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July 14, 2010

Stephanie Salter: Reporting on a church in denial is no easy task

TERRE HAUTE — The first thing almost anyone noticed upon meeting the Rev. Martin Greenlaw was his toupee. It was not a good one, dark brown and anchored atop his own lighter brown hair. Even parishioners at St. Paul’s Church who liked their pastor wondered why a Catholic priest needed a toupee; behind his back they referred to it as “road kill.”

St. Paul’s in San Francisco was my parish from 1989 to 2004. Today, 14 years after Greenlaw pleaded guilty in the first of two felony grand theft and embezzlement cases against him, I think of that grotesque hairpiece as a symbol, not only of Father Martin’s brokenness and corruption, but also of the Catholic hierarchy’s failure to see obvious trouble and protect its people.

The failure sprang from a superior and isolationist self-image that continues to bedevil church leaders, particularly amidst ongoing scandals of past sex abuse by clergy. The self-image was and is fed by a willful denial of reality and an almost paranoid defensiveness that, for decades, has made much of the hierarchy blind and deaf to pleas and alerts from laity, women religious and, occasionally, one of its own priests or bishops.

In the Greenlaw case, instead of recognizing and admitting that a damaged priest was in need of serious help, archdiocese officials looked the other way, discounted numerous warnings and allowed a bad situation to worsen. Only when they discovered that Father Greenlaw had stolen money from archdiocese coffers did church officials step in.

Even then, typically, they quietly filed a civil suit that was disguised to avoid detection by anyone outside the inner hierarchical circle.

Only luck (or Providence) caused that filing to fall into a newspaper reporter’s hands.

As I explained Sunday, I’ve been thinking about the Greenlaw case since reading of an allegedly similar wayward priest in Waterbury, Conn. Like Greenlaw, the Rev. Kevin Gray reportedly stole church funds — more than $1 million, according to police — to support a lavish, secret, very unpriestly lifestyle. To the Hartford diocese’s credit, its officials did not file a veiled civil lawsuit; they asked the Waterbury police to investigate Gray because his annual parish financial reports were virtually nonexistent.

The San Francisco reporter who happened upon the Greenlaw lawsuit back in the mid-1990s was Dennis Opatrny, a colleague of mine at the San Francisco Examiner. I joined Pat and Elizabeth Fernandez in reporting and writing a series of stories about the crimes of Martin Greenlaw and the even worse crimes of the influential monsignor he considered his mentor, Patrick O’Shea.

Whatever else Greenlaw did, he was never accused of sexually abusing minors. O’Shea, however, was, and he cost the San Francisco Archdiocese tens of millions of dollars in legal settlements.

Pat, Elizabeth and I were veteran journalists when we began digging with a local radio team into the Greenlaw-O’Shea saga in 1993. To this day, we still agree: No other story any of us has worked has presented such difficulty in obtaining and verifying information. The entire way, we were vilified by church officials for our efforts.

Like most journalists who turn their investigative tools on the Catholic Church, Elizabeth, Pat and I learned we were in good and frustrated company. Reporters all over the country shared similar accounts of looking into allegations of crimes and misdemeanors by clergy and church officials. One of the journalists was Jason Berry, who produced the first comprehensive exposé of a U.S. diocese, New Orleans, corrupted by both a sexually abusive priest and his superiors’ coverup.

From Berry’s reporting, which began in the early 1980s, came “Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sex Abuse of Children.” First published in 1992, the book estimated that about 400 Catholic clergy in North America had been accused over the previous eight years of molesting minors. That number today, by the church’s own count, is in the thousands.

Sometime in 1994, we Examiner reporters had a conference call with Berry. I asked him how the same pattern of crime and coverup could still be going on in city after city. (This was long before scandals erupted in Boston, Los Angeles, Australia, France, Latin America, Ireland, Germany and Belgium.) Elizabeth repeated a phrase about the institutional church we would return to, story after story, year after year: “When will they ever get it?”

Berry told us not to hold our breath. He commiserated with our accounts of hierarchical stonewalling and sources who insisted on anonymity because they were petrified of losing a parish job or of some other form of social retribution. He offered us some advice, too, which he said pained him as a Catholic to say:

“When you are dealing with church officials, operate on the premise that you are being lied to and then hope you are proven wrong.”

Several years later the investigative team of the Boston Globe, no doubt, realized the same lesson while producing a 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning series on that city’s long-hidden practice of shielding and re-circulating priests with multiple allegations of child sex crimes against them. Anyone interested in the anatomy of investigative journalism — or anyone who still believes the crimes-and-cover-ups of the church have been blown out of proportion — should read the Globe team’s book, “Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church.”

The Boston mess cost Cardinal Bernard Law his job, albeit with a golden parachute: He lives in semi-retirement in Italy these days, a member of the curia with a variety of positions, including titular Cardinal Priest of the American parish in Rome, Santa Susannah.

Our Examiner stories and other media attention helped contribute to the end of San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn’s stewardship in 1995, a consequence that still saddens me because Quinn has one of the finest theological minds in the U.S. Catholic Church. But he’d lost control of his three-county archdiocese.

Quinn’s replacement was William J. Levada. For a decade, until he was chosen in 2005 by Pope Benedict XVI to head an important Vatican office (and elevated to cardinal in 2006), Levada labored to straighten out the San Francisco Archdiocese and the diocese of Santa Rosa. While he tightened child protection policies and instituted financial reporting rules that helped prevent other Greenlaws or O’Sheas, Levada was typical of the hierarchy:

He refused to own the whole of the church’s role in its priests’ crimes, and he instinctively lashed out at the news media and other public prodders.

In a blistering letter to the Examiner editor in May 1996, Levada criticized a subheadline on a story about one of Greenlaw’s sentencings. A probation officer had testified that Greenlaw said he’d felt his crimes were more immoral than criminal and he’d told her “that other priests were misappropriating funds as well, inferring that it was more or less a common practice.”

The newspaper’s headlines reflected the probation officer’s report: “Thieving priest denies criminality/Greenlaw sorry but reportedly says clerics often steal.”

In his published letter, Levada demanded to know why such a statement should be “headlined in this article, impugning the reputation of over 500 hard-working, honest priests in this archdiocese?”

Referring to an assistant district attorney who’d said he hoped Greenlaw would “rat out on others” who might be stealing church funds, Levada wrote, “Is this the even-handed objectivity a community has a right to expect from the district attorney’s office? Or worse, is it perhaps evidence of an ill-disguised bias — anti-religious, anti-Catholic, anti-clerical or all of the above?”

That tendency to reach for and play the anti-Catholic card, to discount or attack the bearer of bad news, has poorly served church leaders for many years. So, too, has the hierarchy’s dependence on secular attorneys to stall cases for years and to employ every legal technicality at hand to wear down plaintiffs so they will give up and go away.

Last month, police in scandal-scorched Belgium barged into a bishops’ conference and held the men for nine hours while investigators confiscated church files for documents pertaining to sex abuse allegations. The tombs of two former archbishops were drilled. The pope called the actions “deplorable” and protested to Belgium’s ambassador to the Holy See.

The bishops garnered little sympathy from people who have grown weary of the disconnect between church leaders’ words and deeds. The volume and scope of Catholic scandal — sexual, monetary and cover-up — have left the hierarchy with a colossal credibility gap. The cops in Belgium mirrored an attitude many of us reluctantly have adopted toward most stewards of the church: They still don’t seem to get it, so we’re not inclined to afford them the benefit of the doubt.

Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or

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