BOISE – A support group for victims of sexual abuse by clergy sharply criticized Catholic Bishop Michael Driscoll on Tuesday, saying he was continuing in Idaho a pattern of secrecy and protection of abusers that he started in California more than three decades ago.
Driscoll, the head of the Roman Catholic church in Idaho, was traveling out of state and not at his office to receive the letter from the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP.
But David Clohessy, the director of the self-help group, declared the protest that drew about a dozen people to the Boise diocese office a success.
“I think the bishop should examine his conscience,” Clohessy said. “Deeply rooted in the Catholic church is a penchant for secrecy.”
He called on Driscoll to go to any parish where a credibly accused clergy member had worked and seek out any potential witnesses or victims. SNAP also asked that the church urge victims to go to police, rather than church officials.
Driscoll, the 65-year-old leader of Idaho’s 144,000 Catholics, has refused interviews, instead allowing the diocese’s vicar general, the Rev. Ron Werkerle, to speak for him.
“I’m anticipating that he’ll appreciate the concerns that SNAP went ahead and suggested,” Werkerle said. “To some extent, they’re comforting because what they’re suggesting we’ve already done. We’ve strengthened the sex abuse policies and procedures. The villain in all of this is not the church – the villain is sex abuse.”
In early May, Driscoll reiterated an earlier apology for the lack of action he had taken while serving as an official in the Diocese of Orange, Calif., where he has been blamed for consistently shielding known sex offenders from scrutiny or transferring them to other ministries without disclosing allegations or past histories of sexual abuse of children.
“We are doing now what I profoundly wish we would have done years ago,” he wrote in a May 6 statement that was prepared in advance of the release of hundreds of pages of Orange Diocese personnel files as part of a $100 million court-ordered settlement with abuse victims. “Our goal is to do everything humanly possible to assure that no children are hurt by sexual abuse in the Catholic Church of Idaho.”
Driscoll has also been challenged over the way he handled a more recent case involving a Boise deacon convicted of viewing child pornography. In that case, Driscoll learned in June 2004 that the FBI was investigating Deacon Rapelyea Howell over allegations that he viewed the Internet material while working for a secular foster child counseling service.
Howell remained in his church position until he resigned Oct. 1, just a month before he pleaded guilty to felony possession of child pornography in U.S. District Court. Even then, Driscoll didn’t notify churchgoers at St. Mary’s parish of the deacon’s crime. Instead, that task fell to the St. Mary’s parish priest, the Rev. W. Thomas Faucher, who mentioned the matter to parishioners in February after one churchgoer threatened to contact the local newspaper. Driscoll sent a letter to the parish a week later saying he was devastated by Howell’s actions, and finally spoke in person to parishioners on March 10.
“The Howell case is of course the clearest indication that your harmful behaviors in Orange County continue today,” Clohessy wrote in SNAP’s letter to the bishop. “Well-orchestrated apologies do not safeguard children. Only courageous, decisive actions safeguard children.”
Part of the delay in addressing Howell’s case was because Driscoll wanted to get all the facts of the matter and at first didn’t understand the severity of the crime, Werkerle said.
“We learned through the process without a doubt that the viewing of child pornography falls within sexual abuse – not only downloading, selling, purchasing or copying – just viewing it is sexual abuse,” Werkerle said. “The bishop reviewed what the deacon’s role was within the church and sought to protect any children from contact with him. In November, we learned that he was going to plead guilty so we began preparations to inform the parish.”
Those preparations took so long because Driscoll had agreed to let Howell address the parish himself – a decision Werkerle now says was a mistake.
St. Mary’s parishioner Frances Wickham, who attended Tuesday’s protest, said she was upset that there was so little communication among the parish priests, the bishop and churchgoers in Howell’s case.
“It goes back to the culture of secrecy. Those children on the Web site were victims,” Wickham said. “And parents at St. Mary’s didn’t get the opportunity to assess the situation as far as contact with their own children.”