Despite Promises, the Catholic Church Hasn't Changed

By Mary McCarty
The Day
July 7, 2003

It has been more than a year since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops overwhelmingly approved a "get tough" policy on priests who sexually abuse children.

On the one-year anniversary of that historic three-day conference in Dallas, the news could hardly have been more grim:

Frustrated by what he perceived as the church's continued stonewalling, former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating compared the church with the Mafia and resigned as chairman of a board of lay Catholics looking into the scandal.

Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien of Phoenix resigned after being arrested on charges of leaving the scene of a fatal accident. This is the same sterling character who, only a few weeks earlier, had been granted immunity from prosecution for covering up alleged sexual abuse by priests.

Closer to home, Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen delivered a stinging rebuke to the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. After an April 11 meeting with archdiocese attorneys, Allen told The Cincinnati Post, "Frankly, what we got was the back of their hand. This is not a game."

What are struggling Catholics to make of all this? Was the bishops' landmark "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" merely a barrage of words, never to be backed up by actions?

"I don't know that much has been done," said Joan Cooper, a mother of three and a family practice physician. "Probably awareness has gone up, but I haven't seen a huge amount of change in the power structure of the church. The hopes were that the laity would be making decisions about how this type of thing is handled."

The laity will be empowered, Cooper believes, but not for the reasons she had hoped. The looming priest shortage will bring about the kind of change the sex abuse scandal has not.

Was the bishops' much-ballyhooed conference an exercise in hypocrisy? Perhaps. But it could also be what happens when good intentions bump up against an entrenched culture.

"I wish the church was still focused on this as an issue," Cooper said. "I don't think they're as focused as they were a year ago."

The news isn't all grim. The Ohio Council of Churches and the Ohio Senate have cooperated on a bill that would make it a first-degree misdemeanor for a member of the clergy to fail to report child abuse and neglect. The bill sailed through the Senate just before summer recess. It will go to the House for consideration in the fall.

The bill would preserve the clergy-penitent privilege, just as it maintains attorney-client privilege and doctor-patient confidentiality. The Catholic League balked at legislation introduced in the Ohio House because it didn't recognize the sanctity of the confessional " a tenet most priests would be prepared to go to jail to defend.

The Catholic League supports the Senate's version of the bill, as well it should. Given its recent history, the Catholic should be unleashing an army of lobbyists, state by state, begging that such laws be adopted. Call it "The Cardinal Law Law."

It would be a fitting penance for a church that too often prefers to pretend that nothing ever happened.

Mary McCarty writes for the Dayton Daily News. E-mail:


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