COLUMBUS - For 60 years, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton remained quiet about the time, at the age of 15, that he was fondled by a priest.
He said nothing when he feared the Roman Catholic Church wasn't being forthright about abuse he suspected was still taking place after he became a priest, and even after the church's horrible secrets were splashed across newspapers beginning in 2002.
But yesterday, the bishop from the Archdiocese of Detroit bucked church leadership, including bishops in Ohio and Michigan, to throw his support behind proposed legislation that could expose his church to hundreds of lawsuits and cost it millions of dollars.
"The only way we will have our credibility on moral issues restored, so that we can speak to moral questions, is if we can truly put this whole situation behind us because we have dealt with this adequately," Bishop Gumbleton, 75, said.
The bishop has had a high profile in the church for years.
In 1979, he was part of a delegation sent to Iran to visit with American hostages being held at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Iran hostage crisis began in November, 1979, and continued for 444 days.
Senate Bill 17 would open a one-time, one-year window for any victims of child sexual abuse as long as 35 years ago to sue their abusers and those they believe covered for them. Current law requires such suits to be filed within two years of the victim reaching the age of 18.
The controversial bill passed the Senate unanimously in March and is awaiting a vote in the House Judiciary Committee. Bishop Gumbleton lobbied for the bill's passage yesterday in the same halls where fellow bishops from Ohio have lobbied for its defeat.
He stressed that he didn't speak for the Detroit archdiocese and that the later abuse he suspected as a priest did not occur within the archdiocese.
"In too many institutions, leaders have dealt with this as an adversarial situation, and the victim is on the other side," he said. "That I find deplorable."
Although a number of priests have broken with the church to support such bills, he is believed to be the first U.S. bishop to go public with sexual abuse.
He was a ninth grader at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit when he said he was abused by a priest who took him and other boys to a cottage for overnight visits. He described a wrestling match with the priest, during which he said the priest put his hand down his pants.
The unidentified priest has since died.
"It was not that I was victimized in a way that I was so totally traumatized that it turned me off the church ," he said. "At 15, I was still very young, naive, and immature. I did not totally understand what was going on."
He said he removed himself from the situation, never spoke of it to anyone, and put it out of his mind.
Cardinal Adam Maida, archbishop of Detroit, said the archdiocese was never told of Bishop Gumbleton's experience.
"Bishop Gumbleton's experience is indeed regrettable, and, no doubt, it frames his personal opinion on this matter," said Msgr. Ricardo Bass, the cardinal's delegate for clergy issues. "As we would with any person in his situation, the archdiocese stands by its commitment to provide counseling assistance as needed."
A bishop in Detroit since 1968, Bishop Gumbleton is known for his liberal views and has a reputation as one of the most liberal U.S. prelates on economic and social issues. He is known for his prayer vigils and fasts especially in support of peace movements and disarmament. He was ordained in 1956 and has been the pastor at St. Leo's church in Detroit since 1983.
Bishop Gumbleton, on the verge of retirement, has never been promoted from his auxiliary, or assistant, status in 38 years, which could signal that Roman Catholic leaders lack confidence in him, said David O'Brien, a specialist in American Catholicism at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
The Catholic Conference of Ohio, the lobbying arm of Ohio's bishops, extended its sympathy for Bishop Gumbleton, but repeated its opposition to retroactively reviving lawsuits for which the time limit has long expired.
"Healing is not achieved by lawsuits, but by working with those who suffered abuse, ministering to them pastorally, and helping to meet their individual needs," reads a joint statement released by Ohio's bishops.
The Catholic Conference of Michigan agreed.
"It would be neither appropriate nor good public policy to alter Michigan's statute in a hurried and far-reaching, Californialike fashion that would do nothing to protect our children today," said Paul Long, conference vice president for public policy.
Rep. Louis Blessing (R., Cincinnati), a member of the judiciary committee, said he continues to work on a compromise that could include some version of a civil registry that the church has offered as an alternative to reopening the litigation window as well as some pot of church funds for settlements.
This report includes information from The Blade's wire services.
Contact Jim Provance at:
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For 60 years, Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton remained quiet about the time, at the age of 15, that he was fondled by a priest. He said nothing when he feared the Roman Catholic Church wasn't being forthright about abuse he suspected was still taking place after he became a priest.