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Suspend Them All! May 10, 2002

The bleakest year in the history of the Church in America began with revelations about the repeated acts of pedophilia by one Boston priest. As January ended and February began, Catholics were horrified to learn that this serial pedophile had been shuttled by his knowing superiors from parish to parish, and that 90 priests in Boston alone may have committed this most base of sins. As February turned into March, almost every day brought reports of the suspension of priests for similar misconduct, in diocese after diocese across the land. But the worst was still to come.

On March 7, the bishops of Florida denounced sexual abuse as "both criminal and sinful." That strong statement left readers unprepared for what was immediately to follow. On March 8, newspapers reported that one of the bishops who had signed the statement had admitted his own scandalous behavior toward a teenage seminarian.

To review the facts: A 13-year-old seminarian, molested by two priests, visited his seminary rector (Father--now Bishop--Anthony O’Connell) to plead for help. The rector, recounted the victim,

… said he was trying to help me come to terms with myself, with adolescence, confusion about my sexuality. And in order to try to help me come to terms with my own body, he ultimately took me to bed with him. No clothes. We were naked. Bodies up against each other. The rector repeated these actions three or four times over the next two years.

DEFENDING THE INDEFENSIBLE

To his credit, Bishop O’Connell immediately admitted the "essential accuracy" of the ex-seminarian’s account, confessed to similar behavior with another young seminarian, took responsibility for his actions, publicly expressed his contrition, and resigned. Still, at the press conference in which he made public his resignation, he also made some troubling statements. For example, he denied that he had been guilty of any sexual abuse, saying "there was nothing in this relationship that was anything other than touch."

Furthermore, Bishop O'Connell did not--and probably could not--explain why he accepted the appointment to become Bishop of Palm Beach, after the previous Bishop, Keith Symons, had resigned in disgrace because of his sexual misconduct. In accepting the appointment, Bishop O'Connell had failed to tell the papal nuncio about his past behavior--a particularly shocking omission, considering that he had already reached a legal settlement in a case brought by the young seminarian he had abused. Bishop O'Connell told reporters: "The papal nuncio at the time said, ‘You have the gifts we're looking for.’ I had to agree with him; I had those gifts." He seemed oblivious to the fact that the most important gifts a bishop can bring to his diocese are a life of personal virtue and a firm dedication to the spiritual welfare of those he serves.

Nevertheless, if the bishop's public statements were disquieting, the reaction from the priests of Palm Beach was much worse. On March 10, local newspapers reported that 100 priests of the diocese had signed a petition urging Bishop O'Connell to retract his resignation. There are only 141 priests connected with the diocese. The greatest scandal of all--greater than serial pedophilia, greater than the shuffling of pedophiles, greater than the bishop’s transgressions--is the fact that 70 percent of the priests in this diocese did not think that repeated homosexual activity with teenage boys, compounded by the failure to recognize the gravity of those actions, disqualifies a man from being a bishop. Is it possible for the laity of Palm Beach to ignore their priests' tolerance of a sin so grave that Scripture and the Catechism teach it cries out to heaven for vengeance?

A MODEST PROPOSAL

But even this scandal could have a silver lining. When many of the signatories discovered that their names might be published in the local newspapers, they cried out in protest; they didn’t want their parishioners to know. In other words, they were ashamed. Shame isn’t the best motive for conversion, but it's a start.

Let us, then, propose a simple remedy for this grave scandal. The next Bishop of Palm Beach should round up those 100 priests who, and suspend them all. They could be allowed to offer Mass and distribute Communion, but for their good and the good of the laity, forbid them to preach, teach, hold pastorates or chancery positions, and hear confessions. There are only 48 parishes in Palm Beach; cluster them and appoint as pastors only those priests who had the basic theological and moral sense not to sign the petition. Suspended priests who wished to be restored to their full faculties could then be asked to give evidence that they had acquired a basic moral and theological grounding that includes a horror for the grave sin of homosexual activity.

This most horrific of scandals occurred during the middle of Lent. The first reading of the Ash Wednesday Mass calls Catholics to fast and weep (Joel 2:12), and Catholic Americans have wept this Lent as never before. That same chapter also calls us to dream dreams (verse 28). So we dare to dream of a day when it is manifest to all that a majority of priests do not tolerate homosexual acts.

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