Their ranks include ex-federal prosecutors, a retired judge, a one-time assistant police chief, even a former priest. But a group of prominent Catholics say they still can’t get an audience with Seattle’s new archbishop in their push to address the fallout of a lingering scandal.
Members of Heal Our Church, a Seattle-based alliance of practicing Catholics who seek a public review of how the Roman Catholic Church’s worldwide sexual abuse scandal secretly festered within the parishes of Western Washington, contend they’re being stonewalled by Archbishop Paul Etienne.
Since requesting a meeting with Etienne in January, group members said the archbishop has refused to discuss their call for a citizen-led review of the Seattle Archdiocese’s private records on clergy abuse. Group members contend only full disclosure of the secret files — with a public airing about the archdiocese’s known pedophile clergy members and how the church dealt with them — can ultimately heal the church and rebuild trust within the broader community.
“What we’re proposing is not radical,” said Clark Kimerer, a retired Seattle police assistant chief and core member of Heal Our Church. “It’s truth and reconciliation — a time-tested process that provides healing.”
But so far, Etienne has responded with only impersonal, pro-forma letters that dispute the necessity for such an initiative, group members said.
In a recent email, a spokesperson for the archdiocese partly blamed the coronavirus lockdown for scuttling the archbishop’s plan for an in-person discussion with the group.
“We had a meeting set but the pandemic came, which postponed this meeting,” according to the archdiocese’s email. “This is a meeting that would be better done in person, which can’t be done right now.”
But the email added that a “thorough outside review of the files by qualified lay people (and) a review of allegations by a group of qualified lay experts has already been done.”
Before Etienne’s appointment to Seattle in 2019, the archdiocese undertook various efforts to examine and address clergy sexual-abuse cases. They included creating a case review board in 2004 to examine child sex-abuse claims against several priests, and hiring former FBI-agent-turned-consultant Kathleen McChesney to evaluate the archdiocese’s clergy-abuse archives. McChesney’s review resulted in the archdiocese’s 2016 publication of a list naming 77 clergy members with credible accusations of rape or other abuse dating back decades.
Etienne has since established a pastoral council to take input from the laity, and the archdiocese continues to keep a review board of appointed citizens for consultation on sex-abuse cases, the email said. It also has quietly updated its “credibly accused” list with the names of scores of clergy on loan from other dioceses or religious orders who worked in Western Washington schools and churches but were left off the archdiocese’s initial accounting.
“Given our history and deep commitment to healing and transparency, as well as our deep respect for and trust in the experts like Kathleen McChesney and review board members, we are not planning to replace them or create parallel structures or processes,” the archdiocese’s email said.
But the church’s efforts to date have failed to fully address the scandal and continue to promote secrecy, according to the Heal Our Church group members.
They contend the archdiocese has failed to explicitly reveal how much church officials knew about credibly accused clergy members and when they first learned of individual abuse allegations. The archdiocese also hasn’t provided details as to whether its high-ranking officials played any role in enabling or covering up cases of abuse, and if so, why that happened, the members said.
“There’s never been discussion of the how and why this all evolved,” said Terry Carroll, a retired King County judge. “We think a lot has to do with the bishops and decisions by the church, but there’s been no real accountability for that era because the whole story hasn’t been told.”
At times, such details have separately emerged in lawsuits brought against the archdiocese by abuse victims. In one case, the archdiocese’s required legal disclosures of portions of the secret file kept on one notorious priest, the Rev. Michael Cody, showed the late Seattle Archbishop Thomas Connolly knew Cody was a pedophile but nonetheless moved him 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 U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington, both served on the Seattle Archdiocese’s first review panel. They’ve since become outspoken critics of what they’ve described as the archdiocese’s opaque handling of the scandal. The two were among a core group who helped launch Heal Our Church and the latest push for more transparency.
More than 250 practicing Catholics in the Seattle Archdiocese have signed on as supporters of the group, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes. Heal Our Church, which runs a website to promote its cause, hosted a webinar in October and invited Etienne, but the archbishop was a no-show.
The group plans to broaden its effort in the New Year and hasn’t ruled out taking legal action, Kimerer and Carroll said.
Michael Sullivan, a former Seattle diocesan priest among the group’s core members, blamed clericalism — a deep-rooted approach that sets bishops and priests above everyone else in the church — for the resistance to truly independent examinations of the scandal. Sullivan pointed to the Vatican’s long-awaited report on ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s serial sexual misconduct as an example.
Released in November, the 449-page report 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 Catholic church hierarchy. But the report downplayed the roles of surviving officials, placing the lion’s share of blame on the late Pope John Paul II.
“They tend to come together and circle the wagons when things go wrong,” Sullivan said of church authority.
The pandemic appears to be the archdiocese’s latest excuse for putting off dealing with the latest calls for transparency, Sullivan added.
“We’ve offered to meet virtually or with social distancing,” he said. “But (the archdiocese) refused those opportunities.”
Group members contend that ignoring the church faithful’s efforts for a definitive public airing only serves to further undermine the archdiocese’s credibility and diminish trust at a time of plummeting membership.
“We’re seeing a church in crisis,” said Kimerer, the former assistant police chief. “The faithful (are) leaving the church in droves and credibility is at an all-time low. But if, indeed, the archdiocese has addressed these issues, then why are they so averse to having a lay-led group validate that? We’d call that a clue.”