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
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 usedas
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 standardsthough in some cases it
Jenkins builds a strong case
that sex abuse is probably not higher among Catholic clergy than among any other
part of the populationit just makes a better story. Oh, that he would have
devoted more attention to one glaring point: the cover-ups that leave our children
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, prudencethese 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 yearseven if bishops
thought they were curedwas 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
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
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.
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