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Feature:Priests live under Boston's shadow

By
MILA S. KOUMPILOVA, UPI Correspondent

WASHINGTON, March 11 (UPI) -- The launch of Scott Woods' career as a Roman Catholic priest has been something of an extended grilling session. First, he was put on the spot on the day of his ordination in May 2002. It was the first such ceremony in Washington after Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning series of January 2002 unleashed media inquiries into sex abuse by Catholic clergy.

Fox News hooked a microphone to Woods' vestment collar and aimed a TV camera glare at the 27-year-old, who, Woods family legend goes, announced at the age of 3 he'd one day be a priest. Oblivious of this long-dreamed goal and the eight years of diligence in the seminary, a reporter asked if the sex-abuse scandal had shaken his resolve.

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Then, during his first months as an associate pastor at the St. John Neumann parish in suburban Washington, parishioners would often have him over for dinner. Over dessert near the end of his visit, after the children had scurried off to play, they would ask him about his take on the sex-abuse crisis.

During classroom visits, youngsters would pop questions, from the fourth graders' innocent "What about priests hurting kids?" to high school students' more pointed queries, the kind he wouldn't image asking his own priest as a child.

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The sex-abuse scandal has been a low-key but persistent presence to Woods' first two years at St. John's. "It's somewhere at the back of your mind constantly," he said.

At St. John's, Woods assists the Rev. Michael Fisher, 46, a former public accountant in Washington with 14 years of experience as a pastor. In a parish of 2,000 families, the duo is constantly around the 800 or so minors, from the 5-year-olds at the monthly children's liturgy to the teens on the youth board, who readily cut down on mall expeditions for the sake of church initiatives.

Parishioners speak enthusiastically of the two priests' way with children. They haven't failed to notice that the soft-spoken, slightly shy Fisher kneels to talk to children at eye level. He seems to be the only person who can coax parishioner Donna Shook's bipolar son, Blake, 11, out of his shutdown spells.

But what many of them haven't noticed is the self-consciousness and restraint that mark many of these casual exchanges. The appalling media reports, the real and perceived public scrutiny, the updated, stricter child protection policy of the Washington archdiocese -- they all come together to drain spontaneity out of the priests' daily interactions. They all compound the pressures of being a Catholic priest in Boston's aftermath, when reading into the silence is often more uncomfortable than answering the many questions.

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Like just about every local priest they know, the St. John's team has stories of face-offs with outspoken strangers.

Fisher's is the bad story: As he turned the corner of a grocery store aisle days after the scandal broke in 2002, he came face to face with an elderly woman who glanced at his clerical garb and told him he should be ashamed of himself. He didn't know what to say.

Woods' is the good one: During his first trip to the mall in clerics, a stranger told him, "I know how difficult it is for you to wear these clothes now, but I want you to know we are praying for you." He didn't know what to say.

Both stories suggested to them a public visibility they had not anticipated, where, paradoxically, their parishes seem the likeliest place to blend in.

Parishioner Carla Fernando says the parish has rallied in support of its priests.

It was a warm Tuesday evening, days after the Feb. 27 release of two national studies by the Catholic Church that captured a scope of sexual abuse shocking to many. Fisher stood at the door of his church and greeted parishioners and their seventh-graders as they trickled in for an introductory meeting in preparation for confirmation. Some stopped to chat. Others just smiled, nodded and moved on, scanning the bustling rows for vacant seats.

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St. John's Director of Religious Education Theodore Musco ambled up and announced he'd been inspired to sing after Fisher's prayer, a decision he later self-mockingly retracted before a giggling congregation. Fisher wished he'd brought his guitar. The casualness and the jokes are business as usual, but for the clear-blue-eyed priest, there's a new reserve to it all.

Before moving to St. John's five years ago, Fisher was a pastor at Hillcrest Heights, Md., where non-Catholic parents, including many single mothers, would often send their children to the parish school. He recalled cutting across the school playground and getting ambushed by youngsters needy of father-figure attention. They grabbed on to his legs, reached up for a hug. Handling the situation used to be a no-brainer, but ever since the Boston reports of sex abuse by clergy, "We've had to raise the bar of prudence in how we interact with children."

Archdiocese of Washington statistics put the number of credibly accused priests since 1947 at 26, or 2.5 percent of all priests. A total 119 victims have come forward. Over this period, the archdiocese, which comprises the District and five Maryland counties, spent $4.3 million on counseling, evaluation of priests and legal fees. Even with victim groups' skepticism of the figures, it's a harrowing rundown that, however, looks paler compared to many harder-hit areas in the nation.

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With the release of local numbers, the distant shock of Boston crept closer to home. For Fisher, Woods and others, initial reactions combined outrage at the perpetrators, concern for the victims, and eventually, an impulse to self-censer, self-censer, self-censer.

Some priests in the Washington area have since radically overhauled their approach to children. It all boils down to keeping their distance. As Musco puts it, "You have to stand 4 feet away, and if the child falls on the ground, well, that's too bad."

Fisher hasn't taken things that far, though he says his immediate reaction on the playground now would be to move the children away. Instead, he'd first reassure himself that the child initiated the hug. Then, he'd glance around to make sure another adult is close by. He'd also put extra thought into the choreography of the embrace. No tapping on the head. No stroking of the cheek. In that split-second of fast-forward reasoning, a lot of the naturalness, and warmth, of playground scenarios is gone.

"That's what makes me sad and makes me mad," Fisher said. But, as a saying among his fellow priests goes, clearing a smeared reputation is like emptying a bag of feathers from the top floor of the Empire State Building and trying to gather them. These days, part of his job is staying out of tricky situations.

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Part of this reflex is common sense; part is internalizing the archdiocesan guidelines distilled in training, notably the 3-hour Protecting God's Children class. The national class is a cornerstone of the updated Archdiocese of Washington Child Protection Policy: a collection of screening requirements, mandatory training and prevention guidelines. The policy captures both the heightened awareness of the issue and the heightened anxiety from dealing with it daily.

"We were one of the first dioceses to have a plan," says Washington Archdiocese Communications Director Susan Gibbs about the decade-old child protection policy, which has undergone several revisions. Most recently, in 2002 the archdiocese appointed a lay Child Protection Advisory Board, which by May 2003 gave the policy a makeover. The archdiocese adopted their text without changing a word. Board Chairman Shay Bilchik commends the archdiocese on its policy of openness and sums up the evolution in a word: rigor.

Take new screening requirements. If involved with children in any way, every single priest, church employee and volunteer needs to go through an FBI background check and a fingerprinting session and the meticulousness of application has somewhat irked a few church administrators. Scheduling and monitoring training and screening for St. John's 75 volunteers has taken a toll on the hectic schedule of the parish's team. But, according to Gibbs, the strictness is already paying off: Since the outset of initial screening in 1999, the archdiocese has rejected five convicted sex offenders who applied for church volunteer positions.

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Then, there's the training. Child-abuse prevention training had been taking hold for years before Boston pushed the archdiocese to revisit it. Despite overlap with previous training, Protecting God's Children, in effect since last summer, is more open in discussing sex abuse in particular and in acknowledging that the perpetrator might be a church employee. The yearly seminar consists of two videos followed by a group discussion when attendees often want to know the most current estimates of abuse magnitude. Then, they sign up for monthly online follow-ups -- articles titled "Where is the boundary line" or "If you report abuse and nothing happens," among others.

Training teaches about abuse-proofing school environments, watching for telltale signs of abuse and acting on suspected abuse by contacting civil authorities. But in charting the boundary between appropriate and incriminating behaviors, the training in a way doubles as priest protection.

According to training facilitator José Amaya, a large amount training time goes to warding off false allegations through simple tips, such as hugging children from the side rather than frontally and keeping schoolroom doors open. Gibbs grasps the tug-and-pull between the need to be prudent and the urge to give the warmth youngsters crave. "We err on the side of caution," she said. Letting go of spontaneity is the biggest challenge priests face in applying the guidelines of training, said Amaya.

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Could the real or perceived outsider mistrust behind the precautions be seeping into the relationships between church insiders? "Videos address that (abuse) can happen anywhere, anytime, and it could be the person you trust most," said Amaya.

Fisher and Woods couldn't be more comfortable with each other, though. As a new arrival at the parish, the younger priest, with his energy and enthusiasm, uplifted Fisher, who was disheartened by Boston reports.

They haven't had "Big Brother" episodes, but they and their staff keep their eyes wide open. Carla Fernando, a parish school teacher, might fret a bit when Musco's regular drop-ins distract the fidgety 6-year-olds in the classroom, but she knows it's for the better. The doors of all adjacent classrooms gape open as Fisher kicks off an adult faith formation class and parents inquire if children should tag along to a screening of "The Passion of the Christ."

The expert-engineered training cannot fully anticipate the contingencies of personal experience, and Catholic priests do not always find themselves equipped to deal with the new openness about the issue. All the questions from media, family and parishioners in a way press them to answer for those who saddened and angered them. Since the release of the John Jay study, Woods had to confront a reporter pushing the politically charged question of bishop culpability. Fisher, in turn, met with three abuse survivors after a special prayer service organized by Voice of the Faithful, a volunteer support group for survivors that also reaches out to "priests of integrity."

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"Sometimes you don't know what to say; sometimes people just want to know that you are listening," he said about his reaction to survivors' unexpected display of trust.

Abuse survivor David Lorenz, who was sexually abused 30 years ago by a priest in Kentucky, didn't notice Fisher that felt tongue-tied. Yet, Lorenz understands the pressures "good" priests have to face daily. So does Judy Miller, of Voice of the Faithful, who helped organize the service: "Priests can feel alone. They are concerned about how they are perceived. They are under a magnifying glass now."

Lorenz deems the tighter screening and training in the church a positive step but feels more needs to be done in terms of naming names and demanding accountability.

"It's unfortunate but necessary," he said about the loss of spontaneity. "Maybe in two generations, things will go back to normal."

Fisher didn't feel tongue-tied when bringing up the problem in his parish. In several homilies at the height of media scrutiny after the Boston Globe articles, he spoke simply about his anger at abusers, the failings of the church in Boston and elsewhere and his hope things will stay the same in their parish.

In parishioner Donna Shook's eyes, the service made him look vulnerable but at the same time more human. "We come from an older church where these things wouldn't be discussed," she said. "For the first time, Catholics are witnessing everybody from the pope down taking the blame."

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After the service, parishioners didn't bombard Fisher with questions. They just said offhandedly as they passed him by, "Father, you just keep doing what you're doing."

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