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Church watches as Dallas diocese regroups

NCR Staff

Since a jury awarded 11 plaintiffs $119.6 million in a sex abuse trial against the Dallas diocese last year, the diocese has undergone a major restructuring. Church leaders say the reorganization was prompted by a need to restore trust and prevent future abuses.

Among changes, Mary Edlund, 50, became the first woman in the diocese’s 107-year history to hold a top position.

Appointed vice chancellor in the fall of 1997, then chancellor in August, Edlund’s office serves as clearinghouse for concerns of area Catholics, including complaints about priests. Edlund has estimated that less than 10 percent of diocesan chancellors in the United States are women, and most of those, she said, are nuns.

As part of the restructuring, deacons and lay persons have been appointed to key advisory boards -- some that are new, some formerly composed of only clergy.

The goal in expanding leadership beyond priests is “to provide more objectivity,” Edlund said in an interview in diocesan offices. “We wanted dedicated Catholics from the community to look at all of our systems and operations so that we could build in not only better safeguards but better accountability. We looked for people with managerial skills and expertise in human resources.”

Edlund, mother of four, has worked for the diocese for nearly 20 years, first in religious education, later as director of pastoral planning and research. She holds a master’s degree in religious education from The Catholic University of America.

Although greater involvement by laity in filling diocesan posts reflects a trend across the church, the changes are particularly noteworthy in Dallas. In the landmark sex abuse case, plaintiffs accused diocesan officials of negligence in ordaining former priest Rudolph “Rudy” Kos without thoroughly investigating his background and later for failing to act on complaints about his conduct. Kos, a defendant with the diocese in the civil trial, was convicted in March of criminal child molestation. He is serving a life sentence.

Crisis management

“What we’ve done here is to advance reform in the church,” said Bronson Havard, editor of The Texas Catholic, the diocesan newspaper. Havard was instrumental in bringing about some of the changes. He proposed forming a “crisis management team” to Bishop Charles V. Grahmann as a first step in responding to issues raised by the civil trial last year, then served as a member of the nine-member committee.

Under terms of the restructuring:

  • The top diocesan personnel board, previously called the Priests Personnel Board and composed entirely of clergy, now consists of four priests, one deacon and three lay people. The board makes all pastoral assignments for Dallas parishes.
  • Two new boards are in operation, one to oversee pastoral concerns; the other to review candidates for the priesthood and diaconate and make recommendations independently of those put forth by seminaries or formation programs.
  • A fourth board, called the Conduct Review Board, deals with complaints of sexual misconduct by priests or other diocesan employees. Members, who currently include a psychologist, a specialist in protective services, a police officer and a civil attorney, serve anonymously. In the past the board was exclusively clergy, Edlund said.


Some Catholics in the diocese have expressed doubts about the changes. Gail Pawlik, mother of two of the plaintiffs in the sex abuse case, told The Dallas Morning News when the restructuring was announced, “I have no faith in the people in the top and won’t unless we get a new bishop and start off fresh.” Others have warned that Edlund could face skepticism or lack of cooperation from some of the more reactionary priests.

Edlund said other dioceses are taking notice, too. “Other bishops are watching us,” she added. “Some have said to the bishop, ‘Don’t you think it’s kind of risky to get all those lay people involved?’ “

Edlund is convinced that the changes are having a positive effect. Today, if any of the young men who accused Kos of sexual abuse were to present a complaint, “the outcome would definitely be different,” she said. “If a victim called us today, we’d have that person in within 48 hours” for an interview with the head of Catholic counseling services. The victim’s family and the accused priest would be interviewed, and the full board would convene to develop a strategy, she said.

She said the process had already been used “in several cases,” including some where abuse allegedly occurred 20 or 30 years ago, and others that turned out to be “false allegations.”

New processes

When misconduct is verified, strategies, Edlund said, are based in part on assessing what the victim wants.

Duties of personnel board members include identifying lay people who might be appointed pastoral administrators. The board has instituted a mentoring program and a one-year probationary period for new pastors -- “a way of determining whether it’s a good match,” Edlund said -- and a “listening process” with parishioners when pastoral vacancies occur.

The ordination board, made up of a priest, a deacon and a lay person, oversees new screening procedures that call for criminal background checks and a letter from a bishop or religious superior certifying absence of prior accusations that suggest a problem.

The Pastoral Concerns Board, composed of a pastor, two members of the laity -- one male, one female -- and two members of the bishop’s staff, will log every grievance so that problematic patterns can be identified. Edlund said the goal is to deal with every concern while avoiding “any kind of authoritarianism or highhandness” on the part of diocesan officials. The model for handling complaints is Matthew 18, she said.

In weeks after the trial ended last year, The Dallas Morning News reported that Grahmann suspended one priest, pressed another into early retirement, removed the executive director of Catholic charities and removed the superintendent of Catholic schools from his cabinet. The Texas Catholic told readers in an article following those events that the personnel changes signified “that rules, regulations and discipline will be strictly enforced.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 4, 1998