New groups back priest rights
By Alan Cooperman
A priest who retired to Makaha and has since been extradited to face charges of molesting a teenager in the 1980s is among those reaping the good will of groups that have sprung up in defense of accused priests.
In another instance, when Detroit police arrested a priest on rape charges, financial analyst Joe Maher did not think twice. He drove to Wayne County's Jail and paid the $5,000 bail. Then he set about finding a top-notch lawyer and raising money to mount a vigorous defense.
On Aug. 30, a Michigan jury acquitted the priest, allowing him to resume his calling and inspiring Maher to answer a new one. Quitting his job, the 42-year-old founded a nonprofit group named Opus Bono Sacerdotii Latin for "Work for the Good of the Priesthood" to help pay legal expenses of Roman Catholic clergymen accused of sex crimes.
Opus Bono is one of many groups of Catholic laity and clergy that have sprung up to defend priests' rights and to oppose calls for deep change within the church. Though their agendas vary, they represent a growing backlash against the "zero tolerance" policy adopted by America's bishops to combat the nationwide scandal centering on clergy sex abuse.
"Somebody's got to stand up for these priests, and if the bishops aren't going to do it, I'm doing it," Maher said.
Some of the groups are alarmed by what they view as opportunistic attempts by Catholic liberals to use the scandal to press for far-reaching change, such as accepting married priests, ordaining women and turning to grassroots governance.
"Catholicism is a fiat. It's not a democracy. We don't decide what's right and wrong by a two-thirds vote," said Carol McKinley, spokeswoman for the Massachusetts-based group Faithful Voice.
In Detroit, Maher said he does not attempt to determine whether a priest is innocent or guilty before providing financial help from Opus Bono. The group, which he said has raised $100,000, is assisting the Rev. Robert Burkholder, who returned to Michigan from retirement in Hawai'i this month to face charges of molesting a 13-year-old boy in 1986.
In an interview published by the Detroit News in August, Burkholder, 82, admitted he had sexual encounters with boys "maybe a dozen or two" of ages 11 to 14, but he said they were consensual.
"Like most Catholics, I'm very concerned that if a priest has done something, he has to be removed so he doesn't do it again," Maher said. "But if he's repented and reformed his life and there's no evidence of any other impropriety, that's a different story. People make mistakes, some worse than others."
When the scandal began in Boston in January with allegations that Cardinal Bernard Law and five of his subordinate bishops had shifted pedophile priests from parish to parish, liberal groups were the first to organize and to speak out.
Now the opposing, traditionalist camp is making itself heard, not only nationally but also in Rome.
Vatican officials are circulating a draft policy that would prohibit gay men from becoming priests. Experts in canon law, the church's internal legal code, predict the Vatican will formally express serious misgivings about the sexual-abuse policy established by U.S. bishops in Dallas in June and ask for changes in the policy or approve it only on an experimental basis.
"From the very beginning, so-called conservative Catholics had doubts about this policy," said Deal Hudson, editor of the Catholic magazine Crisis. But what has upset many parishes, he said, is the way it has been carried out, with the sudden removal this year of more than 300 priests, often on allegations that are decades old.
"We've seen a kind of blanket removal of people who were at least in the gray area. And there seems to be no benefit of the doubt given to the clergy, and that has created this backlash," Hudson said.
In New York, about 150 current and former priests met this month to form Voice of the Ordained, which is dedicated to upholding the rights of accused priests to due process under civil and canon law. The Rev. John Duffell, pastor of the Roman Catholic Church of the Ascension in Manhattan and an organizer of the group, emphasized that Voice of the Ordained also believes in justice for victims of sexual abuse. "We're very much concerned about the victims. I think most priests are," he said.
But the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests said it was troubled that no victims were invited to address Voice of the Ordained's first meeting.
"Please don't make us into supporters of pedophiles," said McKinley, Faithful Voice's spokeswoman, who likened her group's interests to those of Voice of the Ordained but stressed that her group sees no "cause for structural change."
"We want to see the victims helped, we want to see them healed, we want to see justice come to them," McKinley said.