Clergy Sexual Abuse
and the Catholic Church

Put Our Children First

The following editorial on clergy sexual abuse is from St. Anthony Messenger:

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 the sexual abuse problem 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 that problems identified since the bishops' "great awakening" of the 1980s and early 90s were still unresolved.

Then diocese after diocese from New York to Los Angeles announced changes in policies that were supposedly fixed 10 years 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 all crimes of the past?

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.

An old saying goes, where you stand on an issue often depends upon where you sit. And if you sit in the pews on Sunday, if you're shelling out hard-earned dollars to pay Catholic school tuition or parish tithing, you're less likely to feel patience toward 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.

After the raft of new disclosures began, some clerical advocates raised concerns that priests' rights were being trampled--that people were being convicted before they were tried. One of the 10 Boston priests barred from ministry--the only one who denies molesting minors--commented, "All of us are going to be fed to the wolves."

In his case we may never know who is telling the truth. Yet, on the whole, it's hard not to think of the fable of the wolf in sheep's clothing. Who are the wolves here? Who are the sheep? Where are some of these shepherds when we need them?

Painful Choice
Yes, we all are being fed to the wolves on this one. Hiding molesting priests from the law over these many years--even if bishops thought they were cured--only to have them all come into the light at once, was a colossal mistake. Now blameless priests are suffering in the growing mood of hysteria. Some will seek well-deserved retirement rather than face the distrusting masses. Our parishes will suffer. How in the world will we recruit priests in this climate?

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 molestation, immediate, paid suspension is the norm, while allegations are investigated. The protection of children demands that we err on the side of safety. Why shouldn't all of 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 by the Church. Why should someone 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 1000 Catholics by 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 important class got us into this fix in the first place.

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

The preceding editorial, in a slightly shorter form, will be published in the May edtion of St. Anthony Messenger. We are taking the unusual step of publishing it in advance of the print edition because of the urgent, widespread concern about clergy sexual abuse cases and how the Church is responding. The author, John Bookser Feister, is editor of He also serves as an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine.

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