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It was impossible to keep the scandal hidden forever, particularly in a household where the day’s headlines are a natural part of family conversation. Not when three older siblings were asking questions and dealing with the jolts to their young belief systems.

My wife and I, back in the ’80s when the priest sex abuse scandal was first breaking, dealt in the same explanations that countless other Catholic parents labored with to explain what was going on: Priests were only human and they can make mistakes, even serious ones; it was only a few priests; just be careful and know that no one, no adult, not even a priest, has the right to ask you to do something you know is wrong; we mustn’t judge all priests by the behavior of a few.

The older kids got the message. Anyway, they never expected such horror to visit them. And they judged priests cool or weird on their own terms.

Inasmuch as any of them, as adults, care about the sex abuse story or the church at large, I am fairly certain that all of them, giving individual priests the benefit of the doubt, wonder when the church intends to do something about the crisis.

But what about James, the youngest? He was born in 1984, and most of his association with the church has had the cloud of that scandal associated with it. He has had good encounters with good men as priests. But the story continues to test that trust, the inconsistency of it all and the hypocrisy of the institution in dealing with it to date.

So I ask: Bishops, what have you to say to this 17-year-old? What credible word of assurance? What believable word of apology? What actions to back up your public sorrow over this awful mess?

The real tragedy of this story in my everyday world, the one away from the newspaper, is the awful realization that 17 years into this scandal I can’t point my youngest son in the direction of one leader, one bishop or cardinal, who has exhibited courage in confronting this crisis. I can’t show him one example, in the ranks of the hierarchy, of true apology, a public apology made before the sex abuse stories hit Page 1.

I can’t point him to an instance where the overture to a victim and his family came before the resort to lawyers and press office obfuscations.

The tragedy now is that 17 years into this story, with the seemingly endless revelations beginning to include bishop abusers, not one leader among them has come forward and told his fellow bishops: Enough! This can go on no longer!

Our dinner conversation has turned to other matters. This story of abuse is old and discouraging. We no longer need to repeat the explanations or arguments.

Next Sunday, we’ll be in church again. James, too. So will the good priests, who seem wearier with each new week of headlines.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002