Wanted: ministry to priest-abusers
Throughout the sad history of the sex-abuse scandal, the main focus of public concern has understandably been the victims: both the real victims who have suffered and the potential victims who must be protected. But what about the perpetrators? We can say that they are guilty of serious crimes, that they should be punished, that they should never again be trusted around children. All perfectly true.
But what we cannot say, if we are Christians, is that the abusers should be despised, or that they should be treated as something less than human beings. Yes, they have also been guilty of serious sin. But as sinners they need the help of the Church.
So I was dismayed to hear this report from a CWN reader:
I work with a number of Catholic priests in prison for sexual abuse and none of them has ever been contacted by their bishops or fellow priests. I wonder if their bishops ordered priests not to contact priests in prison. Many have been abandoned by family, friends, brother priests, and their bishops. How sad.
I wish that I could say that I find this report hard to believe. Unfortunately I cannot; it jibes with what I have heard and seen too often. Priests who are accused of abuse, and insist on their innocence, regularly tell me that after they have been suspended from ministry, their dioceses seem to forget about them. They are left in limbo for months, for years, waiting for an opportunity to answer the charges. Often their cases boil down to one man’s word against another—the accuser vs. the accused—and the diocese has no reliable way to reach a judgment. The diocese might face a storm of negative publicity if a priest who might be guilty is reinstated, whereas an unhappy priest who is sidelined by a false accusation cannot make much noise. So the accused priest remains suspended.
Victims’ groups can compound the problem by blurring the distinction between an accusation and a conviction. SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) in particular has demanded punitive action against priests who have been accused of misconduct, without properly differentiating between those who have been found guilty and those who have been charged—and for that matter, without looking carefully into the merits of the charges. Just last month the director of SNAP cynically denied that the group had made false allegations against a St. Louis priest—on the ground that SNAP merely publicized accusations made by someone else.
My correspondent, who reports the abandonment of jailed priests, clarifies that she is speaking of priests who have been convicted, and in most cases have admitted, their misconduct. They deserve punishment for their criminal behavior. Yet they are not irretrievably lost souls. If they have not yet repented, they need to be converted. If they have taken that necessary first step, they need help to atone and to amend their lives. As do we all.
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