The leaders of Roman Catholic churches in Eastern Oregon agree with a message sent by American bishops last Friday, when they voted 239-13 to keep sexually abusive clergy in the priesthood but bar them from any work connected to the church. "I'm really thrilled. I think they're hitting the nail on the head here," said Rev. Rob Irwin of St. Francis DeSales Cathedral in Baker City. "I think the bishops really handled this thing well," said Rev. Joe Reinig of Hermiston's Our Lady of Angels Catholic Church. The intent of the bishops' decision is to remove the chance for face-to-face contact with parishioners. It also allows for abusers to be removed from the priesthood - defrocked - but it would be up to the presiding bishop, acting on the advice of an advisory board comprised mainly of lay people. About 250 priests nationwide either have been dismissed from their duties or resigned since the sex abuse scandal erupted in Boston early this year. Vatican approval still is needed for the American bishops' plan, which will be reviewed in two years. "It's as fair a policy as we could come up with under the circumstances," said Bishop Robert Vasa of the Diocese of Baker. "We need to make sure we safeguard children, but make sure you don't make it a vendetta. It gets to be a little delicate, and I guess I'm a little apprehensive about retroactive penalties. Vasa said the committee required by the charter is now being formed in his diocese. Reinig said the church will make it through the crisis intact. "I think that whatever confidence has been lost in the hierarchy of the Catholic church will be quickly restored," Reinig said. He added that the reaction of his parishioners toward him has been supportive. "Obviously we have had parishioners who are concerned, as we all should be, but many have been supportive. I have not noted any adverse reactions to me or my associate," Reinig said. Irwin said he's impressed with how his community has rallied around the church. "We have looked at the bishops' letter, and ... I'm really impressed by the way the community has come around to support us, as a Catholic community and me specifically as a priest," Irwin said. "I think people have gone out of their way to say thank you for being our priest, and that's a real blessing." Vasa said some individuals within each parish may have concerns, but most have "expressed shock, concern and dismay about what's going on in Boston. It's not really a local issue for them."
Protect the children Vasa said the emphasis should be on protecting children. Right now "we're focusing on the perpetrator, not on the children, and we need to focus on the child." Sexual abuse of children is a problem throughout society, he noted, describing a recent story that came out of Utah in which a teacher accused of sex abuse was moved by the administration, not fired. He also noted an Oregon Department of Human Resources report that shows 36,000 children were abused last year alone. The state report says 152 children under the age of 18 reported sexual abuse in 2002 in Umatilla County alone. That's between eight and nine children per 1,000. In Grant County, Vasa said it's 25 children per 1,000 who report abuse. "Where's the outrage, the picketing, the care for the children," Vasa said. "We're not really exposing the crux of the problem, seeking to protect as many children as we can. It's about the children. Let's not forget it," he said. He did not deny that there are problems within the church, however "I think that's wonderful that the light is shining on our sin, and we have to clean up our act, and we will," he said. "I want light shined and I want those children protected, but if we only focus on those children in the church and not those hundreds and hundreds who are abused outside of the church, we are doing them an injustice." Reinig said forgiveness is key in the issue, balanced with justice. "Jesus teaches of forgiveness and compassion, and that has to be balanced out, but that in no way would justify criminal action in a priest, or anyone," he said. Long before the bishops voted, local churches were taking steps to prevent abuse, Irwin said. The bishops' letter "talks about some different things that they'd be implementing, such as background checks, and that's something we have already instituted here." A dead issue Reinig said another concern is digging up cases that go back 30 to 40 years and involve priests who have since died. "If you draw a parallel with civil and criminal law, a person is innocent until proven guilty. If a person is dead, how do you do that," Reinig asked. That's now an issue for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Baker. A former Pendleton-area altar boy filed a $1.8 million lawsuit last December against the Baker diocese. The plaintiff, named only as T.R. in the lawsuit, accused Rev. David Hazen - who died in 1983 and is buried in Olney Cemetery in Pendleton - of sexually abusing him over a one-year period when he was 14 and 15. T.R. claims the sexual abuse took place on overnight trips to small town churches in the late 1950s. At least three more men, originally from Klamath Falls, also have filed charges against Hazen. T.R.'s lawsuit, filed in Deschutes County, is not expected to reach trial for a year. Hazen worked extensively throughout Eastern Oregon during his three decades as a priest. He served as assistant pastor at churches in Pendleton, La Grande, Baker City and The Dalles from 1956 to 1965, and later in Ontario, Vale, Burns and Wasco, said David Slader, T.R.'s lawyer. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Baker is headquartered in Bend but serves Catholics east of the Cascade Mountains in Oregon. When the lawsuit was filed, Vasa said the allegations were painful, not only to the morale of the clergy but also to Catholic parishioners. He also noted, "I don't know how you prove something from 40 years ago. Unfortunately, how do you disprove it?" He noted Thursday that since Hazen has died, nothing can be done to him. "We have to focus on the children." Reinig said his parish is ready to move past the whole issue and focus on daily life. "The parish is pretty much of an attitude of 'Let's get on with our lives.' The church will survive. It has survived for 2,000 years," he said.