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Local dad's cry of the heart became memo that helped change the Catholic Church

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 27, 2010 - The resignation of three European bishops last week -- two over their initial indifference to disclosures of criminal sex abuse by Catholic priests, one over abusing a relative -- catapults many American Catholics directly back to 2002.

That year, the Boston Globe reported on the sexual abuse of minors by priests. Other newspapers followed, telling stories of abuse going back half a century. American bishops had to explain to Catholics, civil authorities and the public why they had not reported the crimes and removed abusers from ministry.

From November 2001, when Bishop Wilton Gregory was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, he was known as a good listener. At the time, he was the shepherd of the small 107,425-member Belleville Catholic diocese. He had served in Belleville since 1994 when Pope John Paul II had dispatched him to clean up a sex abuse cesspool involving 10 percent of the Belleville diocese's priests.


A father's plea

Every evening when I arrive home from the chancery, my kids race to the door vying to be the first to declare, "I missed you most!" Once we've established which of the three has taken the day's honors, I try to always stop for a moment to consider whether I've left our Church better for them than I found it that day or worse. For over fifteen years I've been able to answer that question honestly, confidently, and with the satisfaction of knowing I'd played some small part in building the Church in which my children will one day raise my grandchildren. Too many nights recently, though, I've awakened at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning and agonized over that question. Is it enough to do my job, to take care of the business of the day and keep quiet about things I know are already sources of anguish for you, or am I somehow complicit by not speaking out? Too many nights I wake up and wonder if an institution that can be this insensitive to the physical, spiritual, and emotional wellbeing of its most precious members - its very future - is even worthy of my three children's innocent faith.

You went out on a limb, Wilton, as Bishop O'Donnell had in the Archdiocese of St. Louis before you, when you placed a lay person in a traditionally clerical job, I went out on a limb when I accepted it. I have happily tagged along as you've restored faith, hope and pride in the traumatized families of the Diocese of Belleville, and I never balk at an opportunity to share with people that you exude the same pastoral presence away from the crowds and the cameras as you do before them. For whatever reason I have found myself in a special place at a unique and difficult time in the Church, and I do not take that lightly. I have been blessed with the freedom (and, I believe, the obligation) to share daily with the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops a perspective to which he cannot relate. I can speak as a parent.

You should know by now that our children are more important to Sharon and me than anything in the world. Let me repeat that in bold Italics: Our children are more important to Sharon and me than anything in the world. With all due respect, though you probably come as close to understanding the significance of that statement as any bishop in the Church, you don't. You can't. No priest, no religious, no lay person who is not a parent can truly appreciate the incredible weight of that single sentence any more than I could before Erin was born. Three children later, I'm not sure I fully grasp it yet, and I know I can't adequately articulate it for you in a simple memorandum. Similarly, I could never hope to fully comprehend how your pastoral ministry is the most important thing in the world to you. I can witness your vocation and try to appreciate the extraordinary commitment you have made to the Church, but I am not and will likely never be a priest. I may work in your chancery, but I am, above all else, Sharon's husband and Erin, Jonathan and James' dad.

As such, just as you are deeply wounded and even angered when I make a comment you believe is not supportive of a Church position or one of Her pillars, so too am I wounded and angered when the Church we both love (and to Whom we have both, in distinctly different degrees, dedicated our working lives) chooses to disregard the wellbeing of Her children -- my children -- to protect Her own icons and Her image.

To read the entire letter, click here (pdf).


Today the Beacon is making public a 10-page memo, a cry from the heart, read aloud to Gregory on Feb. 22, 2002, by a Catholic father of three children.

This influential document laid out ideas that evolved into the church's wider protection policy; it has never been publicly acknowledged or published. Its author is David R. Spotanski, 47,  the Belleville chancellor for all matters except canonical issues that require an ordained priest. Before he worked in Belleville, Spotanski had worked for the St. Louis archdiocese.

A Father's Role


In January 2002, Spotanski felt he had a special role as a father of three to help his boss lead the church and its children to safety.

The memo "served as a very important touchstone for me," Gregory, 62, now the archbishop of Atlanta's archdiocese, told the Beacon Monday in a phone interview. "I learned from David. I have had a world of respect for David Spotanski from the day we started working together. I think he is a great man with a great heart. He spoke to me on two different levels: as someone on my staff that I depended on but also as a father."

Spotanski started his memo to Gregory as a father, "You should know by now that our children are more important to Sharon and me than anything in the world. ... With all due respect, though you probably come as close to understanding the significance of that statement as any bishop in the Church, you don't. You can't."

In an interview last week, Spotanski said until he never fully appreciated the weight and joy of raising and protecting a child until he became a parent.

The bishop got what Spotanski was saying that Friday eight years ago.

"That was of critical importance," Gregory said Monday. "It is of critical importance for any bishop to hear what parents have to say and what parents are feeling. We bishops need to keep in front of us at all times, the issue of what our people feel, what are they sensing, what are their hurts. Knowing that, we will be better equipped to address the issues."

The archbishop added that he was fortunate to be supported in those difficult years by strong staffs at the diocese and the national conference office.

The abuse crisis was "topic A" that year not just at the Belleville diocesan office but with Spotanski's pals on his 20-year-old, weekly softball team. In winter, the team plays basketball and talks afterward over beer. Spotanski and other teammates, all of them fathers, were troubled by the reports of abuse.

Spotanski wrote down his ideas to cleanse his church. He asked his team, most of whom are Catholic, to review them.

The team agreed that the scandal was not going to go away. They passionately recalled how they'd been taught that the bishops of the Second Vatican Council called the Catholic church the people's church, not just the bishops' church. Bishops must raise their standards about who was fit for ministry, they told Spotanski. An outfielder told Spotanski that if the cycle of hiding abusive priests was not stopped immediately, there would be no young clergy. Healthy young men would turn away from a profession with sexual abusers in the shadows.

"I thought then and do today that the cycle must end," outfielder Jeff Dempsey, a manager for an automobile parts manufacturer, said Monday. That winter the three Dempsey children were 12, 17 and 20.

With such strong moral support from the team and his wife, Spotanski wrote out his ideas and handed Gregory the 10-page document on official diocesan letterhead in his private study on Feb. 22, 2002.

Gregory's eyes scanned the first page the way executives do when they are reviewing daily stacks of paperwork, Spotanski recalled recently.

This was no scanning matter, Spotanski recalled. He asked his boss for the document back. Spotanski read it aloud solemnly. He challenged his bishop to lead U.S. bishops to do "all they can do" to safeguard children from criminals.

Bishops needed to craft a national policy on sex abuse, which would be "enforced by an independent body" and led by a parent who'd be the church version of "director of homeland security," Spotanski's memo said. Debate and vote on any policy must be in full view of the press and televised, he said. Bishops found to have violated the trust that is placed in them as shepherds of their flock, by leaving criminal abusers in ministry, including Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, must be reviewed for fitness for episcopal ministry, Spotanski said.

"No institution -- however large, however old -- can survive without accountability at every level, even at the top," he told Gregory.

As president of the bishops' group, Gregory needed to apologize and admit the mistakes of his brother bishops, Spotanski told him.

Spotanski's "candor speaks volumes" about his relationship with Gregory, softball team outfielder Dempsey wrote in a 2002 email. "There are very few leaders in business, industry or the religious arena who would build the kind of organization that allows the open critique you have given your boss."


Led by the Picture of Happy Children


In Gregory's study that Friday in 2002, Spotanski also handed the bishop a photo of his three smiling children. Erin, Jonathan and James Spotanski were 14, 11, and 9 respectively in 2001 when the photo was taken.

He asked Gregory to put the photo on every podium, at every meeting to remind his boss that the safety of real children was at risk.

"I made 20 copies of this photo," Spotanski said last week over beef barley soup at a Belleville restaurant. He took out the tattered photo from his wallet. "A copy was included with papers in his briefcase for every talk, every meeting that Wilton went to that year."

The week after Easter 2002, Gregory, photo in briefcase, flew to Rome for the regular semi-annual conference president's private meeting with the pope and Vatican leaders. The scandal made nothing routine about this meeting.


The man who would become Pope Benedict XVI -- Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger -- "was the key" to taking action in the United States about the crisis, Gregory told the Beacon Monday.

"He was pivotal in the role that he played, his ability to understand," Gregory said. "By then, the cardinal [Ratzinger], as head of the Congregation on the Faith, had insisted that he review all the cases" of priests who had sexually preyed on minors or adults. "His support was key to the U.S. bishops' addressing the scandal."

Before Gregory returned to Belleville, Pope John Paul II, with strong support from Ratzinger, called all 11 American cardinals and Gregory to Rome to work to make the church safe for children.

That U.S. cardinals summit was eight years ago this week. As the Belleville bishop and the cardinals arrived in Rome, some cardinals' ears seemed defensively plugged. Others seemed immobilized by shock. Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore -- who had listened to a relative who had been sexually abused as a child -- and a few others were energized to purge the church ministry of all criminal priests.

At a press conference at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, Gregory, as he so often had done in Belleville, apologized for his brother bishops' mistakes for leaving priestly predators in their midst. That week the pope told the U.S. cardinals, "There is no place in the priesthood for those who would harm children."

In April 2002, after the Rome summit, during a layover in Newark, Gregory said that Ratzinger had been focused and insistent on procedures to protect children. He also told this reporter, "I've listened to Dave."


Dallas marks a turning point


In June that year, in Dallas, Gregory led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in crafting what has proven to be a generally effective policy. The Spotanski children's photo was on top of his podium notes.

As a church official, Spotanski knew what few lay people understand. The bishops' conference's elected president holds no power over his brother bishops. He cannot kick members out of the conference for ethical violations. Gregory's leadership rested on persuasion.

Over the objections of a small but vocal minority, the bishops adopted a policy to scour the church clean of any abusers within hours of one credible accusation. That new national policy duplicated the pioneer efforts of the dioceses of Belleville and Chicago.

The bishops called the policy its "Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth." It aimed to make all Catholic facilities the sanctuaries that most Catholics had assumed they had always been.

At the Dallas bishops' meeting, Gregory introduced an advisory board of nationally known, lay Catholics, most with children. He explained that they would hold his brother bishops' feet to the fire of the charter requirements. A few bishops publicly reeled at such lay interference, but Gregory soldiered on. He hired a version of what Spotanski's memo had called a "director of homeland security" -- Kathleen L. McChesney Ph.D., then, the FBI's No. 3 in command. Her charge was to oversee teams of professional investigators.

The "Dallas" charter required bishops to invite any victims of clerical abuse to identify their abusers and report them to the church and to civil authorities. Over the next year, steeled by Gregory's lay advisers, thousands of abused victims came forward, and in accordance with the charter, many bishops flushed out abusive priests, brothers and deacons from the ministry. Under the policy, they were never allowed to be called Father, to wear a clerical collar, say Mass, preside over other sacraments or have other church ministries again.

The system has flaws. For the past eight years, at least one bishop -- Lincoln, Neb., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz -- has refused to cooperate with the independent investigators assigned to his diocese.

Spotanski is also galled by what happened with Cardinal Law, who before 2002 reassigned clerical serial abusers to other parishes after substantial allegations were made against them. Forced to resign as Boston's archbishop, Law now lives in exile in Rome but continues to sit on the powerful Vatican commission that vets men recommended by their peers to become bishops.

Still, the policy has been mostly effective. The investigators' 2009 audit showed just 60 priests accused of criminal abuse. Most of those dated back decades.

Americans are "increasingly convinced" that what the bishops did in 2002 has made the Catholic community most likely the safest environment for young people of any public institution in the United States, Gregory said. A few months ago, several Georgia ministers of other denominations attended an Atlanta archdiocese workshop for clergy to learn to identify predators before they strike and information on how to safeguard minors.

"Afterwards the ministers thanked us and asked to tell them if we did another program," Gregory said. The visiting ministers agreed with Gregory's premise that churches should be better, safer than secular institutions.


The Gift of Listening


Spotanski is not triumphal about his 2002 memo. He is the first to say that his memo doesn't include all the ideas that Gregory and the other bishops put into their charter and canon law. Nor was he the only one to suggest some procedures. Many made somewhat similar proposals to purge the church of criminals.

Still Spotanski's memo was hugely influential. Over the years, several dioceses' lay leaders mentioned to this reporter the strong confidence that Gregory had in Spotanski, and a former member of the bishops' lay advisory board member mentioned Spotanski's "valuable notes."

Last week, at lunch at a Belleville restaurant, Spotanski spoke about the swirling crisis in the European Catholic Church in Europe. He expects more heartbreaking horrific stories to be revealed. More criminal priests will be removed. More bishops may resign.

Spotanski has been thinking what the church should do now. He had three points:

"We (the church) have to stop making rules without consequences.

"We have to stop patting ourselves on the back for quickly enacting policies our people reasonably presumed had been in place for 2,000 years.

"We have to stop comparing our crisis-driven responses to those of secular institutions for which we were all taught the Church would be our safe, God-given sanctuary when they [the secular institutions] inevitably failed us."

Spotanski's conclusion to his memo to Gregory may resonate for European Catholics: "More than anything else, Christ's church should be about preserving and promoting innocence, not accelerating its ruin. Pardon a platitude, but it's time we stopped protecting our past and did something to fortify our future."

Patricia Rice, a freelance writer in St. Louis, has long covered religion.