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The church must come to terms

February 5, 2002

As late as last July, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston was still denying that he shuffled any child-molesting priests from one parish to another without bothering to inform parishioners that a proven sexual predator was on the way. “Never was there an effort on my part to shift a problem from one place to the next,” the cardinal wrote in his local Catholic newspaper.Not true. Within a year of arriving as archbishop of Boston in 1984, Law shuffled Father John Geoghan to yet another parish. By this time Geoghan had been abusing children for 22 years, and Cardinal Law and his officials knew all about it. But nobody told Geoghan’s new parishioners at St. Julia’s. After abusing more children there, he was removed for treatment, then was assigned once again to St. Julia’s, where he preyed on and raped more children. Court allegations say he abused 130 or more children before finally being defrocked in 1998.

A lot of information is now on the table because some of Geoghan’s victims won legal access to the archdiocese’s files on pedophile priests and The Boston Globe convinced the courts to make those records public. Among the revelations is that the archdiocese, to avoid public scandal, paid off victims of at least 70 pedophile priests in the past 10 years.

Presumably other victims and other newspapers around the country will use the same legal tactics to dig out files on dangerous priests. So the whole story is likely to come out soon. Cardinal Law has promised to report sexual complaints about priests to police. Other bishops will come under pressure to do the same, so the whole culture of silence and the private handling of sex-abuse cases may be ready to crumble.

Arguments among Catholics will surely escalate. In general the Catholic left thinks the celibacy rule and the church’s patriarchal structure are the culprits. The Catholic right is more protective of celibacy, but thinks the rule has become an attractive shield behind which homosexual pedophiles can enter the church structure and operate freely.

Somewhere in the middle are Catholic psychologists and psychiatrists who think the church does a poor job of screening candidates for the priesthood, and may have set standards much too low when vocations to the priesthood began to plunge in the late ’70s. In this view, the church needs a greater effort to weed out sexually immature and psychologically damaged applicants.

The most astonishing aspect of the scandal is that by the mid-1980s the Catholic bishops knew the problem they faced, but have essentially declined to do much of anything about it ever since. In 1984, the National Catholic Reporter broke the story of the nation’s first major pedophile scandal to involve an American priest, Father Gilbert Gauthe of Lafayette, La.

This was around the time that psychiatric evidence on pedophiles was falling into place: Most pedophiles aren’t people who slip now and then; they are career predators who will never stop. Concern led to a careful secret report on the priest-pedophile problem and how to frame a national policy to cope with it. It was prepared for the bishops, but they refused to accept it.One of the few small reforms since then was installed in Chicago by the late Cardinal Joseph Bernadin. He set up a nine-member board to investigate sexual abuse charges against priests. Only three of the nine could be priests themselves. The remaining six were Catholic laymen and laywomen and had to include one victim of previous priest abuse and one parent of a child victim. This structure prevented the clergy, bonded by training and common experience, from controlling investigations of their own.

A greater role for ordinary Catholics may be part of the reform that must come. All churches have pedophile problems, but scandals tend to be rarer in Protestant churches because leaders of congregations vet the candidates before they are called. They ask why he or she left the previous post and under what conditions. Catholic parishioners may now seek a similar role in checking out new priests before they are named.

The sad truth is that the bishops have spent a great deal of time and money on damage control and image-making, with very little attention to the severe damage renegade priests are inflicting on the young. When a diocesan official shows up at the home of an abused child, all too often the goal is to deflect attention from the crime and talk the parents into concern for the church’s loss of face if the story ever got out.

Along the way, there has been some awful legal maneuvering and hairsplitting. In Bridgeport, Conn., Bishop Edward Egan, now cardinal-archbishop of New York, tried to argue that his priests were “independent contractors” working for parishes and thus not the legal responsibility of the diocese in sex-abuse cases.

What’s missing is an expression of clear and powerful moral attention to this problem. By now it’s obvious that the Catholic Church has suffered a great loss of moral authority. It can’t recoup that loss until it deals convincingly with the terrible evils wrought by its priests.

From → Religion

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