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U.S. scandal sends warning worldwide

Since Feb. 12, the world has watched the trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic unfold at the Hague. For the first time, a head of state is being made to answer for crimes against humanity committed on his watch.

Critics may argue that any sentence meted out will be selective, since other politicians with blood on their hands remain on the loose. Nevertheless, the trial sends a warning to other dictators, that perhaps one day justice will come for them too.

Without pressing the analogy with Milosevic too far, a similar point can be made today with regard to sexual abusers within the world’s Catholic clergy, and the bishops who cover their tracks.

The tidal wave of criminal investigations and civil lawsuits cresting through the United States may, at the moment, be restricted to this country, but it sets a precedent that should make the guilty in any corner of the globe nervous.

Clerical sexual abuse has been viewed in some quarters as an “American problem” because the Anglo-Saxon world has two resources uniquely disposed to throw a spotlight on the issue. One is a system of tort law by which institutions that shelter abusers can be held accountable, the other an aggressive press that relishes the “watchdog” role of exposing cover-ups and scandals.

Yet abuse is not an “American problem” in the sense that it happens exclusively, or even primarily, in the United States. In recent weeks, we have watched as Archbishop Juliusz Paetz of Poznan in Poland resigned under the weight of accusations of sexual abuse of seminarians (charges Paetz has denied). We have seen a French bishop given a three month suspended jail sentence for protecting an abuser priest, and a popular Irish bishop resigned for the same reason.

Last March, NCR broke the story of the sexual abuse of nuns by priests, a problem with a global scope but that seems especially pronounced in Africa. The reporting was based on a set of confidential documents written by senior members of religious communities, documenting instances of sexual abuse in 23 nations.

The documents allege that some priests exploit their financial and spiritual authority over young religious women to coerce them to have sex. In some cases, the reports indicate, this behavior has been aggravated by the AIDS crisis, with young nuns seen as “safe” targets of sexual activity. In a handful of extreme instances, according to the documentation, priests have impregnated nuns and then encouraged them to have abortions.

By and large, local bishops have looked the other way, and while the Vatican is working behind the scenes on policies concerning the formation and oversight of women’s communities, it has not demanded an aggressive effort to weed out abuser priests.

In at least one case, an African bishop actually dismissed the entire leadership team of a women’s congregation that complained about the sexual abuse of its members by priests.

Right now, most of these priests and bishops are, effectively, beyond the reach of the law. There are no lawsuits to file and local authorities are often reluctant to open criminal procedures.

But as the crescendo of litigation in the United States builds, and as bishops begin to face criminal indictments for their failure to stop abuse, it is difficult to imagine that priests and prelates elsewhere will remain immune forever.

Abusers and the bishops who shelter them, no matter where they are, should take a long look at the United States today. Their day too will come.

National Catholic Reporter, April 19, 2002