National Catholic Reporter
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Inside NCR
Issue Date:  March 12, 2004

From the Editor's Desk

The accounting begins

“We are a sinful church. We are naked. Our anger, our pain, our anguish, our shame and our vulnerability are clear to the whole world. … I’m prepared to take the responsibility, and that’s something I have to live with.”

Those were the words of then-Archbishop Alphonsus Penney of Newfoundland, Canada, in 1990 on announcing his resignation after a committee that he had appointed to look into sexual abuse in his archdiocese returned a scathing assessment of his handling of the matter.

Penney did not have Vatican approval to resign. He just did so because he had come to realize that he had terribly mishandled reports of sexual abuse of children. He had failed his people as a spiritual leader. And he stepped down.

The Penney incident, in the wake of the week’s reports here on sex abuse, is instructive in a host of ways. First, it was a bishop taking responsibility, without any qualifiers or excuses, for what happened on his watch. Nowhere did he blame the press or an oversexed culture or the reforms of Vatican II or his lack of understanding of the problem or a lack of communication with his fellow prelates or the lack of understanding of sexual abuse by the social sciences of that era. People had been hurt; he had been a large reason the hurt continued. He apologized and he stepped aside.

After he resigned, he sat for a detailed interview (NCR, Aug. 10, 1990) and recounted the insights he had gained during the ordeal, not least of which was the support of people appreciative of the way he sacrificed his career for the integrity of the church.

~ ~ ~

We dedicate a significant portion of this week’s newspaper to the reports of the National Review Board, including an analysis by Joe Feuerherd, who attended the news conference and interviewed a wide range of Catholic leaders and thinkers; an in-depth look by author Jason Berry at the processes of the review board through the experience of member Pamela Hayes, a Manhattan attorney; and a commentary by Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, who, in the mid-1980s, realized the growing dimensions of the priest sex-abuse crisis and refused to go along with the cover-up.

This is a historic moment for the church, and I never use that description lightly. For it is finally the beginning of an accounting, after 20 years, of basic information that the church had a right to know all along.

Now what?

It is necessary to keep in mind, as a way of understanding what we face in the future, that the bishops have been forced by public pressure to disclose what information we now have. Every step of the way they resisted, though they were asked repeatedly for the information by this publication and others. It is distressing to realize that most bishops responded not to the cries of victims, their families and ordinary Catholics who were angered by the scandal. They finally responded only when the ugliness and extent of the abuse and cover-up reached the wider culture.

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Now what? Who knows?

The report itself and interviews with review board members make clear what was known all along: No mechanism exists for holding our bishops accountable.

What is missing after all the years of anguish and headlines and spoken resolve and apologies is what can’t be forced -- true remorse and the actions that make it credible.

We all know failure and sin. Husbands and wives, sons and daughters, friends, all of us know what it means to betray trust and how painful it is to restore. Without true remorse and action to back it up, the scandal will never become history, as Bishop Wilton Gregory claims.

The church still waits.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 2004

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