Child Sexual Abuse: The Church´s Days of Reckoning

Cases Pointing Up the Need for More Vigilance

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BOSTON, Massachusetts, FEB. 5, 2002 ( Cases on both sides of the Atlantic involving priests and pedophilia are forcing a lot of soul searching within the Catholic Church as it becomes clear that officials at times have seemed more concerned about saving face than about protecting children.

For critics, the scandals represent an abuse of trust on the part of high-ranking Church officials who swept serious problems under the carpet. On the other hand, some observers note that media reports of the pedophilia scandals have unfairly tarnished the entire Catholic clergy.

In one recent case, the Catholic Church in Ireland, after years of denials and painful negotiations, agreed last week to pay $110 million to Irish children who were sexually abused by priests, nuns and other ecclesial officials in decades past.

The landmark deal was designed to end a 10-year struggle by the Church to overcome sex scandals involving its clergy going back to the 1940s.

In exchange for the Church´s financial commitment, the government agreed to indemnify the church against further legal action by victims in Ireland, the Associated Press noted.

In Boston, public anger has still not abated in the high-profile case of Cardinal Bernard Law, who acknowledged that as long as 18 years ago he made «wrong decisions» in keeping a pedophile priest in parish work. (See his letter to the archdiocese at the ZENIT Web page.)

Within a year of arriving as archbishop of Boston in 1984, Law had shuffled Father John J. Geoghan to another parish, even though the prelate was aware that the priest had been abusing children for years. After abusing more children, Geoghan was removed for treatment, but then reassigned — only to continue his preying on youngsters. Court allegations say he abused 130 or more children before defrocked in 1998.

Cardinal Law has refused to resign over the case. «My resignation is not part of the solution as I see it,» he told a group of more than 500 priests at a conference Jan. 23 in Boston. «I want the archdiocese to become a model for how this issue should be handled.»

Over the weekend, two more priests in the Boston Archdiocese were ousted in the wake of allegations of sexual abuse. The cardinal´s pledges have not satisfied everyone.

«The crisis in the Archdiocese of Boston tragically illustrates the consequences of a culture of secrecy and deference in the church,» wrote Mary Jo Bane, a Catholic and a professor of public policy at Harvard University, in the Boston Globe on Sunday.

«It is time for lay Catholics who love the church to challenge that culture,» she stated. «We can do so by withholding our contributions to the archdiocese until the church becomes more open and participatory.»

John Leo, in a Universal Press Syndicate column on Monday, wrote: «A lot of information is now on the table because some of Geoghan´s victims won legal access to the archdiocese´s files on pedophile priests and The Boston Globe convinced the courts to make those records public. Among the revelations is that the archdiocese, to avoid public scandal, paid off victims of at least 70 pedophile priests in the past 10 years.»

Without denying the seriousness of the cases, some researches and observers notice that the media attention given to Catholic clergy far exceeds that given to cases involving other religious figures.

The tendency in the media to widely publicize cases of Catholic priests´ abuse has given Americans a very distorted picture, as Phillip Jenkins points out in an Oxford University Press book on the subject, published last year.

«True pedophilia is extremely rare in the priesthood, he points out,» said an editorial in the National Catholic Register on Jan. 20. «The best estimate is that 0.3% of priests are guilty. The most extensive study, which considered 2,252 priests over a 30-year period, found only one case of pedophilia — and in that case, the abuse happened apart from the perpetrator´s role as a priest in the parish; he abused members of his extended family.»

The editorial continued: «Pedophilia is no more common in the Catholic priesthood than it is among other clergy or other trades. So why is the perception so exaggerated? For one reason, the Church´s hierarchical structure means that Catholic clergy are more attractive targets for lawsuits than other denominations. You needn´t sue just a parish; you can sue the entire archdiocese.»

And that signals another potential problem: Any campaign to cut contributions to the Church could hurt its many pastoral and charitable works which help the faithful and the needy.

Still, Church officials themselves have acknowledged in recent years the need for better diligence to protect children from pedophiles.

Last September in England, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O´Connor of Westminster greeted the publication of a final report on the prevention of child abuse within the Church. Lord Nolan´s independent Review on Child Protection published «A Program for Action» in the wake of scandals involving clergy.

And John Paul II has pointed out the need to ensure that problematic seminarians are deterred from entering the priesthood.

In a March 20, 1998, message sent to Cardinal William Baum, major penitentiary of the Church, the Pope stated: «The confessor of priesthood candidates has the very serious obligation of making every effort to dissuade from going on to the priesthood those who in confession demonstrate that they lack the necessary virtues (this particularly applies to mastering chastity, which is indispensable for the commitment to celibacy), the necessary psychological balance or sufficient maturity of judgment.»

Many priests in the trenches already understand the need for vigilance to avoid pedophilia cases in the future.

Father Robert W. Bullock, pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows Church in Sharon, Massachusetts, was quoted by the Boston Globe on Jan. 24 as saying he would not support Cardinal Law´s resignation.

The priest argued that the focus on the cardinal ignores the responsibility of other Church officials for mishandling the issue of clergy sexual abuse.

«It isn´t just the cardinal; it´s the way we operate. There are structural issues,´´ he told the Globe. ´´What is it that has made us priests be so supine, and unwilling to stand up and take risks? To speak out when something awful is happening, and not to cover up? To name things for what they are? The leadership has not protected children, and we have not protected children.´´

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