Troubles Keep Piling up for Catholic Priests

By Sheryl McCarthy
Newsday [United States]
February 19, 2004

Anyone reading the headlines this week could have concluded that Roman Catholic priests were on a rampage.

There was Bishop Thomas O'Brien, the former head of the Diocese of Phoenix, Ariz., being convicted of fleeing the scene of a car accident after he struck and killed a drunken pedestrian.

There was CNN claiming that a soon-to-be-released study of priestly sexual abuse, conducted by a Catholic Church-sponsored board, had uncovered allegations against more than 4,000 priests. The actual report won't be released until later this month. But, if CNN's numbers are correct, the dimensions of the sex-abuse scandal are staggering.

In New York, the Rev. John Johnston, a Queens priest who has also been charged with making profanity-laced calls to a high school principal and carrying an unlicensed gun, pleaded guilty to skimming $50,000 from the weekly collection plates of a Long Island church where he worked part-time. Johnston can probably be considered just a bad apple in the scheme of things. But Bishop O'Brien and the possibly thousands of priests who abused women and children over the years prove that something was lacking in these leaders of the church: good character.

After his car accident, O'Brien claimed he thought a dog or a rock had caused the spiderweb crack in his windshield, which is why he didn't bother to stop and investigate. Even after learning that his car might have been involved in a fatal accident, he didn't notify the police and, while aware that police were looking for his car, he tried to get his windshield repaired. This was so much the behavior of a man who wanted to duck responsibility and who hoped his mistake would just go away.

O'Brien is now believed to be the first Catholic bishop in this country to be convicted of a felony. But he narrowly avoided this stigma last year when he signed an immunity agreement with the local prosecutor, sparing him from being indicted for protecting priests accused of molesting children. He admitted covering up complaints against priests under his charge and sending them on to other jobs without warning their new employers. He was then placed on restricted duty.

Yet, with two strikes against O'Brien, a spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said he expected him to retain his titles of bishop and priest. Only the pope can decide if a priest is to have his priestly duties restricted, and O'Brien has now resigned from active duty. But how many commandments does a priest have to break to be considered unworthy of wearing the robes?

Sheltered, placed on a pedestal, isolated from normal life by the requirement of celibacy, and, as we now know, shielded from accountability for crimes against their own parishioners, many priests developed an arrogance that was bred out of their insularity. So their response to repeated charges of sexual misconduct or to being involved in a fatal car accident was not to accept responsibility or try to help the victims, but to protect themselves, their fellow priests and the reputation of the church.

That this is still going on despite all the attention that's been given to the sex-abuse scandal, the new rules and the sex-abuse study is mind-boggling.

And those in the church hierarchy are not the only ones to blame. For two years, the New York State Legislature has been bandying about a bill that would add clergy to the list of two dozen or so professionals who are required to report suspected incidents of child abuse to the authorities. Yet the bill, which seems like a no-brainer, has bogged down over minor sticking points.

It seems obvious these legislators need to get this law on the books as soon as possible, and that the church leadership should shun Bishop O'Brien. A few months in jail wouldn't be a bad idea either.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.