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Utah bishop concedes Catholic Church made 'egregious errors'

Published April 30, 2010 6:00 am

Abuse scandal » Wester concedes church made 'egregious errors'; victim's advocate says Utah bishop did too little, too late.
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Roman Catholic priests long have been respected, even revered, by people in the pews who entrust their lives, their children and their most intimate life-and-death moments to these men of the cloth.

It is no wonder, then, that Catholics become outraged by priests who exploited that openness and sexually abused their children and by a church that seemed slow to prevent it, said Utah's Catholic Bishop John C. Wester this week.

"It hurts so much because people trust priests. There is an openness [to priests] you don't find other places," Wester said in an interview at the pastoral center for the Diocese of Salt Lake City. "There is so much anger because it feels like betrayal."

Before becoming the diocese's ninth Catholic bishop in 2007, Wester spent years in San Francisco dealing with the fallout from the abuse crisis. The Bay Area archdiocese faced 175 lawsuits and paid $72.8 million to victims. Two cases went to trial, and the church lost both times.

Now the abuse crisis has gone global, with new allegations against Catholic clergy surfacing in Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Austria and the Netherlands.

Amid the flurry of press attention, Wester resurfaced in the news about a case he had handled in San Francisco.

Sylvia Chavez told the archdiocese in 1994 that the Rev. Teodoro Baquedano Pech -- "Father Teddy" -- had sexually abused her starting when she was 11 and continuing into her midteens.

Wester said this week he believed Chavez, now 54, and took her claims seriously, but Baquedano was long gone and serving in Mexico. Wester said he contacted the Yucatan archbishop at the time and was assured that the priest would have no contact with children.

But Chavez's lawyer tracked down Baquedano recently and found that he was ministering in a rural parish, living next to an elementary school, according to The

Washington Post .

A week after that story appeared, Catholic officials in Mexico temporarily relieved Baquedano of his parish duties pending further investigation of the long-standing allegations, The Post reported.

"We did everything we could," Wester said. "We had no jurisdiction to do more in Mexico."

That's not good enough for victim advocate David Clohessy, president of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), in Chicago.

"Wester knows there have been hundreds of cases in which bishops misled other bishops about predators, especially in other countries," Clohessy wrote in an e-mail. "He should have verified himself that Father Teddy was away from kids, rather than just taking the word of a fellow church employee."

Clohessy, himself a victim of priestly abuse, argues that the action of Catholic officials angers victims as much as or more than the actual abuse.

"Wester's actions in this case," he said, "are painfully typical of many bishops -- do as little as you can and hope for the best."

Despite all the protocols put in place after the U.S. Catholic bishops were rocked by the crisis in 2002, Clohessy doesn't see the faith handling this new round of allegations any better.

"It's heartbreaking because many assumed that bishops across the world would have been prodded to act more responsibly [after the U.S. situation] but that evidently hasn't happened," he wrote. The international church is responding "in largely the same old timid, self-serving and hurtful patterns -- minimizing the crimes, denying the cover-ups, blaming the messengers (whether journalists, victims, attorneys or others) and mischaracterizing the root causes (by blaming gays, lawyers, reporters, the 1960s, sex on TV, alleged anti-Catholicism etc.)."

Wester acknowledges the church has made some "egregious errors" in its handling of the crisis.

"Bishops were advised by their lawyers not to talk to victims," he said. "That was good legal advice but not good pastoral advice."

He is sure, he said, that many victims were not pleased with "how we handled their cases."

Still, Wester believes that Pope Benedict XVI has responded appropriately and decisively to remove priest abusers.

"He helped by giving the U.S. policies the weight of [church] law," he said. "I see the pope as someone who was ahead of the curve."

Wester hopes other institutions can learn from the church's experience with pedophilia among some priests.

"We looked at it honestly and soberly and did our best to protect children," he said. "Our very first response has to be for the victim."

Despite the church's efforts and the fact that fewer than 3 percent of priests were accused in these abuses, the Catholic faithful are not nearly as open to the clergy as they once were.

The church's own policies, such as requiring at least two adults to supervise children and teens at all times, imply suspicion, Wester said. Members clearly exhibit a new wariness toward priests.

"We can never say we have dealt with [the abuse problem] and it's over," he said. "We have to be ever vigilant."

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