Thursday, June 27, 2013

Silent Witness to Abuse: Many Saw Father Donald Patrick Roemer's Behavior But Were Reluctant to Take Action

At the Los Angels Times, "Clergy abuse case filled with silent bystanders":
They stared at each other, the detective and the priest. Kelli McIlvain found interrogating him somewhat surreal. She had been raised Catholic and taught that a man in a black clerical shirt and white collar was nothing less than an emissary of God.

Father Donald Patrick Roemer was 5 feet 5, maybe 150 pounds. Hazel eyes. Blondish hair. A Ventura County Sheriff's Office report described him that night as "cooperative, seems stable," though McIlvain remembered how he repeatedly buried his head on the desk and wept.

To her surprise, his confession came easily. Yes, he said, he molested the 7-year-old boy.

McIlvain lit a cigarette. She hushed her voice, slowed her cadence to match his. Were there others, she asked. Yes, he said, according to court papers, and offered name after name.

"Where do I go from here?" he asked as midnight neared.

"Well," she said, "I'm going to have to arrest you."

What McIlvain uncovered in the weeks that followed seared the case into her memory, so much that she can recall its details more than three decades later, long after she retired: A number of people inside and outside the Catholic Church had been alerted to Roemer's misdeeds, or had strong suspicions of them, she learned.

They did nothing.

Experts call it the "bystander effect" — when people fail to help in potentially dire situations. Often they are more wary of falsely accusing someone than of their fears being confirmed. They question whether it's their responsibility to help, whether stepping in would do any good. If no one else is upset, they assume it's OK to walk away.

"We think our way out of situations we don't want to believe," said Pete Ditto, a UC Irvine professor who studies moral decision-making.

According to the 12,000 pages of church records that the Archdiocese of Los Angeles made public this year, the phenomenon appears to have played a key role in allowing clergy sex abuse to fester in case after case.

Although Catholic leaders shoulder much of the blame for the abuse scandal, the culture of silence extended to teachers, secretaries and others in the church's bottom rungs. In certain cases, it took years for someone to tip off the archdiocese's top officials to suspected molesters, let alone authorities.
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