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the sex-abuse crisis: more revelations, more misconceptions

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 07, 2011

Among the news offerings of the past weekend, three stories remind us that the ugly era of the clerical sex-abuse scandal is not nearly over.

The New York Times shines the spotlight on the Philadelphia archdiocese, where a grand jury has charged that Church leaders have allowed priests to remain in ministry despite solid evidence of abuse. The charges in Philadelphia, arising nearly a full decade after the American bishops approved the Dallas Charter, demonstrate that no policy—no words on paper—can restore trust in a hierarchy that has lost the confidence of the public.

From 2002 forward, the policies were in place to remove abusive priests from circulation. But then again, even before 2002, the provisions of canon law required bishops to protect their people from such predators. If clerical discipline was not enforced before 2002, why should the public expect the shiny new policies of the Dallas Charter to be enforced afterward?

The policies were never the problem. The problem was—and, alas, apparently still is—the people enforcing the policies. 

Next, from the Los Angeles archdiocese, comes an AP report that “dozens of former and current priests and religious brothers accused of childhood sexual abuse…now live unmonitored by civil authorities.” Here we have a common-sense reminder that if a priest is a threat to children, removing him from active ministry does not necessary remove the threat. 

A pedophile who is suspended remains a man with perverse impulses that may not be under control. If he is still a priest, and his bishop takes responsibility for monitoring his behavior, there is at least some hope that—if the bishop fulfills his duty—the priest will be kept away from children. But victims’ advocates have been pressing constantly for the Church to laicize (“defrock”) such priests. And once they are laicized, cut loose from the authority of the Church, they are no longer under anyone’s control.

The story from Los Angeles includes another disturbing reminder: the fact that a priest has been accused of sexual abuse does not necessarily mean that he is guilty. Worse, the fact that a diocese has paid out tens of thousands of dollars in a sex-abuse settlement does not mean that the accuser’s case has merit. The lawyer for the Church in Los Angeles makes the point.

The archdiocese believes, however, that many of the priests whose addresses appear on the list were wrongfully accused. The archdiocese included those clergy in the $660 million payout without admitting wrongdoing, simply to settle the claims, Hennigan said.

Victims’ advocates continue to demand a full accounting: a public disclosure of the names of all priests who have been accused. But such a policy would unfairly cast a shadow on some innocent priests who have been the victims of fraudulent charges. Once again, the solution is not a single policy that will lift all suspicion from the bishops. The solution—the only solution—is the presence of bishops who are worthy of the public trust.

From Italy, via reporters in Ireland, we have a final reminder. A priest was sentenced to a 15-year prison term for molesting children. His bishop is under scrutiny, as he should be, for failing to curb his misconduct. A victims-advocacy group is charging that the Vatican, too, bears responsibility. But it turns out that when the victims brought the priest’s tendencies to the attention of Vatican officials, they were encouraged to contact civil law-enforcement officials.

Don Ruggero was arrested almost a year later, in June 2008, but police surveillance showed he continued to abuse minors until March 2008 – nine months after the Vatican was alerted.

At the risk of pointing out the painfully obvious, let me observe that the sentence above could be revised to state that Don Ruggero was not arrested until nine months after the Italian police were—or should have been—alerted. Thus we have one more reminder of yet another unavoidable fact about the sex-abuse scandal. Victims’ advocates say that the Church should report credible accusations promptly to the attention of civil prosecutors. But even when accusations are promptly reported, there is no guarantee that police will take immediate action. Inveigh against Catholic bishops, if you like, for their failure to address the sex-abuse crisis. The criticism is probably warranted; the bishops’ performance has generally been abysmal. But rely on blanket policies, or rely on civil prosecutors, and the results might not be any better.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: mamato085337 - Mar. 09, 2011 8:40 AM ET USA

    Was it St. John Chrysotron (sp.?) who said the floor of hell is peopled with bishops?

  • Posted by: Savonarola - Mar. 08, 2011 9:54 PM ET USA

    Phil -- Instead of "sex-abuse crisis," why not refer to the ongoing scandal more completely as the "abuse-and-coverup-crisis"? As you suggest, the shiny new policies of the Dallas Charter were always about window dressing for the bishops.

  • Posted by: mdepietro - Mar. 08, 2011 12:15 AM ET USA

    The only way out of this crisis is for a significant number of Bishops to resign. ( or be removed from office by the Pope) The current groups of Bishops (with some exceptions) are so tainted by the scandal that they lack credibility on virtually every issue. This is perhaps unfair but its true. Only this kind of really dramatic move will put the scandal behind us. The church will continue to suffer until something like this occurs. Granted its unlikely, thus there will be more bleeding

  • Posted by: Marty01 - Mar. 07, 2011 11:01 PM ET USA

    these priests may have acted like Judas when they betrayed the Church, but their bishops were acting just like Peter did when he denied Our Lord. Penance, penance, penance.

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