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Sure, blame the bishops. But don't just blame the bishops

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 17, 2009

If you know my work at all, you know that I’m not inclined to defend bishops who cover up for predatory priests. The bishops of Dublin have been under heavy critical fire in the past few weeks; they richly deserve the criticism. Bishop Donal Murray has been forced to resign, and that’s a good thing. I hope more resignations are forthcoming. It’s a disgrace that so many American bishops are still in office, years after their reprehensible conduct was exposed.

Still, having said all that, I must confess that this bit of reporting—from an AP story on Bishop Murray’s resignation—threw me for a loop:

Police and social workers charged with stopping child abuse didn't start getting cooperation from the church until 1995. This opened the floodgates to thousands of abuse complaints expected to cost the Dublin Archdiocese millions of euros.

True, Church leaders did not cooperate with civil authorities in the past. That much has been clearly established. The bishops have been disgraced, and rightly so. But let me ask a question:

How many police and social workers asked for the Church’s cooperation?

Maybe Dublin is completely unlike the American cities and towns that I’ve studied. But I doubt it. In the US, I’ve heard and read scores of reports about police chiefs who agreed to keep quiet about a priest’s misconduct, as a favor to the local pastor or the bishop. There were countless tacit understandings that the police would let the bishop patrol his own clergy. The police and the social workers didn't want to know-- didn't want to act. I’ve spoken with chancery officials who received the late-night phone calls from the police dispatcher, asking the bishop or his appointed agent to come pick up Father X, who was caught—again—in a sweep of gay prostitutes. Charges were not filed; everything was kept quiet.

This isn’t an excuse for the bishops; they betrayed their responsibilities. But the police officers who failed to arrest criminals, and declined to investigate reports of priestly misconduct, betrayed their responsibilities as well. And let’s remember: many of the police chiefs who winked and nodded and looked the other way—just like the bishops who winked and nodded and looked the other way—are still in office today.    


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: JimKcda - Dec. 21, 2009 11:48 AM ET USA

    It's good to see your criticism directed towards the Police CHIEFS and not towards all police OFFICERS. Many officers who encountered such crimes involving priests were ordered by their politically savvy CHIEFS to let the priests off. As an interesting side effect, many police officers, their spouses & families quit the church and/or lost their faith. All this, to preserve the reputation of the Church, Bishop and the offending (criminal) priest. Apparently just "collateral damage" to the Bishop!