The Bishops Seek Recovery

New York Times
January 9, 2004

The nation's Roman Catholic bishops have taken a praiseworthy but sadly belated first step toward putting in place safeguards against the scourge of rogue priests, whose sexual abuse of children was hushed up for decades. In releasing an audit claiming improvements in most of the 191 dioceses studied, the bishops underlined how far they still had to go to repair the deep damage to the church's reputation. The audit makes clear that outreach programs for victims remain lacking in many dioceses, as are programs for ensuring safer parishes and adequately tracking abusers.

"We bishops are keeping our word," declared Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. His commitment is appreciated after the years of official stonewalling. But the audit mainly amounts to a baseline for measuring whatever true progress is to come, parish by parish. The laity is still reeling from the abuse and cover-up scandal, which exploded in Boston two years ago and spread nationally. (In California, a suspension of the statute of limitations last year led to 800 new molestation lawsuits.)

Auditors were not allowed full access to personnel records in the dioceses, so the bishops' promise of transparency is left unfulfilled. And 20 dioceses have not provided all the promised safeguards against future abuse. Some, like the Archdiocese of New York, pleaded greater complexities because of size but said compliance would be forthcoming. The bustling Brooklyn diocese was commended by the auditors for going beyond the requirements to deal more closely with criminal prosecutors investigating the scandal.

The audit at least certifies an end to the cynical policies of recycling abusers and burying their crimes through buyouts of victims. It is a hopeful sign for angst-ridden parents, not to mention for the guiltless priests, a vast majority. But the bishops' next step will necessarily be more painful: the release next month of a nationwide tabulation of abusive priests and their victims in the past half-century. This investigation, by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, will also get at the core question of how such crimes could so darkly mushroom, scarring decades of victims.


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