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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

Bishops, where do we go from here?

The deeply disturbing grand jury report on sexual abuse of children by priests in the Philadelphia archdiocese delves into a prolonged and shocking crisis. It reveals the flaws of the system established to protect children and the related extent of the corruption that has seeped into the church’s hierarchical structures.

The Philadelphia report, in an unprecedented way, details the level of deception and misuse of law employed to protect known repeat abusers, including rapists, within the Catholic clergy. The district attorney’s office in Philadelphia, with the benefit of more than 45,000 pages of subpoenaed documents and testimony from more than 100 witnesses gathered over a three-year investigation, fashioned a narrative showing a clergy and hierarchical culture so intent on protecting itself that it placed hundreds of children at risk of cruel exploitation.

If this watershed moment in this awful chapter of modern church history passes without dramatic action on the part of church authorities, then we have to wonder how we can continue to call ourselves Christian, or a church.

We urge you to read the report (available at www.philadelphiadistrictattorney.com/pages/1) as well as the archdiocese’s response to the report (at www.archdiocese-phl.org/grandjury.htm) and the district attorney’s rebuttal to that response.

It is a formidable task, but it is also a rare opportunity to understand, in excruciating detail, to what degree cardinals and others abandoned basic human decency to protect themselves. The report makes clear the depraved distortions of logic that hold sway when the privileged and insular world of the hierarchy and clergy is threatened. In that world, preservation of the status quo and protection of the clergy culture is the primary good. They have poisoned the Catholic life they are supposed to exemplify.

If an ordinary Catholic male acted with the same wanton disregard for the welfare of children as that displayed by Philadelphia’s Catholic leaders he correctly would be in jail, rightly labeled a social pariah.

* * *

Clergy sex abuse crisis. The phrase has become part of the language. We have almost become inured to what the words signify.

The Philadelphia grand jury report jars us from numbness. What it makes sickeningly clear is that men entrusted with the highest levels of responsibility in the church, the chief servants of the community, used the institution, its station in society and the state’s natural reluctance to interfere in church affairs, to protect criminals who brutalized children. Beginning with the late Cardinal John Krol, the tone was set. “Sexually abusive priests were either left quietly in place or ‘recycled’ to unsuspecting new parishes -- vastly expanding the number of children who were abused. It didn’t have to be this way,” says the report. The institution could serve no more evil purpose.

The clergy sex abuse scandal required a rarified environment in order to thrive and develop over two decades to its current dimensions within the church. It required that bishops see themselves as princes, autonomous rulers of the realms bequeathed them by Rome, above any rebuke from those under them and entirely free of any requirement for accountability to the larger community.

* * *

Few have played the role of prince as convincingly as Anthony Bevilacqua. He was, by many accounts, an aloof pastor with an imperious disposition. (See “Lavish spending in archdiocese skips inner city,” June 19, 1998, on our Web site at www.ncronline.org.)

Bevilacqua was never bashful about telling people that he was a civil lawyer as well as a canon lawyer. He knew the rules. He knew how to hold people to them. It is clear from his testimony and from the evidence compiled by the Philadelphia grand jury that the cardinal used his knowledge of the law to bend it nearly to the breaking point to protect priests who sexually abused children, including serial rapists.

Bevilacqua was his own lawyer. He knew how to string things out so that the statute of limitations would make prosecution impossible; he knew that the archdiocese was organized in such a way that he and his accomplices would never face prosecution on charges of conspiracy.

* * *

The question we all face now in this battered community is where do we go from here?

Next month the U.S. bishops gather for their annual meeting. All of the bishops in that meeting room in Washington will know about the Philadelphia report, just as they knew about Boston.

They will know that the self-reported audits seen as a way to measure the dimensions of the problem are, in many cases, a sham. The Philadelphia grand jury was able to demonstrate that the archdiocese actually revealed the truth to the Review Board about a portion of priests credibly accused of sex crimes. The bishops in that meeting room in Washington will know that the truth finally came out in Philadelphia not because the diocese decided the community deserved to know it, but because prosecutors relentlessly pursued it.

They will know, too, that from Los Angeles to New York and from Florida to Washington state, bishops and their inner circles are sitting on similar piles of documents, hoping against heaven that they’ll never have to tell the truth about what either they or their predecessors did behind the backs of the community.

So, we wonder, bishops, where do we go from here?

Of what use are we as a believing community if we can’t get this right? Who cares what our chalices are made of or what gender pronouns we use in our prayers or what we say about the unborn or the poor or anything else in our moralizing agenda if we can’t tell the truth about what happened to our children?

What can it possibly mean that we’ve reached a point where the language of this horror now rolls off the tongue without making us flinch?

What does it say about the state of this church’s soul when people who have protected our children’s assailants are able to duck not only the law but any consequences from the Catholic community?

There are few lines in scripture as unambiguous or severe as those characterizing Jesus’ regard for children. Given what has happened to thousands of children at the hands of ministers and leaders in our community, we know we are in deep trouble.

The abuse, the cover-up and the scandal have all persisted for more than 20 years. Perhaps there is one among the bishops this year who can find the wherewithal to stand in that meeting room and bellow at the top of his lungs: Enough! It is time to tell the truth, all of it, and to beg the community’s forgiveness.

And forgive the community will. But it must first know the full truth.

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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