Make Sure Abusive Priests Answer for Crimes

Modesto Bee [California]
July 26, 2003

A detailed new report on sexually abusive priests in Boston's Roman Catholic archdiocese shows that church leaders failed in many damaging ways.

They failed to protect vulnerable children. They failed to act as responsible citizens. And they failed to meet the high standards of love and compassion to which church teaching so clearly calls them.

The church -- as well as other religious communities and everyone responsible for the well-being of children -- should learn from this atrocious and painful history.

Massachusetts Attorney General Tom Reilly, who issued the report, said it well: "These were deliberate, intentional choices, and the choice is pretty clear: It was between protecting children and protecting the church, the reputation of the church and the clergy who abused children. They made the wrong choice."

Reilly said the archdiocese received complaints from 789 persons about abuse by some 250 priests or other church workers in a 60-year period. But he has "absolutely no doubt" that the number of victims is far greater.

Reilly's victim numbers were far beyond previous estimates and showed the problem was worse than imagined.

The church wasn't the only organization at fault. The state, too, let children down by not having laws that were strict enough on child abuse. Until just last year, Massachusetts law did not require priests to report sexual abuse of children to authorities.

That means Reilly now can't bring criminal charges against people who oversaw this massive, decades-long wrongdoing.

Boston is ground zero of this scandal, but it has shaken the entire church as abuse allegations have turned up all over the country. Some dioceses -- including Kansas City-St. Joseph -- acted more quickly than others to attack this problem, even before the Boston revelations. American bishops last year adopted a new policy to deal with abusive priests and the trauma they cause.

As the Reilly report makes clear, the problem is not limited to members of the clergy. Some of their supervisors also failed by hiding the problem and moving priests around without warning their new parishes.

The result -- in Boston at least -- was "nothing less than a complete failure of leadership," as Reilly noted. The bishops and the Vatican have not paid enough attention to those leadership failures. Boston's Cardinal Bernard Law finally resigned under pressure, but others who protected guilty priests anywhere should be held accountable, too.

Catholics don't all agree on how to prevent a repetition of this scandal. Suggestions include allowing priests to marry; ordaining women as priests; and toughening enforcement of the policies that require a celibate, male priesthood.

Whatever internal changes the church makes, it must force abusive priests to answer to the law. Sexual assault is a crime.


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