Their ranks include former federal prosecutors, a retired judge, a one-time deputy chief of police, and even a former priest. But a group of prominent Catholics say they still cannot find an audience with Seattle’s new archbishop to address the aftermath of an ongoing scandal.
Members of Heal Our Church, a Seattle-based alliance of practicing Catholics seeking a public scrutiny of how the worldwide sexual abuse scandal of the Roman Catholic Church has secretly celebrated in parishes of West Washington, claim it was archbishop’s Paul Etienne to be blocked.
Since asking to meet Etienne in January, group members have said the archbishop has refused to discuss their request for a community review of the Archdiocese of Seattle’s private records of clergy abuse. Group members claim that only full disclosure of the secret files – with a public statement about the well-known pedophile clergy of the archdiocese and the church’s dealings with them – can ultimately heal the church and restore trust within the wider community.
“What we are proposing is not radical,” said Clark Kimerer, a retired deputy police chief in Seattle and a core member of Heal Our Church. “It is truth and reconciliation – a proven process that brings healing.”
So far, however, Etienne has only responded with impersonal pro forma letters denying the need for such an initiativeesaid group members.
In a recent email, an archdiocese spokesman blamed the coronavirus lockdown in part for discarding the archbishop’s plan for a face-to-face discussion with the group.
“We had planned a meeting, but the pandemic came that postponed this meeting,” the archdiocese said in the email. “This is a meeting that would be better held in person, which is currently not possible.”
However, the email added that “a thorough external review of the files by qualified laypeople (and) a review of the allegations by a group of qualified laypeople has already been carried out”.
Prior to Etienne’s appointment to Seattle in 2019, the Archdiocese made a variety of efforts to investigate and address clerical sexual abuse cases. These included setting up a case review committee in 2004 to investigate allegations of child sexual abuse against multiple priests and hiring former FBI agent Kathleen McChesney to become an advisor to the archdiocese clergy. McChesney’s review led the Archdiocese to publish a list in 2016 listing 77 clergymen with credible allegations of rape or other abuse spanning decades.
Etienne has since set up a pastoral council to receive input from laypeople, and the archdiocese continues to maintain a review panel of appointed citizens to consult on cases of sexual abuse, the email said. It has also tacitly updated its list of “credible suspects” with the names of numerous clergymen on loan from other dioceses or orders who have worked in schools and churches in western Washington but were excluded from the archdiocese’s initial records.
“Given our history and our deep commitment to healing and transparency, as well as our deep respect and trust in experts like Kathleen McChesney and members of the Audit Committee, we have no plans to replace them or create parallel structures or processes,” the email read the archdiocese said.
However, according to members of the Heal Our Church group, the church’s efforts to date have not fully addressed the scandal and further promoted secrecy.
They claim the archdiocese did not specifically disclose how much church officials knew about credibly accused clergy and when they first learned of individual abuse allegations. The archdiocese also did not provide details of whether its senior officials played a role in facilitating or covering up abuse cases, and if so, why it happened, members said.
“There was never any discussion of how or why any of this worked out,” said Terry Carroll, a retired King County judge. “We think it has a lot to do with the bishops and decisions of the church, but there was no real accountability for that era because the whole story was not told.”
Sometimes such details have emerged separately in complaints against the archdiocese by victims of abuse. In one case, the archdiocese mandated legal disclosure of portions of the secret files held by a notorious priest, Rev. Michael Cody, revealed that the late Archbishop of Seattle, Thomas Connolly, knew Cody was a pedophile, him however moved from parish to parish. After the Seattle Times detailed the case in 2016, Seattle University removed Connolly’s name from its athletics and recreation center.
Carroll and Mike McKay, the former US attorney for the western district of Washington, were both members of the Archdiocese of Seattle’s first board of directors. Since then, they have been outspoken critics of what they have described as the archdiocese’s opaque handling of the scandal. The two were part of a core group that helped launch Heal Our Church and the recent drive for greater transparency.
More than 250 practicing Catholics in the Archdiocese of Seattle have signed up to support the group, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and District Attorney Pete Holmes. Heal Our Church, which runs a website to promote their cause, hosted a webinar in October and invited Etienne, but the archbishop was a no-show.
The group plans to expand its efforts in the New Year and has not ruled out legal action, Kimerer and Carroll said.
Michael Sullivan, a former Seattle diocesan priest among the group’s core members, blamed clericalism – an ingrained approach that puts bishops and priests above everyone else in the Church – responsible for opposing truly independent investigations into the scandal. Sullivan cited the long-awaited Vatican report on the serial sexual misconduct by ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick as an example.
The 449-page report, released in November, found that years of allegations against McCarrick were ignored or covered up by bishops and other officials, allowing him to rise to the highest levels of the Catholic church hierarchy. But the report downplayed the role of surviving officials, blaming the late Pope John Paul II for the lion’s share.
“They tend to get together and circle the wagons when something goes wrong,” Sullivan said of Church authority.
The pandemic appears to be the archdiocese’s latest excuse to postpone recent demands for transparency, Sullivan added.
“We offered to meet virtually or with social distancing,” he said. “But (the archdiocese) declined these options.”
Group members claim that ignoring the faithful’s efforts to have a final public broadcast only serves to further undermine the archdiocese’s credibility and decrease trust at a time of declining membership.
“We see a church in crisis,” said Kimerer, the former deputy chief of police. “The believers (are) Leaving the church in droves and credibility is at an all time low. But if the Archdiocese has actually raised these issues, why are they so averse to a lay-led group confirming it? We’d call that a hint. “