San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy spoke at the first of eight listening sessions about clergy abuse.
San Diego Bishop Robert McElroy speaks at the first of eight listening sessions on what the diocese calls the “leadership and sexual abuse crisis.” He’ll attend four more this week alone. Photo by Chris Stone

Bishop Robert McElroy may have thought he was bringing good news Monday to 330 Roman Catholics attending his first “listening session” on pedophile priests.

McElroy outlined the sensitive way the San Diego diocese responds to sex-abuse reports. He said the “history of abuse is in the past” with no credible accusations against living priests since 2002.

Only one allegation against a San Diego priest has been made since his arrival in spring 2015, McElroy said, and it was “found not to be credible.” (Four “credible allegations” have been made against lay employees, though.)

And no parishioner money went to settle suits against the local diocese.

But in the parish hall of Our Mother of Confidence Catholic Church in University City, dozens demanded McElroy explain what his superiors — even Pope Francis — were doing to address the crisis of confidence in the church and clergy. (One even called for a “new leader” in the Vatican.)

“We’re in a terrible wrenching moment in the life of our church,” McElroy confessed at the outset, citing the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report that reignited the worldwide predator priest scandal.

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The 64-year-old bishop also noted an explosive 11-page letter by Italy’s Carlo Maria Viganò, a former Vatican envoy to the United States who alleged a cover-up of sex abuse by resigned Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington.

The Viganò letter was “an attack on Pope Francis” and “ideologically charged,” McElroy said.

But the McCarrick scandal even touched McElroy.

Viganò wrote, in that late August letter, that McElroy “was also well aware of McCarrick’s abuses, as can be seen from a letter sent to him by Richard Sipe on July 28, 2016.”

However, McElroy told his audience: “It’s my conviction that nobody was aware of any allegation against Cardinal McCarrick about abuse of a minor until this past summer.”

“No, no,” murmured members of the crowd.

McElroy thus tried to fend off a conservative Catholic faction that brought up the work of Sipe, a La Jollan and ex-priest made famous by the movie “Spotlight.”

Sipe, who died Aug. 8 at 85, was the scholar of clergy sexuality who briefed Boston Globe reporters, leading to revelations of a vast Catholic clergy molestation crisis.

“How we respond to reports of sexual abuse” by San Diego Roman Catholic Diocese (PDF)

In a July 2016 letter to McElroy, Sipe said it was “credibly established” that 30 percent of U.S. bishops “have a homosexual orientation” and that former San Diego Bishop Robert Brom was guilty of misconduct that led to a $120,000 settlement.

McElroy told how he tried to engage him but ultimately was put off by Sipe’s lack of investigative rigor. Sipe cited “extremely unreliable” accounts of clergy abuse via “recovered memories” — including sex in a casket, McElroy said.

A handful of audience members grilled McElroy on gay clergy (one of Sipe’s top issues). They asked if the Vatican had a homosexual subculture and whether McElroy would allow gay priests.

The former San Francisco auxiliary bishop said gay men could be ordained if they pledged to be “chaste,” or celibate.

“I want LGBT people to feel welcome in our churches,” McElroy declared, saying any discrimination against that community is unacceptable. But he also said he accepted “everything in the catechism” that opposes homosexuality or sex outside marriage between a man and a woman.

McElroy suggested that altar boys were the most vulnerable population because of “proximity” and not gay priests on the prowl. He said power and domination were bigger factors at work than homosexuality.

Another cause: “psychological underdevelopment.”

McElroy’s liberal views have become a lightning rod for conservative websites such as churchmilitant.com, which alleged that McElroy “quickly marginalized” the Rev. Richard Perozich, a former Old Town priest who published a bulletin making clear “Catholics could not vote in good conscience in line with the Democratic Party.”

After the two-hour event, Rancho Bernardo’s Steve Frost, a former IRS man, said homosexuality was the “elephant in the room.”

“I don’t think a homosexual should be allowed in the priesthood,” he said. “I differ night and day with this guy [McElroy].”

Frost, 73, said allowing gay priests around boys was inviting trouble, like “I wouldn’t take my alcoholic brother to a bar.”

Outside the parish hall, Frost added: “I think where the rubber meets the road is it’s all about politics, it’s all about money and power. And power brings in money. … Allegedly McCarrick brought in millions of dollars to the Catholic Church. And money talks.”

Inside the hall, McElroy was urged to demand that U.S. bishops, at a conference in November, take more aggressive steps to deal with the abuse issue.

“I have no confidence that the bishops will police themselves,” a woman said at one of 40 tables where six to eight people picked a representative to ask a question or two.

McElroy said bishops lack formal accountability. The diocesan system, which involves lay people sitting on allegation review boards, should be adopted at the bishop level, he said.

“Lay eyes and perspectives are incredibly vital,” he repeated, having said “we need to have lay people at the very center of teaching us how to move forward.”

But one bone of contention was whether the laity invited the molestation crisis by putting priests on pedestals.

“Clericalism is such a part of the blindness that let this happen,” McElroy said. “People have too high a view of priests and attribute to them a status that shouldn’t be.”

One woman said she loved her religion but came to demand truth and transparency, and a guarantee that it would not be “business as usual.”

Asked if he were satisfied with McElroy’s responses, a San Diego man who gave only his first name — Tomas — said he felt the bishop was dodging some questions. He wished McElroy had answered them more fully.

Joe Quiroz of San Diego said: “What I wanted was a spiritual father angry for his children, and I didn’t feel that he embodied that role.”

He said he thought McElroy had a “CEO or politician mind-set.”

Jamie, who also declined to give her last name, said the bishop didn’t give “tangible examples” of future actions to solve the problems.

He’ll have four more chances this week, though.

Listening sessions are set Wednesday at St. Joseph Cathedral auditorium downtown, Thursday at Our Lady of Grace parish center in El Cajon, Friday at St. Charles Catholic Church parish hall on Saturn Boulevard and Saturday at St. Mary Church parish center in El Centro. (All times are 7 p.m. except El Centro at 9 a.m.)

The final three stops — with Maria Olivia Galvan (diocese chancellor) and the Rev. John Hurley as facilitators — are 7 p.m. Oct. 17 at Church of the Nativity parish hall in Rancho Santa Fe, 7 p.m. Oct. 18 at St. Gabriel Church in Poway and 10 a.m. Nov. 5 at the Joan B. Kroc Institute at the University of San Diego.

On Monday, TV crews and still photographers were allowed to record McElroy’s opening remarks but were ordered shut when it came to the question-and-answer session.

The fear was cameras would inhibit survivors of clergy abuse from sharing their stories.

But no speaker mentioned having been a victim.