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Sex abuse scandal: Time for a full accounting

In 1985, reporting on the troubling pattern of sexual abuse by priests and subsequent pattern of cover-ups by bishops, NCR editors urged that church authorities develop means to protect children from predator priests and that they swiftly act to restore trust between the clergy and laity.

In 1988, we again urged church authorities to take action to end the spreading scandal, taking four specific steps:

First, we called for a full disclosure of the facts. We asked the bishops to share these openly.

Second, we called upon the bishops to identify and remove from pastoral service all ministers who had been convicted of pedophilia offenses or who otherwise had compromised the trust that is the hallmark of their ministries

Third, we called upon the bishops to develop a national policy that would respond to the legitimate needs of victims and their families.

Fourth, we encouraged the bishops to avoid relying on the advice of lawyers and seeing the problem through strictly legal eyes. In the final analysis, we said this is a moral issue that cries out for moral and pastoral answers.

Sadly, 14 years later, we are still dealing with the pedophilia crisis -- and our calls have gone unheeded at great spiritual, moral and financial loss to the church.

For nearly two decades a strikingly counterproductive church response has been the norm. It insists on a strategy designed primarily to protect the institution and its priests. It is a strategy that has come at untold costs, breaking sacred bonds of trust between clergy and laity while alienating countless numbers from the church.

It has been a policy void of Christian compassion, failing to make the victims of sex abuse the primary focus of concern.

Further, by adopting a legal posture and abandoning the church’s normal pastoral instincts, the bishops have paid dearly -- in terms of their own credibility and the credibility of their priests. By transferring priests from one assignment to the next while ignoring the plight of their victims, the bishops have kept the scandal simmering, allowing it to boil over time and again.

Now, under the hot, bright lights of the East Coast media, church authorities look bewildered and panicked as they attempt to show they are dealing with the issue in solid fashion. Where they once shielded priests, they now feel compelled to rush to the other extreme, providing no access to due process for them either in the church or the courts (see story, Page 3).

By any measure, the apologies from church leaders like Cardinals Bernard Law in Boston and Anthony Bevilacqua in Philadelphia are too little and too late. Apologies that are exacted in the face of court actions, while seemingly heartfelt, are woefully inadequate.

These long-overdue apologies leave many wondering if they would have been offered were it not for the public attention given the pedophilia cases by the Boston court system and news media. Law and Bevilacqua could have made a profound difference had they provided the necessary pastoral leadership on these matters many years ago.

Catholics and others await a needed study of the priesthood by experts, inside and outside the church, to explain the causes of pedophilia in order to root it out.

There is little doubt that Law and Bevilacqua and the other bishops want to end the scandal. They want to restore their moral credibility. They want to look after the spiritual needs of the faithful. But these steps will take more than apologies and statements of new resolve to catch offending priests. More thorough actions are needed. As starters, Catholics have the right to know:

  • The number of priests involved nationwide in the sex abuse scandal.
  • The number of victims abused as children by priests.
  • The amount of money the church has spent to settle cases of abuse.

Studies aimed at understanding this phenomenon in the priesthood are needed so that the church can address its root causes. The results of such studies, sponsored by the bishops, must be shared openly with pledges to take the necessary steps to restore health to the priesthood.

The clergy culture may be, as Eugene Kennedy writes (see cover story), in deep trouble. Whatever the future holds, the Catholic community will not move beyond this problem with any degree or certainty or health without a full reckoning. Fearless and thorough examination is called for. Only with such openness, honesty and transparency can trust be restored.

National Catholic Reporter, March 8, 2002