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Local nun offers an insider's perspective of the church sex abuse scandal

Sister Marlene Weidenborner is executive director of the Lay Pastoral Ministry Institute for the Diocese of St. Petersburg. 

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

Sister Marlene Weidenborner is executive director of the Lay Pastoral Ministry Institute for the Diocese of St. Petersburg. 

ST. PETERSBURG — For 54 years, Sister Marlene Weidenborner has been about God's work. The nun from the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany, N.Y., has been a teacher, principal and minister in Florida. Now she's executive director of the Lay Pastoral Ministry Institute for the Roman Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, which covers five Tampa Bay-area counties and has more than 150,000 Catholics on its rolls.

She's also full of surprises. She loves football and even prays for the Notre Dame team on Saturdays. She agreed to talk about what it's like working in the Catholic church as it faces another child sex abuse scandal.

Can you help us get a sense of context for the sex abuse scandals that seem to keep coming up? How does that make you feel?

My heart goes out to victims of the abuse, particularly the children who placed their trust in their abusers.

I also think we have to be realistic. In the 1960s and '70s, when a lot of this abuse took place, even psychiatrists thought it was curable. When we read that priests were sent away for therapy and then allowed to come back, part of that context has to be that people thought they were cured.

There's no tolerance for that now. Everybody who works in the church, with children or vulnerable adults, has to go through safe environments training. The Diocese spends over $300,000 a year on safe environments for children.

What is safe environments?

Training to recognize signs of abuse and safeguard against people who might be working with children. They have to go through a screening, background checks, fingerprint checks. One of the reasons I appreciate working in the Diocese of St. Petersburg is that I really believe we have done all we can to address the issue and make sure it doesn't happen again.

What does it mean to you that the church in Europe seems to be behind the United States in dealing with these problems?

In the U.S. there is a greater openness. We are used to speaking our minds. I think there's a culture there that is changing, but it's slower to change.

Do you think we look at priests differently now?

Because we've taken steps, because we do expend our funds and train our people, I think when we look at priests today we should have a degree of certainty that we don't have abusers anymore.

If women held higher positions in the church earlier, would the church be dealing with the same issues?

There are a lot of women in the church who are very powerful. They do have a vast sphere of influence. I think women, if they were aware of things, wouldn't stand for the abuse of children.

Is the airing of grievances healthy for the church?

Certainly the raising of awareness is a good sign. And if we learn and act on what we have learned, that's a healthy sign.

Do you think people wonder, Why did God let this happen?

I'm sure people wonder. There is evil in the world. Bad things happen to good people. God gave us free will. He didn't give us the freedom to abuse others.

Do you pray about this?

Yes. Particularly for our priests, that they'll have the grace of their vocation.

Are there conversations about sexual abuse in these hallways?

Do we meet people at the copier and talk about sexual abuse? I don't think so. Maybe over lunch. For us, it is something that we have moved through. Not to say we've left it behind, because we understand that where there are people, there can be problems.

Have any victims come to you?

I had one victim come to me and I followed the procedures that were in place for that victim.

Is it burdensome, the new allegations that the Pope might have been involved in allowing an abusive priest to stay in the church?

The information that I have comes from the media, and I don't want to cast dispersions on the media, but I don't know that I believe everything I read.

I don't want to rush onto the condemnation bandwagon. But I'm sure that what's going on in Europe is going to change a lot of perspectives.

I read the secular press and I read the church press, and I read on the Internet. But if there's one thing that living this long has taught me it's that there are always two sides of the story.

Do you have confidence that the church will address these issues?

I do believe they are learning a really painful lesson. The archbishop in Ireland has come forward and said things are very wrong and we'll do all that we can. That doesn't wipe away what happened, but at least the knowledge is there that things are going to be different for the future.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. Ben Montgomery can be reached at 727-893-8650 or bmontgomery@sptimes.com.

Local nun offers an insider's perspective of the church sex abuse scandal 04/14/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 15, 2010 12:26am]
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