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Hush-up or "Being Careful"?

Local churchgoers remain skeptical of Bishop Driscoll

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When presented with the sexual improprieties of a deacon, a local Catholic Church administration chose silence over disclosure. Now parishioners are accusing the clergy of singing the same old song-the cover-up.

The church is St. Mary's in Northwest Boise, where Deacon Robert "Rap" Howell was ordained in 2001 and conducted a ministry through 2004. Until then, Howell, an experienced social worker with a Master's degree in child welfare, was a longtime presence on Boise's mental health landscape. Since the early 1980s, he had worked with the Intensive Family Services Program of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections and even Boise State, where he taught graduate courses in school social work. He also spent four years facilitating group therapy for both sex offenders and victims of molestation for the local support group Parents United. However, according to a two-year FBI investigation, Howell also possessed a small but explicit amount of child pornography.

According to court documents, Howell viewed illegal pictures, several involving children under 12, on his work computer at the local foster care facility Casey Family Services in 2002. He pled guilty in early November of 2004 to the charge of possession, receiving 18 months in prison. However, Bishop Michael Patrick Driscoll of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Boise didn't inform St. Mary's parishioners, or the administration of nearby St. Mary's School, of Howell's crimes until late February. That four-month foot-dragging has caused many church members to cry foul.

"The church was playing politics at the expense of the kids' safety," says Elizabeth Tullis, a St. Mary's parishioner, school volunteer and mother of two St. Mary's students. "I don't know if it was a direct cover-up, but they were trying to get it under the radar." Tullis is not alone in her accusations.

On March 11, Bishop Driscoll and St. Mary's pastor, Father W. Thomas Faucher, addressed a packed house of the church's congregation eager to air their grievances. The pair explained up front that their tardiness in disclosing Howell's transgression arose from a desire to know "the full extent of the facts" before making the case public. Then they listened for two intense hours as speakers lined up to disagree with them. One parishioner called the church's lack of disclosure "a textbook example of how not to handle" such situations. Another claimed the church administration "turned their back on us and sold us down the river," by not promptly informing the school administration. Still others spoke of a loss of trust and even a loss of faith in the church.

According to the Diocese's child protection coordinator Bobbie Dominick, the event was a crucial and encouraging step in winning back the jilted churchgoers. "There were some very harsh things said," she explains, "but the bishop wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to tell him how they felt. Those kinds of things need to be said to create the possibility for healing." Dominick says that Bishop Driscoll will continue fielding comments from concerned churchgoers for as long as necessary, and that he is working on a plan to more aptly handle any future incidents.

One concrete improvement she insists that Catholics can count on from the Boise Diocese, however, is openness. She reports that Driscoll has promised, both to the parishioners and to Diocese staff members, to be far more forthcoming in future incidents, "for the protection of the faithful."

For local Catholics like Tullis, however, the process of healing and forgiveness is far from over. "I don't think I was healed," she says of the event. "I think they finally 'got it,' and they should have. They were caught red-handed ... These are Band-Aids. The Catholic Church needs to learn to stand up."

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