Editorial: the Church's Accounting

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel [United States]
February 27, 2004

Studies show that sexual abuse in this country is vastly underreported. Some estimates are that only 5% to 10% of sexual-abuse incidents get reported. So when readers see headlines saying "4% of U.S. priests accused of abuse" and read articles alleging that 10,667 children were victimized by 4,392 priests between 1950 and 2002, they need to remember that what's under discussion is only reported abuse, and that the incidence of actual abuse is likely to be higher.

For their part, Roman Catholic Church officials - who deserve credit for commissioning two reports on the clergy sexual-abuse scandal, which were released this week - need to understand that providing these numbers is only a first step toward re-establishing the credibility of the church hierarchy among many believers. They also need to realize that much remains to be done, including the naming of pedophile priests and the disciplining of bishops who covered for those priests.

Finally, the reports also should spur Wisconsin lawmakers to act on a clergy sexual-abuse bill before the Legislature adjourns for the year on March 11.

The numbers released this week were horrific, even to the bishops who commissioned the reports. One of the reports concluded that many bishops were guilty of neglect and insensitivity toward victims that allowed the "smoke of Satan" to enter the church. Bishops responding to the report said the shameful history would never be repeated.

"The terrible history recorded here today is history," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has apologized for the scandal and initiated reforms to deal with the crisis.

But given the history of the Catholic Church and sexual abuse, remorse, no matter how genuine, isn't enough. A little more discipline and justice are necessary, too.

Achieving justice will first require a fuller picture of the crisis that, in its latest incarnation, broke about two years ago in Boston. The numbers come from reports submitted by American dioceses and religious communities to a group of academics at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. This is self-reporting, not an outside audit. Furthermore, responses were submitted by 195 dioceses and 140 communities representing about 80% of all religious priests, obviously leaving another 20% unaccounted for.

Justice also requires that the church be more forthcoming about who was doing the abusing, and do more to determine why it occurred in the first place and why some bishops had so little sympathy for victimized children. According to the reports, much of the abuse seems to have come from priest classes in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and about 80% of the victims were boys. Some say the sexual revolution of those years and a culture of homosexuality in the church were the prime movers behind the abuse.

Maybe, but since we have only a partial picture of what went on, it's hard to know for sure. That's why releasing the names of legitimately accused priests - which could in turn bring forth more victims - is important. Such naming of names should result in a more accurate picture of who was engaging in these terrible crimes. It's also critical that bishops who allowed this "smoke of Satan" into the church be disciplined.

Pope John Paul II ushered in the Lenten season this week by calling on the faithful to pay particular attention to the plight of children, who, more than others, "need to be defended and protected." The words come a little late for a relative handful of priests and bishops, but if the rest take those words to heart and do what's right for victims, they can help restore faith in the church's leadership.


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