Track record brings archbishop to head of committee on abuse

Tuesday, May 14, 2002

MINNEAPOLIS -- When Roman Catholic bishops gather next month to craft a new national policy for handling clergy sex abuse, a key committee will do much of the work. Leading that group will be Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, a man who knows all about helping the church recover from scandal.

Flynn once had the task of piecing together a Louisiana diocese torn apart by the molestation scandal that first brought national attention to priestly sex abuse.

His efforts in Louisiana won praise from colleagues, though victims' advocates say his record dealing with abuse claims in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis is "abysmal."

A few years before Flynn was named bishop of the Lafayette, La., Diocese in 1989, the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe pleaded guilty to sex abuse charges involving 11 boys -- and admitted to molesting dozens of others. Several other local priests also were accused.

Flynn went out and met with victims across their kitchen tables and in parishes throughout southwestern Louisiana.

"He visited people, and one thing I remember is that he always remembered their names months and months later," recalled Sister Joanna Valoni, a former chancellor of the diocese.

"One young man he had talked to, he came up to him after church one day and said, 'Bishop, I'm OK.' And a year or so later, the man brought his fiancee to church to meet him."

People familiar with Flynn's work in Louisiana describe him as an honest, thoughtful man with a sense of humor -- a leader who restored credibility to the church.

But victims advocates say that in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, which Flynn has led since 1995, his efforts have come up short.

Advocates single out a 1996 case brought by Dale Scheffler, a construction worker who said his parish priest abused him in 1981, when he was 14.

Scheffler won a $1.1-million judgment which was later thrown out. The archdiocese then tried, unsuccessfully, to force Scheffler to pay legal fees.

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