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It’s time for more than apologies

Once again, U.S. Catholics must contend with a national scandal involving the sexual abuse of children by one of our priests. The case against Fr. John J. Geoghan, a priest of the Boston archdiocese, has drawn wide attention both because of the extent of the alleged abuse -- reportedly at least 130 victims -- and the well-documented lack of action on the part of church authorities who kept reassigning the priest despite substantial warnings that he was dangerous to children.

Since the story of widespread sexual abuse by priests broke nationally in 1985 when NCR first reported on the growing dimensions of the problem, the record of the church in dealing with sexual abuse by priests and particularly in dealing with the countless young victims of that abuse has been dismal.

There has been handwringing, moving apologies, even tears. The contrition, undoubtedly, is sincere. But any resolve to get to the bottom of the crisis, to find out why priests were acting out in such a manner, has been weak at best.

Now the scandal breaks anew in Boston. In an unusual development, documents are unsealed, and they show that the perpetrator was coddled and given minimal treatment while being allowed to continue ministering -- to youngsters -- even after every prelate in the country should have known that reassigning such priests was a dangerous practice. The documents show little concern for parents making allegations or their abused children.

This is a depressingly familiar tale that gains high profile in this instance because Cardinal Bernard Law is a powerful figure in the church. Some have called for Law’s resignation. That is the cardinal’s decision and one that he apparently has decided against. Rome probably wouldn’t accept it anyway.

Not to excuse Law’s conduct in the matter and the terrible decisions he made along the way, but it is safe to say that his resignation in and of itself would not eliminate the problem. There is no accountability on the part of hierarchy in these matters. Law is probably as much victim of the ills of the clergy culture over which he presides as he is a power in that culture.

The most important question is whether Law will take this opportunity to force the church to a new level of honesty and action on this issue, a move that would take more courage than any public apology. He would have to tell his fellow bishops that it is finally time to look the sin squarely in the face, to peel back the layers of deceit and duplicity that have kept abusers protected and victims further victimized. It would take courage to dig out the corruption that has kept this scandal going for 20 years.

Experts within the clergy ranks could tell the bishops that the church is attracting inordinate numbers of seminarians who are immature and unsuitable to such a demanding calling. There are experts who will tell the bishops that the peculiar aspect of sexual abuse among priests -- as different from abuse that occurs in other helping professions -- is that children are most often the target. There are experts within the Catholic clergy ranks who could tell the bishops that this and other problems will not be solved before bishops and priests find some way to speak honestly about sexuality and the priesthood. There are plenty of experts, clergy and lay, who have researched this problem and will tell the bishops, in great detail, that the clergy sex abuse problem is a symptom of systemic ills that go much deeper and are in need of more than a passing treatment by an ad hoc committee.

All of the above information and more has been available to the bishops during the past decade and a half. Most have chosen not to listen. Most have acted primarily to protect the image and the treasury of the institution, turning a deaf ear to the victims and going the extra mile to protect the perpetrators, all the while hiding behind lawyers.

In the end they have protected nothing.

Some dioceses are nearly bankrupt paying off the victims -- and there’s no end in sight. More serious is the fact that the church has also bankrupted its credibility. It has drained the morale of most of its priests who, overworked as they are, labor under the cloud of an unending scandal.

Bishops in Boston who knew of Geoghan’s trail of abuse and did nothing to stop it now head up their own dioceses. The church, in effect, has rewarded those intimately involved with the debilitating scandal that has spread across the institution.

At the moment we are left with haunting questions: What is it in the nature of the priesthood today that fosters this lingering illness and that seeks to protect the institution at all costs? Are bishops willing to jeopardize sacraments, community, spirituality, their own authority, the church’s credibility as a teacher and evangelizer -- in a phrase, the mission of the church -- in order to protect the current configuration of the priesthood?

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002