

He said Driscoll’s decisions in the sexual abuse cases were difficult to understand.

“It’s a total blindness,” said McLaughlin, who lives in Ireland. “It’s really weird; it was universal, this blindness.”

A native Angeleno, Driscoll attended parochial schools and graduated from St. John’s Seminary in Camarillo. He was ordained in 1965. After serving in parishes in Los Angeles and Burbank, he got a master’s degree in social work at USC in 1975 and became director of Catholic Charities of Orange County, a poverty relief organization.

In Boise, Driscoll, as other Catholic bishops around the country did, adopted safeguards to protect minors from sexual abuse. Since 2003, background checks have been run on 814 priests, deacons, teachers and other diocese employees. More than 2,500 volunteers in schools and parishes have been screened.

Driscoll also persuaded Catholic Charities to open four offices in Idaho to reach out to the poor, children at risk and the elderly. The number of men considering the priesthood was up, the diocese said, and outreach to Latinos has increased with additional Masses in Spanish.

Driscoll has gone to some lengths to defuse the potential crises. When the controversy erupted at St. Mary’s, Driscoll met with dismayed parishioners. He said the church had delayed in notifying them about the case because officials first wanted to obtain as much accurate information as possible.


(In a 2002 deposition related to an Orange County case, Driscoll testified that experience taught him that his duty now was to inform the faithful when allegations of sexual abuse by priests surfaced. “I’d warn parishioners,” Driscoll said, adding that it has been his policy for more than a decade.)

And, this month before the files became public, Driscoll posted his apology for the Orange County cases on a diocese website. He also offered a general apology three years ago in the diocesan newspaper.

“I am ashamed that this happened,” Driscoll wrote two weeks ago. “I am deeply sorry that the way we handled cases at that time allowed children to be victimized by permitting some priests to remain in ministry, for not disclosing their behavior to those who might be at risk, and for not monitoring their actions more closely.”

Driscoll last week refused to grant interviews.

The Very Rev. Ronald Wekerle, the bishop’s vicar general, said Driscoll had taken responsibility for his past decisions. “The whole issue of child sexual abuse is very distasteful and very difficult to deal with,” Wekerle said.

“You can’t sidestep it or go around it. The only way you deal with it is to walk through it -- walk through the fire. The bishop is walking through the fire.”

But David Clohessy of St. Louis, national director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, said he was unimpressed by Driscoll’s web posting.


“When you apologize under duress it inevitably rings hollow, especially when you apologize under duress from afar and then retreat into silence,” Clohessy said.

In Boise, St. Mary’s school Principal Marcia Beckman said Driscoll had been forthright in admitting mistakes and had taken action to protect children.

Still, she said, she was troubled by the latest revelations involving the bishop she respects. “It’s upsetting because we’re going to have to make up our mind again about what this all means,” Beckman said. “It’s dismaying. I hope and I trust that the bishop is learning along with us what needs to happen.”


Stammer reported from Boise and Lobdell from Southern California.