One diocese sues another over abuse by priests

The lawsuit is one of several signs that the Catholic Church is riven by legal, financial issues.

In the wake of the Roman Catholic clerical sex-abuse scandal, there are growing hints that the American church is a house divided against itself.

This week several differences emerged over two basic issues: Who is responsible for the scandal, and how should the church proceed as it moves to heal itself.

The most prominent development is the first-ever lawsuit by one archdiocese against another.

The San Bernardino, Calif., diocese is suing its Boston counterpart for transferring the Rev. Paul Shanley out west in 1990, and recommending him as a priest in good standing even though he had been accused of molestations going back to 1967.

Meanwhile, the Boston church's philanthropic arm is reportedly considering an act of open rebellion against its leadership. The cash-strapped group, Catholic Charities, may accept $35,000 from the reform group Voice of the Faithful despite the specific order by archdiocese administrator, Bishop Richard Lennon, not to accept the funds.

And in Chicago this week, Cardinal Francis George broke with his fellow church chiefs by meeting with national Voice of the Faithful leaders - and hinting at more meetings with the group's local branches.

All in all, there's a feeling in the American church that "It's every diocese for itself," says the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of America, a Catholic magazine.

Indeed, he calls the San Bernardino suit "very unusual, especially given St. Paul's admonition that Christians shouldn't take each other to court."

'Misrepresentation' alleged

The suit accuses Boston officials of "misrepresentation and suppression of information" in the transfer of Father Shanley, who is now free on bail in Boston and facing charges of child rape, indecent assault, and battery.

The San Bernardino diocese itself faces a lawsuit from a man named Kevin English, who says he was abused by Shanley beginning at age 17. San Bernardino's suit against the Boston archdiocese aims to make sure that Boston alone pays any damages assessed in the English case.

Overall, "it signals there is something of a disunity among the bishops themselves - despite the fact that the virtue they prize above all else is unity," says Stephen Pope, chair of the theology department at Boston College.

It may also be a sign, he says, that legal and financial concerns are overshadowing broader questions of the health and unity of the church and of compassion toward the victims of abuse.

Decline in charitable gifts

Meanwhile in Boston, Catholic Charities - which runs a variety of charitable activities in Boston and is overseen by the archdiocese - has seen contributions decline in the past year.

Last fall it accepted money from Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) despite icy relations between the group and the archdiocese. But accepting this latest contribution would be in direct violation of the Bishop's orders.

"It would be an insult to Bishop Lennon - and another sign of fracture in the church," says Professor Pope. Church officials worry that VOTF is driving a wedge between the church's charitable work and its leaders. The apparent divide pits the imperative to help the poor against working out disputes within the church.

In Chicago, meanwhile, Cardinal George met this week with the national leaders of VOTF, despite the fact that a half dozen East Coast bishops have refused to do so.

Roughly seven dioceses, including Boston, have even banned the group from meeting on church property. And when the group sent a letter to all 302 American bishops last fall stating its goals, just 30 responded, including George.

George reportedly neither supports nor opposes the group. But the fact that he met with them is seen by many as a significant break with other Cardinals.

VOTF, which claims 25,000 members among the roughly 60 million American Catholics, aims to create structural change within the church - including more involvement of the laity and greater transparency and accountability.

The debate centers on how this centuries-old hierarchical institution will move forward. The question, says Pope, is: "Will the laity be able to directly hold bishops accountable?"

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