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Not the time to hide behind legal advice


Who is responsible for the stunted lives of the young men and women caught in the tangle of lies and deceit spread by men they were brought up to trust in all things? It would seem that, as yet, few are willing to take full and appropriate responsibility for the sexual abuse of our children, despite all the publicity, dialogue, confrontations and meetings.

The leaders of our church in the United States have, at least, called for repentance and reconciliation, both of which are sorely needed. But in order to repent, one has to take responsibility for one’s actions, and in order to be reconciled, all sides must commit to some level of trust and openness with each other. Compromise is needed, a willingness to negotiate honestly, with the overwhelming desire being the welfare of those abused.

Sadly, I do not see this happening in recent weeks. Instead, there is still an atmosphere of evasion and denial, of defensiveness and equivocation and, most recently, of counter-accusation. The Catholic church and its leaders are not, unfortunately, the first to fall into the trap of passing the buck and blaming the victim in order to avoid responsibility.

Whether this was or is the intention is not the point. The impression that is being given is that we are, for some reason, hiding behind legal equivocation and smoke and mirrors. But whether any cardinal or bishop is guilty of any breach, moral or otherwise, is, arguably at this late date, almost immaterial.

As the head of a diocese in this country, are they not responsible, at least morally, for whatever takes place, for any acts or failures to act, that cause scandal? Theirs is the voice of the church, not just that of an individual, and their acts or failures to act, are those of the church as well. Is this not what has always been taught?

What is taking place is familiar. I encounter it regularly as a professor with students who seem incapable of taking responsibility for their behavior and try to blame the professor, other students, anyone and everyone but themselves when they do poorly.

We see the same pattern in the political arena, from presidents through Congress on down, as political leaders deny accountability for actions and their impact on others. It is rampant in the world of corporate America where accountants and CEOs attempt to hide behind a fog of half-truths and denials, doing anything and everything that will lead to someone else being left with the blame, the pain and/or the shame.

I am deeply saddened, however, to see my church apparently hiding behind a similar smokescreen of its own creation. As a former civil attorney, I understand clearly the legal wisdom behind the move to countersue the victims of priests’ sexual abuse. Granted, there are certainly a few out there who are taking advantage of the present climate to bring spurious allegations in the hope of a windfall. God will certainly judge them.

However, if the facts we are receiving from various sources, including the church’s own archival files, are at all accurate, then it must be acknowledged that the majority of these cases are not spurious but are efforts by deeply hurt men and women seeking, perhaps in the only way that seems possible to them, to have critical attention brought to the scandal of abuse that has festered in our midst for so many decades.

Attention must be paid. Yet, for the most part, what most victims and their parents have received is the equivalent of a cloak and dagger affair. Everything is hidden; no admissions of guilt are made or required; a quick settlement is made accompanied by the requirements of silence. The church’s response was and continues to be, in too many ways, a cover-up that seems, incredibly, to ignore or refuse to acknowledge the injuries, psychological, emotional, spiritual and physical, suffered by the young men and women caught in the sticky web of deceit fostered by this kind of behavior.

I understand the lawyers’ attitude, but they have not been entrusted with the souls of the faithful. Are we really going to allow these men and women who are already victims to be victimized yet again? To countercharge negligence on the part of parents who entrusted their children to the care of priests and religious of the church is certainly viable legally but just as certainly not morally. It inflicts further harm, clouds the issues even further and, in the long run, will only further damage the credibility of the church and its leaders. Surely this is not the time to hide behind lawyers or to excuse our actions because they are or were based on legal advice. As people of God, we answer to a higher court. For these men of God, the question once again should not simply be how do we get out of this mess, which we have somehow created, with the least costs.

The Roman Catholic church, the infinite body of Christ, will remain long after the institution, the buildings, artworks, cathedrals and all else have crumbled into dust. As a faith-filled Catholic, I would be more than willing to help contribute to fund-raising efforts to rebuild our churches, to refurbish the schools and rectories, to do whatever is needed to help the church recover physically and fiscally. But only when I see the leaders of my church come out into the open, acknowledge their own human failings, seek forgiveness and rededicate themselves, in company with all of the faithful, to the renewal of faith that is so badly needed in our church today.

I’m sure I would be joined by many other faithful Catholics. Would not such actions be an incredible sign of God’s presence and action in our midst? Of course, that may mean the financial burden of settlements in the millions of dollars; that may mean the sale of church property, cardinals and bishops moving out of their residences and into community with their priests and religious, male and female, and other belt-tightening moves. But it would also be the right thing, the just thing, the moral thing to do. To do otherwise, as we seem intent upon, serves only to create further scandal, further pain, further loss of faith.

Let us pray for our bishops, that they will be touched by the Holy Spirit as they come together in June. Let us pray for all of the faithful and especially those touched in any way by these unfolding events. This is a time of trial and tribulation for the American church, but it can also be a time of renewal and strengthening, a paradoxical blessing by a paradoxical God.

Once again, Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” He did not say, “Make them suffer before they are allowed into my presence.” The children, their parents, and so many of the faithful, as well as our priests and religious, have suffered and continue to suffer. Is it not time to stand up and walk forth in faith, speaking the truth regardless of the consequences, knowing that Jesus truly walks with us, guiding us along our way, so that the suffering, on all sides, can finally end?

Diana L. Hayes is associate professor of theology at Georgetown University, Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002