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On child sex abuse, when will bishops get it?

Twelve years have passed since NCR revealed to the wider world that some Catholic priests were betraying their priesthood in the most heinous way, by sexually abusing children.

One might reasonably expect that by now the scandal would have been subdued, that church leaders would have done everything necessary to rekindle the trust of the everyday Catholic and to reclaim the church and the priesthood for the pursuit of holiness.

Instead, we have had 12 years of bishops and others, with a few notable exceptions, doing what was minimally required, too often driven by legal and financial imperatives rather than by justifiable outrage at the violation of innocence and by heartfelt pastoral care for the victims.

The most recent proof that church leaders still don't get it, that they just don't understand how deeply this scandal continues to wound, was the trial that ended in a record $119.6 million judgment against the Dallas diocese. (See pages 6 and 7 of this issue and NCR's Aug. 1 issue.)

Before going any deeper into the horrors of the case, it is essential to point to Fr. Robert Williams, one example of outstanding courage and compassion in this sordid affair. He did what was right.

Williams became aware that fellow priest Rudolph "Rudy" Kos was abusing youngsters. He repeatedly warned diocesan officials of his suspicions and detailed what he knew about Kos luring young boys into his quarters at the rectory of St. John's Church in Ennis, Texas. He wrote a 12-page letter to Bishop Charles Grahmann, detailing the accusations against Kos. Finally, he testified against the diocese. After the trial he said, "There has been a failure of responsibility by the leadership of this diocese."

Compare his actions with those who were supposed to be leading the church in Dallas. Given the testimony during the 11-week trial, the only reasonable conclusion one can reach is that both retired Dallas Bishop Thomas Tschoepe and his successor, Grahmann, refused to deal with a sexual predator who had been repeatedly brought to their attention and who was clearly under their control.

Their inaction is its own crime, an outrage against the victims that adds the weight of another layer of scandal onto the wider church.

It is unfortunate that there is no way to hold Grahmann and Tschoepe accountable, that the church has no mechanism for leveling a sanction against such egregious bad faith and gross negligence.

Those among the hierarchy who are so ready to chase out loyal laity, who gasp in horror at the prospect of altar girls and lay eucharistic ministers, who niggle endlessly over inclusive language and who assert their authority by requiring congregations to kneel during the consecration, ought to be spending their time chasing down the real assaults against the body of Christ.

It is long past time to abandon the silly and lame approaches used by the nation's hierarchy in addressing this awful issue. The church is long ago discredited in its reasoning that the scandal involves but "a few bad apples."

The bishops' various spokesmen claim both that the media is constantly overstating the issue and that no means exist for determining the dimensions of the crisis. It is a ploy worthy of a second-rate politician caught in a jam, not men who claim the mantle of spiritual leaders.

But pity the spokesmen, too, for they are charged with answering for a body of bishops that steadfastly refuses to deal openly and honestly with a scandal that is tearing apart the fabric of the church.

Whether the number of priests who are sexual abusers is the same as the number in other helping professions -- as some claim in an effort to somehow soften the impact -- is irrelevant. It is clear that priests throughout the country, in a pattern repeated in numbing fashion, have brutalized children who trusted them.

It is time for church leaders to act as leaders and to stop hiding behind lawyers and further abusing good people who have already been victimized.

Parents need to heed the warnings of one of the attorneys in the Dallas case. In essence, the warning goes, Don't abandon your best instincts just because it's the parish priest who wants to hold an overnight or take your youngster on an attractive vacation. Don't presume the rectory is the safest place for your youngsters to be spending their time. Those are tough words, but our children are worth the caution.

Eleven years ago Fr. Thomas Doyle, once assigned to the apostolic nunciature in Washington, told a group of canon lawyers that the sex abuse crisis "is the most serious problem the church has faced in centuries."

He has since been marginalized, his career sent way off the track. He was correct then, and the truth hasn't changed since.

National Catholic Reporter, August 15, 1997