As Bishops Release Audits, This Warning: 'The Season of Judgment Has Begun'

Spirit Daily
Downloaded January 6, 2004

As the bishops release a major report on compliance of American dioceses with new abuse standards, there is good news and not-so-good news at this time when the Church continues to grapple with one of its biggest crises since the Reformation.

The good news is that all but ten percent of the nation's 194 Roman Catholic dioceses have fully complied with rules and safeguards to prevent sexual abuse of minors by priests, the Church will report today. The good news is also that at least in many dioceses, the incidence of sexual abuse and especially pedophilia appears to have been somewhat lower than what the media -- and a number of in-church critics -- have portrayed. One case of abusing a youngster among the entire clergy is too many -- and a terrible tragedy; it remains difficult to believe that a priest would compromise a young person in such a way. In larger dioceses like those of Los Angeles and Boston, the raw numbers are jarring. Eight hundred lawsuits in just California But let's start putting this -- and the sacred priesthood -- in perspective. In Albany, one of the nation's most modernistic dioceses, the bishop asserts that only two percent of 814 priests who have served since 1950 had "credible" sexual allegations of any kind against them. We're not naive: we know there could be more, perhaps even substantially more. But the diocese has cleared 11 of 15 current or former priests. None of the accused are now active.

If the reporting from such dioceses is accurate, this paints a picture that is troublesome to be sure -- excruciating -- but not as pervasive as the litany of cases paraded before us by the critics these past two years have made it seem. In the past fifty years, says the diocese in Lafayette, Indiana, there have been "credible" accusations against 11 priests -- or two each decade. In Dubuque, there have been 26 accused priests in the same time period. Again, a tragedy; revolting; but also tallied over the span of half a century. In Syracuse, 49 of 734 priests who have served were accused. That's eight percent. Five have been cleared. Another 13 are still under investigation. If we subtract those, it's more like five percent. Unnerving numbers, yet describing each case or letting each run as news for days at a time makes it seem like every priest or at least half are molesters.

Again, it is worth meditating on the proportions. Are Catholic priests more likely to molest than other groups of men? According to the Catholic Educators Resource Center, "pedophilia (the sexual abuse of a prepubescent child) among priests is extremely rare, affecting only 0.3 percent of the entire population of clergy."

Is it that low in the rest of the populace?

This is not to excuse those priests who have committed such a horrid and abominable act. They are criminals -- and should be dealt with accordingly, which means jail. Nor is it to say that abusing a teenager (or "ephebophilia," as opposed to pedophilia) is okay. It is not. It is also atrocious. But let's consider what percentage of teachers and lawyers and judges and psychologists and accountants and social workers and laborers and artists and writers and politicians and reporters have abused children, just to keep things in perspective.

Are priests to be held to a higher standard? Certainly. And there may be some startling numbers in certain dioceses. We'll wait to see. And we will never understand how men like our bishops -- who overall are sincere and smart -- could ever have thought that the best option was covering over this problem. We have never seen a larger misjudgment. Moreover, there are those who continue to claim a cover-up. For example, the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, said it received a glowing review. But A. W. Richard Sipe, a California psychotherapist and former priest who has treated hundreds of sexual abuse victims, claims he knows of allegations against five priests from that diocese. "They're hiding the documents," he said. "The bishops are still covering up. They're still not forthcoming with the truth."

Harsh words. But it is equally disheartening how enemies of the Church have lacked perspective -- and how well the devil succeeded in defaming, disillusioning, and disheartening the many good priests and seminary candidates. Make no mistake: good priests have been victimized. This is a real trial. It has set the Church back. Wasn't this the game plan all along? And did not certain members of the media greatly help it along?

The real problem is homosexuality. Practicing "gays" infiltrated the priesthood, as they have high places in other parts of society, and continue to be a crisis for Catholicism. The vast majority of abuse cases are homosexual, and there are homosexual priests who are still active and have not been named as abusers. We know this. Abuse is not the only problem. When homosexuals are delivered, and when the Church in the West is delivered of them (it is not so great a problem in the Third World), we will be on the road to recovery. We will be on the road when, on the one hand, we honestly admit to our problems and, on the other, when we are careful not to be self-flagellating.

The devil wants to lower the repute of the Church, discourage vocations, and affect Mass attendance. At least temporarily, he has succeeded. Between March 2002, when the news of the scandals broke, and February 2003, weekly church attendance among Catholics fell nine percentage points to 35 percent -- the lowest measurement since the Gallup survey began asking the question in 1955. In Chicago, attendance is down more than six percent in the past year. By November 2003, however, the figure of overall attendance had climbed 10 percentage points, to 45 percent. Protestant attendance, meanwhile, remained fairly stable and for the first time is now slightly higher than those of Catholics.

That is not a good sign. Let's also acknowledge that the long-predicted priest shortage is now gaining full stride. Parishes are closing; several dozen in the Boston archdiocese alone. And there is a credibility crisis; due to the Church scandals, fewer are taking the Pope's statements (on everything from sexuality to Iraq) as seriously as they once did.

A real crisis, that. Good news, bad news. It has been a bruising, tragic dilemma. The next time we comment, we'll include what we are believe are some solutions, including ones pertaining to the Mass itself. But meantime it is good to put the numbers in some kind of balanced view, and it is also good to know that we must remain obedient to our superiors. The Bible tells us that.

And for those who smirk at the Church in its hour of well-deserved judgment -- and agony -- let them remember another biblical passage, this one from 1 Peter 4: "The season of judgment has begun, and begun with God's own household. If it begins this way with us, what must be the end for those who refuse obedience to the Gospel of God?"


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