May 29, 2002 News & Features » Cover Story


No Time to Hold Back 

As allegations of priests sexually abusing minors mount, Commonwealth Catholic Charities asserts its independent status.

What's more, Bergner is prepared to draw a line for those who need it to show that Commonwealth Catholic Charities is completely independent from the Diocese of Richmond or any other Catholic institution. It may become a vital distinction. Even if evidence of this takes a while to discern.

Times have changed in recent months, since banner headlines nationwide revealed the reality that some Catholic priests have long been sexually abusing youth entrusted to their care. And some Catholics aren't so sure whom to trust and what to believe.

Last week, a Richmonder who asked not to be named called Style and confessed he'd stopped giving money to Catholic causes. "Until I am convinced that not 1 percent of any money is being given to the diocese in Boston or to bail out the church or other priests, I'm not giving," he says. Another person professes to have tossed into the garbage the semiannual request for donations to Commonwealth Catholic Charities.

Similar reactions have happened elsewhere. In Boston, a Catholic Charities' spring fund-raising drive triggered scoffs from some. One person returned the self-addressed pledge card envelope along with a small slab of granite.

The local reactions are disturbing to Bergner. He vigorously asserts that all proceeds given to Commonwealth Catholic Charities, the statewide nonprofit agency that provides 14 aid programs to more than 13,000 needy people, go to the people it serves.

According to Commonwealth Catholic Charities' annual report, of the more than $6 million it collected last year, 86 percent went directly to human-services programs like foster care, counseling, adoptions, home care, financial services, and the new and growing Unaccompanied Refugee Minors program. The remaining 14 percent covered charity development and administrative costs.

"We've had some indications that donations are down," Bergner says. But he attributes this as much to people having already given to Sept. 11 relief funds and to the recent recession as to the child-abuse scandals in the church. "All three of these have an impact on giving and not just for Catholic Charities," he says. "… It may be too early to evaluate completely."

At a recent national meeting of directors of Catholic charitable organizations, Bergner says, the current crisis was discussed. "There was concern about how to address this," he says. "Universally, as directors, we need to express empathy both to those who we serve and to the abused. Our mission is to serve the most vulnerable. That's why this is such a travesty."

While only 5 to 6 percent of donations made to Commonwealth Catholic Charities comes from individuals — more than 80 percent comes from government grants and service fees paid by federal programs like Medicaid Waiver — losing the donations could mean deflated services. "Obviously, if people hold back on even these small contributions there would be an impact," he says.

Bergner seems committed to assuage fears. And not just for the reluctant donors. He closes his eyes and confesses quietly, "It's been a difficult time to be a priest." Add to this the role of father. Two years ago Bergner adopted his son, Ryan, an orphan from Romania. He is 14 and starts high school next year.

"We should be scrutinized," Bergner says of priests and the Catholic Church.

And perhaps much needed healing will take place. Since the crisis broke there have been signs of a different kind of ripple effect, he says. "More families who have been suffering in silence are availing themselves of counseling."

Some have already turned to Commonwealth Catholic Charities for help. Bergner aims to provide it. "We've identified a very serious wound," he says, "that needed to be lanced." S


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