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Why the Church still operates under a cloud on the abuse issue

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 04, 2017

The timing is far from perfect. As the Vatican convenes a major international conference on protecting children from abuse, there’s a shadow over the proceedings, caused by the abrupt recall of an official at the apostolic nunciature in Washington, DC. To be more specific, the focus of the conference is on the protection of children from the dangers posed by the internet, and the Vatican official, Msgr. Carlo Capella, is under investigation for involvement in child pornography.

To put things in perspective, the Vatican conference is an impressive gathering, assembling genuine experts. For that matter, the Catholic Church generally—and in American particularly—has made enormous strides in safeguarding children. We can (and do) question the design of some programs: the training sessions that seem designed to prepare children as witnesses; the background checks that treat all parish volunteers as suspects. But it is undeniably true that children are safer today in Catholic parishes than in public schools.

Yet the Church still operates under a cloud of suspicion. Why is that?

Sure, anti-Catholic prejudice plays a role here. Yet there are also logical reasons for the public distrust. I’ve been saying the same thing for 15 years now, shouting until I feel hoarse. Still, to this date, the American bishops have faced up to only part of the problem.

When the scandal broke, the American people learned to their horror that some priests had taken advantage of their privileged status to molest children. That was a horrible crime (not to mention a horrible sin). The bishops—first in the US, and now gradually throughout the world—have addressed that crime, adopting a “zero tolerance” policy that, when properly enforced, will offer the best possible assurance that predatory priests are quickly removed from ministry. The incidence of clerical abuse has plummeted. Although we still hear about accusations against priests, most date from years, even decades, ago.

But two problems remain: First, there is no effective guarantee that the policy will be enforced, nor that Church leaders will use their common sense in handling potential problems. The Chicago archdiocese, for example, ignored complaints about Father Daniel McCormack even after the Dallas Charter took effect. The archdiocese has now belatedly seen McCormack laicized, and paid several million dollars to his victims. Incidentally, the seminary rector who advocated McCormack’s ordination, despite clear signs of trouble in the seminary, became Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, who retired this week, having remained in office for a year past ordinary retirement age. Innocent children in Chicago were violated, the archdiocese was impoverished, but the people responsible for superivsing McCormack were not called to account.

Second, and closely related, the bishops still have not grappled with the calamitous loss of credibility they suffered when it emerged that dozens of bishops deliberately covered up the evidence of sexual abuse, protecting the predators and misleading the faithful. Over the years we’ve heard dozens of apologies for the abuse of children, and that’s a good. But we still, to this day, have not heard bishops apologize for the lies they told to their people.

Accountability. Transparency. Honesty. These are the qualities that the hierarchy still has not demonstrated in this crisis. So it should not be a surprise that this week’s conference at the Vatican is viewed with a certain amount of skepticism.

Msgr. Capella was recalled to Rome when law-enforcement officials in Washington began to investigate his online activities. (Later we learned that officials in Canada were also interested in the case.) We are told—and I have no reason to doubt that it is true—that Vatican prosecutors are conducting their own investigation, and will press charges if the evidence warrants. But there was an alternative: the Vatican could have allowed American prosecutors to press their own charges, thereby avoiding any suspicion of a cover-up.

The Vatican had every right, under international law, to recall a diplomatic agent rather than revoking his immunity. But was it a wise choice? Vatican prosecutors will, I am sure, press their investigation energetically. But is the world convinced of their commitment? Sometimes, when the credibility of an individual or institution has been badly compromised, special steps must be taken to restore public confidence.

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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