Review board member fights for church while facing ALS

by Jerry Filteau

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. (CNS) — Oklahoma business executive Ray H. Siegfried II focuses much of his attention these days on two passions — helping rid the Catholic Church of sexual abuse and dealing with the progression of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease, in his body.p. The National Review Board member spoke of both in an interview with Catholic News Service at his home in Indian Wells. Siegfried answered questions by spelling words with eye-activated computer commands from his wheelchair, since he no longer has use of his voice.p. Despite his disabilities, he continues to participate in the board’s business. He recently hosted a meeting of the board’s subcommittee on diocesan audits, which he heads.p. Two of his key recommendations to prevent a recurrence of the abuse crisis are training prospective or newly named bishops how to do their job well and establishing “some mechanism to performance-review the bishops” once they are on the job. He acknowledges there is resistance to such changes but hopes there are “some smart ears in the Vatican” to hear what is needed and take action.p. Seminary training is the other major key to the abuse problem, he said. “We didn’t screen candidates for the priesthood properly … then did not prepare them in their formation on the blessing of celibacy, its responsibilities. … By the way, (this is) all fixable.”p. On his own health struggle, he said when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in October 2001, he was still an athlete in his late 50s. “Now I’m a 61-year-old invalid in a wheelchair.”p. ALS gradually destroys the nerve cells that control the voluntary muscles, leading to paralysis and atrophy. Siegfried has been on a stomach tube for nutrition since last June and had a tracheotomy last August for a ventilator.p. “I don’t want a gloom-doom article,” he cautioned at the start of the interview. “That’s not the way I have ever been nor (am) now. … I have lived a charmed life.”p. Signs of his past athleticism are evident in his Indian Wells home — from the trophy room featuring the mounted heads of wildebeests, Cape buffalo and other big game he brought down in bow-and-arrow hunts in South Africa to the several display cases of artifacts he personally salvaged from shipwrecks as a scuba diving enthusiast in the Caribbean, Mediterranean and South Pacific.p. Another prominent feature of the home is the octagonal private chapel with four stained-glass windows, where Siegfried prays and meditates before the Blessed Sacrament every day, attends Mass when a priest is available and receives Communion daily. His son Terrell said since his father’s tracheotomy and insertion of a feeding tube, he has been able to continue receiving only a small portion of the host each day.p. Describing the importance of spirituality in his life, Ray Siegfried said, “I have had many spiritual experiences that can only be attributed to divine influence.”p. “Getting through Notre Dame was probably the first,” he said. “That taught me the power of prayer.”p. He said every day in his four years there he prayed at the university’s famed Grotto, a reproduction of the cave in Lourdes, France, where Mary appeared to St. Bernadette. He said he has prayed a 54-day novena to Mary every day for the past 35 years.p. He said another powerful influence on his life was the many good priests he met, especially Augustinians at Cascia Hall Preparatory School in Tulsa, Okla., where he attended high school, and the Holy Cross priests at the University of Notre Dame, including the legendary former Notre Dame president, Father Theodore E. Hesburgh.p. Of such priests he said, “They taught me what good people look like.”p. Later in the interview, when talking about the work of the review board in addressing the sexual abuse scandal, he said, “There are a lot of good clergy and this is their turf we are defending, as well as the abused and children. And (we’re) proud to do it.”p. He spoke openly about tensions the board continues to experience with some of the hierarchy.p. “We do not feel threatened, but have many times felt the direct intimidation of strong, influential cardinals and bishops. However, the fear intended is not felt,” he said. "I am a warrior, as well as my colleagues (on the board), and that kind of behavior bounces off me, and, I’m sure, the others.p. “I’ve survived helicopter crashes, near-death experiences, broken companies, bankruptcies, the death of my top co-leader, the crisis of 9-11 on my aviation company, the wiping out of all our corporate leadership in a three-month period and ALS so far,” he continued. “I don’t scare easily.”p. Later Siegfried explained that less than a month after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks dealt a major blow to the aviation industry, a plane crash on a hunting trip in Canada severely injured his brother and partner, Robin, forcing his retirement, and killed his corporate president, Charles Ryan. On the day of a memorial service for Ryan, he said, he was diagnosed with ALS.p. He said Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, invited him to serve on the National Review Board in July 2002 at the recommendation of Cathy Keating, wife of then-Gov. Frank Keating of Oklahoma, the original chairman of the review board.p. He said he “knew that something was wrong” in the clergy sex abuse crisis when he accepted the appointment, but he did not know the extent of the problem until the board had met several times.p. “I realized I had been under a rock — I had never been exposed to what I was hearing,” he said. “I was mortified. So were the other members. We were furious, mad, upset, defiled and disappointed in the occurrences (of abuse), but mostly irritated at leadership, because we saw none. Then we became a brotherhood determined to carry out the mission of the charter.”p. He was referring to the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” adopted by the bishops in June 2002. It established the all-lay review board to monitor how well dioceses carried out the charter mandates and to oversee major studies on the nature and scope of clergy sexual abuse of minors in the U.S. church and the causes and context of that abuse.p. Siegfried said the charter “was a well-written document, but it was a skeleton. We had to put meat on the bones.”p. He said the board members from varied backgrounds brought together the skills to accomplish that task “from a worldly view, but what was pivotal was the presence of the Holy Spirit each time we met. … The Holy Spirit was with us, still is, guiding us. It’s a fact. No (other) way could we have bonded so effectively in 20 months and produced the quality product we did.”p. He stressed the lack of training and performance review for bishops as an institutional problem, saying such an approach would be unacceptable in the business world.
He said the review board can analyze the problem, but it is beyond the board’s scope to solve it.p. “I would not expect the Vatican to allow the laity to run the show” and the board has no intention of going beyond its mandate, he said. It is up to Rome to decide on any changes in the way bishops are appointed, trained or reviewed, he added.p. Siegfried said his own faith has held firm and, if anything, grown stronger over the past 20 months. “I know the church is on the mend, but I had not lost the faith or confidence anyway. … It (the sexual abuse problem) is fixable.”p. He said his work on the review board to help the church fix that problem is “my passion, and currently my favorite subject.”p. In 1969, four years after he graduated from Notre Dame, Siegfried took over a small, failing aviation manufacturing company with eight employees. He rescued it from bankruptcy and turned it, along with later acquisitions, into the Nordam Group, a multinational firm with more than 2,500 employees and facilities on three continents.p. Applying his experiences there to his perspective on the church, he said, "Remember, I am a guy that has built a life’s business from fixing broken businesses. … To do that you have to see the good in bad situations. The glass is half full, just as in my disease.p. “In the meantime, the harvest for me (from being on the review board) is I have met new lifelong friends, hopefully helped the church, especially the abused, road-blocked future abusers and made a safer environment for children.”p. When he first learned he had ALS, he said, “my sole mission was to begin to get my soul in shape. The goal is to get to heaven on the first try.”
“I’m a performance-driven guy,” he added, and “heaven is doable because of God’s love for us.”p. “(I) have stepped up my spiritual life, listen to others that want my attention and take the sacraments as often as possible,” he said. “And (I) work my goals — now that brings me back to the National Review Board. I firmly believe this is one of the missions God has for me. … I have become a champion for obliterating this blight from our beloved church.”p. He said doctors give him one to two years to live. “It has entered my lungs, and that’s the beginning of the end,” he said.
For the interview Siegfried used a communication and control system called Eyegaze that allows users to spell out words on a computer screen by gazing at each letter successively on the onscreen keyboard.p. A specialized video camera monitors the movement of the viewer’s eyes and types the words on the upper left of the screen. An attached printer allows printouts and a voice synthesizer can be activated to speak what the writer has written. A companion program for the system, Eyemouse, enables the user to surf the Internet and answer e-mails.

Ray Siegfried is a member of the Notre Dame board of trustees.

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