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Clergy Sexual Abuse: Put Children First


Where You Stand
Facing the Future


In an interview with this publication in 1993, Bishop John F. Kinney, head of the U.S. bishops’ then-new committee on clergy sexual abuse, said, “If there are people out there who are wondering, is the Church reassigning to ministry and to the parishes those who have abused minors, I am saying, no way. We cannot put the young people of the Church at risk.”

He knew then that the bishops’ conference is an advisory body, that each bishop calls his own shots at home. But there was a sense in 1993 that sexual abuse was too damaging for any bishop not to follow the extensive conference guidelines being developed.

The events of 2002 show us that not all bishops took heed. When news broke that Boston ex-priest John J. Geoghan, known as a pedophile by his superiors since 1984, had access to children until he was defrocked in 1998, the floodgates opened. Ten more Boston archdiocesan priests were immediately removed from ministry, a frank admission of unresolved problems.

Then diocese after diocese announced changes in policies that were supposedly fixed nearly a decade ago. New scores of secret sex-abuse cases of priests and former priests became public knowledge as bishops came forward under intense scrutiny. Multimillion-dollar settlements are back in the works, with assertions that collection money will not be used—as if we could go on with business as usual.

Philip Jenkins, in his 1996 book Pedophile and Priest: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (Oxford), gives a long look at the problem as it emerged in the 1980s. Among his many points, he shows how Catholic clergy are easier to prosecute because the Church keeps good records. He also explains how the rise of tabloid trends in media has fueled public appetite for sex stories. So the media interest in clergy sex abuse may not always be serving journalism’s highest standards—though in some cases it certainly is.

Jenkins builds a strong case that sex abuse is probably not higher among Catholic clergy than among any other part of the population—it just makes a better story. Oh, that he would have devoted more attention to one glaring point: the cover-ups that leave our children at risk.

That’s what’s changed since 1993: The reporting standard has been raised. American society has been grappling with child sexual abuse and now expects abusers to be reported to legal authorities so society can keep track of them. The notion that the Church can take care of this privately is long gone. The hardest question is, is there an obligation to report past crimes?

Where You Stand

Ask 20 priests or religious what should be done about accused priests and you’ll get 15 opinions. Due process, priests’ rights, fairness, forgiveness and reconciliation, prudence—these all come up. Ask 20 parents what should be done and you get one opinion before all others: Protect our children.

If you sit in the pews on Sunday, you’re less likely to feel patient with priests and bishops on this one. Yes, we love our Church and pray for it to thrive. No, we will not put up with child endangerment. Period.

Laity wonder: When will all of our childless, celibate leaders figure this out? Protection of children must come first, second and third in the way we run our parishes and other institutions. How else can we be true to the gospel?

Hiding molesting priests from the law over these many years—even if bishops thought they were cured—was a colossal mistake. Now blameless priests and their parishes are suffering in the growing hysteria.

Teachers, doctors, nurses and others in regular contact with children are required by law to report any child abuse to legal authorities. And, in these professions, if one is accused of child molestation, immediate, paid suspension is common, while allegations are investigated. The protection of children demands that we err on the side of safety. Why shouldn’t all our priests and bishops abide by these same rules that many already follow? It would help restore trust and morale.

In the case of old crimes, a victim’s right to privacy ought to be honored. Victims should not be damaged further by unwanted publicity. If a victim wants to go public, Church authorities should be supportive.

Facing the Future

There’s good news at the time of this writing. National media surveys indicate that the vast majority of Catholics still love their Church. They want accountability, though. A random poll of 1,000 Americans by ABC News in February found that 75 percent of Catholics surveyed want child-molesting priests turned over to legal authorities. A March phone survey of 1,000 Catholics by Syracuse’s LeMoyne College found 85 percent saying the same.

We hate to see our priesthood dragged through the muck by local and national media, and that surely is what will happen with each disclosure. But the cost of the cover-up is too high. It’s time we got our priorities straight.

A seminarian interviewed on Nightline in March incorrectly said of seminarians, “We are the future of the Church.” In truth, we all are the future of the Church, and we all are suffering from the scandals. The idea that the clergy are somehow a privileged, more essential group got us into this fix in the first place.

To the degree that our priests and bishops stay close to the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people, we will get through this and face a positive future together.   —J.B.F.  

Visit our special new feature on clergy sexual abuse.

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