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Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal in the present, not the past

I am not a member of the Catholic Church. However, my wife and 5 children are practicing Catholics. So, our family has a vested interest in what happens to the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church has repeatedly tried to explain away its history of sexual abuse as a lamentable but distant part of its past. Yes, that was wrong, officials say, but it was a different time and we have changed.

Catholic America was already in shock, and then another hammer-blow fell. Two weeks after one of the country’s best-known prelates handed in his cardinal’s hat, amid allegations of molesting young men, a report has documented in sickening detail the sexual crimes that were perpetrated by over 300 priests in Pennsylvania over 70 years.

More than 1,000 children, and probably several times that number, were victims of clerical abuse that was systematically swept under the carpet, according to a judicial document of nearly 900 pages which was published on August 14th, as Catholics prepared for one of their cherished annual feasts, the Assumption of the Virgin.

The report was written by a grand jury that took around two years to investigate six of the eight dioceses in the state. They heard from dozens of witnesses and used their power to gain access to 500,000 pages of church documents.

It was righteous anger for our innocents — the hundreds of children recently revealed in a Pennsylvania grand jury report as victims of both sexual abuse and a cover-up by high-level Catholic clergy.

Like many, the Pennsylvania report has filled me with a sense of betrayal from the Catholic Church. It shows the same patterns of callousness and concealment that have become all too familiar to Catholics.

In Boston, Cardinal Bernard  Law presided over an empire of child sexual abuse and a cover-up. It was only through an investigation by The Boston Globe — fought at every step by the church — that we learned about the abuse.

The American Catholic church has struggled to cope with historical sex-abuse allegations since they exploded in the archdiocese of Boston two decades ago, and it has paid billions of dollars to victims. But the grand jury’s investigation, focusing on a state long seen as a heartland of blue-collar Catholicism, was the broadest fact-finding exercise to date.

The jurors’ grim findings follow a decision by Pope Francis to accept the resignation from the status of cardinal, pending a church trial, of Theodore McCarrick, an American cleric who is now 88. As Washington DC’s archbishop, he is remembered as a familiar, affable figure in the corridors of power. Not since the 1920s has a cardinal been stripped of his rank.

The Pennsylvania report struck an emotional note for a legal document. The jurors began with the words: “We…need you to hear this…There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic church. But never on this scale…Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”

The jurors gave many grisly examples. One priest in the diocese of Erie, in north-west Pennsylvania, had confessed to the rape of at least 15 boys, some as young as seven, only to be hailed by his bishop as a “person of candour and sincerity” who deserved praise “for the progress he had made” in controlling his “addiction”.

The jurors agree that much has changed in the past 15 years, and that the church seems far quicker to report abuse to the police. They hailed as “forthright and heartfelt” the testimony they had received, in person, from the current bishop of Erie.

Still, they found it regrettable that thanks to cynical cover-ups and a statute of limitations, it had been left too late to prosecute in the vast majority of cases. They urged Pennsylvania’s lawmakers to remove time limits for criminal cases of this sort. A recent change has made it possible for victims to come forward up to the age of 50, but that still seems too restrictive.

In their response to the report, bishops mixed deep regret for past wrongs with an insistence that things had improved, especially since 2002 when new guidelines for dealing with sex offenders were adopted. Cardinal McCarrick helped shape that new approach, but fell foul of it himself.

After that painful episode in 2002, the church could have come clean with a transparent accounting of its sins and given its victims the small mercy of acknowledging their suffering, and held those in power accountable. Instead Catholics have once again had to rely on third parties to give them an honest accounting of the horrors perpetrated by their church because the clergy did not do so.

Now, at least eight other states have launched similar investigations to Pennsylvania’s to get the answers.

There can be no forgiveness without confession. There can be no reforming without repenting. There can be no change without accountability.

Veteran newspaper journalists tend to be champion skeptics. We don’t really trust anyone unless they give us good reason to do so.

So take this as my professional opinion: I believe many in the Catholic Church, perhaps because laypeople have relatively new power, are as sickened as anyone else about the long, sordid record of abuse. It’s my impression attitudes really have changed.

Expect evidence of whether I’m right within the next year or so.

For decades, the sexual abuse by clergy was covered up. Sometimes, predator priests were caught, subjected to the church’s rehabilitation process, then shipped elsewhere —too often to harm other children.

As one thoughtful observer reminded me, a good deal of that happened because, for many years, the “experts” assured us they could treat and cure sexual predators. They were wrong.

But predator priests and church officials who let them off the hook had many allies. One reason youthful victims kept their silence was that they feared, often with good reason, that no one would believe them. Who believes a kid, often with a record of emotional challenges, who accuses a man of God of wrongdoing?

How many parents were told, only to tell their children to stop lying about good old Father X?

How many kids didn’t tell parents because they feared that would be the reaction?

And how many people, even now, view exposing predator priests as some sort of attack on the church? That, to put it bluntly, is a sick attitude.

My anger is formed not by an animus against the Catholic Church but by a love and faith in God. Throughout my life, I have sought out counsel and theological insight from devoted clergy. We all know that the Pennsylvania report does not indict all clergy nor stain their good works.

Even so, faced anew with another crisis, Catholics sense of betrayal combined with their love of church demands action. They cannot simply sit patiently in the pews and expect change. The Vatican recently instructed the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to delay its sex abuse reform proposals. No action is currently scheduled.

Any new procedures are only as reliable as the institutions we entrust to implement them. If we do not demand accountability from the clergy, it will happen again. This demands action by the faithful — the laity. The required change will be achieved only when those of us in the pews stand up, make our voices heard, and demand results.

Clearly, we must have change and more lay involvement. If not, I fear we will see many people turn from anger and betrayal to rejection and departure from the Catholic Church.

Disappointed and angered once again by the church, the people in the pews will can longer simply pray and pay. Christ compelled us by his teaching and action to risk everything for our faith.

Sweeping and smart reforms are required. Parishioners must rise up, speak up, and protect the innocent.

1 comment:

  1. Our current pastor, ordained about 2 years ago, explained to us that he had to endure 6 weeks of meetings with psychologists and testing before he was allowed into the seminary. He stated that these new requirements were formulated in the 1980's after the first rash of sexual abuse claims arose. That is why most abusers named to date entered the seminary before the new requirements for entry. However, this does not excuse the inaction or cover ups of any bishop.