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In Fargo, it’s a sin if you can file a lawsuit over it


At last the problem of pedophilia among the priests is being addressed and will be solved early in the new millennium.

I saw the first real ray of hope in the brilliant theological innovation by the Bishop James Sullivan of Fargo, N.D. He had some of his employees sign a covenant that they had not committed and would not commit a specific series of sins. He then listed 14 sins that would cost one employment. Eight of them were about sex, the usual preoccupation of moral theologians. He listed things like pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, getting and being gotten pregnant outside of marriage. Then he added several other non-sexual sins, like embezzlement and drunk driving. Then he added a telltale breakthrough phrase, “and the like.” (See NCR, July 16 and 30.)

If you’re a moral theologian with Aristotelian categories always gentle on your mind, you begin to wonder. How is drunk driving like embezzlement like being gotten pregnant? How is voyeurism like embezzlement (one is exposure, the other dreads it, for example)? What moral theology category is crucial enough to cost your job?

Then I saw the breakthrough. The implicit category is “sins the bishop can be sued for.” That’s why selling arms to terrorists, environmental degradation and insider trading were not listed. They are nasty, wounding the Body of Christ, but they do not render the bishop fiscally vulnerable.

The bishop of Fargo has made the necessary connection between sin and money that will ultimately free the church from the demoralizing spectacle of being sued for sexual misbehavior. The bishop’s radical insight is that pedophilia should not be seen as a sexual problem; it’s a financial one.

Sullivan’s people were still too influenced by traditional moral categories so he had to change his policy, but his category of fiscal vulnerability will stand the test of time and Rome. Financial problems admit of financial solutions. Even -- perhaps especially -- pedophilia.

All we have to do is learn from our religious brethren. Protestant (and I suppose Buddhist and Jewish) clergy have the same percentage of pedophiles as do Catholic clergy. This is fairly common knowledge. But they don’t get sued. We do.

The reason is not moral, but fiscal. Bishops concentrate all the wealth of hundreds of parishes in one place. Concentrated wealth draws lawyers like honey does flies.

Put yourself in a poor, struggling lawyer’s position. Two victims of sexual abuse come to you. You have the choice of suing the First Baptist Church, where all of the victim’s friends still live and where 300 families have their religious wealth concentrated. As a lawyer, you know you might get $100,000 if they have insurance. And you have to fight the insurance lawyers for that. Besides, your victim takes the money from his or her friends and companions. Not pretty.

Your other choice is to sue a diocese with the concentrated wealth of 40,000 families in 50 parish communities, and you have a chance for a multi-million dollar settlement from a faceless diocese, insurance or not. If you are fiscally alert, you can think “niche marketing.” You can specialize! There must be other victims. Now we’re talking class action. Zeros dance, making you legally eager.

So all the bishops have to do is decentralize the money. Give it back to the parishes, perhaps some to the poor. Most bishops are fiscally conservative; they could call it a tax break like the Republicans. Their motto would be “anybody but the lawyers.” Catholics would rally around this policy.

Some bishops already know this. I know of one bishop of a poverty-stricken diocese who, after careful scrutiny, will hire back rehabilitated pedophiles and does so because he cannot be sued. He doesn’t have the money, so he is free to use traditional moral categories of responsibility, compassion and pastoral judgment.

Poverty is the best possible protection against lawyers. The bishops, in the best of the Catholic tradition, could declare poverty a virtue “as the church has always taught.” Only the lawyers could expose the bishops’ real motives and they wouldn’t because there’s no money it.

Clarence Thomson is a retired theologian who occasionally teaches at the University of Missouri at Kansas City Law School.

National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 1999