Reports Will Tell Only Part of the Story

By Tom Roberts
National Catholic Reporter
February 27, 2004

The day before the figures were leaked from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice report on sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, I was standing on a lawn in City Park in New Orleans, attending a memorial service for 50 victims of sexual abuse by priests.

The victims, from across the country, had all committed suicide. Many if not most of them committed suicide at a young age, in their 20s and 30s. No one, as abuse survivor Barbara Blain made clear at the service, was drawing absolute connections between the suicides and earlier abuse. "But we have to ask the questions," she said.

As the candlelight service continued in the chilly evening air, couples strolled by. A group of young men, yelling in friendly competition, played a game of volleyball on another lawn. All around, life went on. Few noticed as the candles were lit. Few could hear the small public address system beyond the circle of families and friends, beyond the members of SNAP (Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests) and Voice of the Faithful, the cosponsors of the event.

They prayed, they sang, they remembered.

It was tempting, viewing the thin row of survivors and friends against the backdrop of life's normal activity, to see this moment as neat metaphor for the bigger picture. Victims ignored, left too often to their own thoughts, their own recollections, thin voices carried off on chilly winds.

The victims are receiving lots of attention, some might argue. The church is in turmoil because of the sex abuse crisis and the bishops are handing over long-secret information to groups of lay people. Aren't the victims getting everything they wanted"

The following night, after the figures had been released, I was on CNN and in answer to a question I said I thought it was significant that at the end of nearly two decades of refusing to release any information, the bishops were now handing it over to lay investigators and surveyors. That is not how the bishops would want it to happen. That is significant change.

I have since reconsidered. One has to keep in mind that the information we've received, which was scheduled to be released Feb. 27, is self-reported. It was gathered by a lay commission, certainly, but one that was formed and paid for by the bishops, who are the object of the investigation. And it is the bishops who ultimately are in control of what gets released. No one has subpoena power, no one has any leverage except public opinion at this point. How credible would we consider the investigation if, say, Enron was the one assembling and hiring the "investigators" who had no other power than to receive whatever information the Enron officials deemed adequate.

The bishops, as we have said before on this page, are unable to restore their own credibility. It can only be restored from those outside their circle.

The night after the memorial service was also the night that Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle gave a talk as part of a program organized by Voice of the Faithful at Loyola University in New Orleans. Twenty years ago, Doyle was working in the nuncio's office in Washington and climbing the clerical ladder, but he ran into reports of the sex abuse scandal in the early 1980s. It is a well-known story now that he refused to go along with the cover-up and became a whistleblower. He lost his position and any chance of becoming a bishop. He used to talk to the papal nuncio and other visiting officials from Rome daily. But that ended.

Although he did what bishop after bishop has apologized for not doing, Doyle is today persona non grata. No bishop has ever called him to talk to him, to ask him for his insights into the scandal.

At Loyola, he spoke about the sins of clericalism, of abuse of power and authority. For him the sex abuse crisis is a symptom of a deeper ill -- he calls it corruption -- that emerges from a hierarchical culture that is steeped in secrecy and beyond accountability.

I will be waiting for the formal release of the last two reports -- the one on the numbers and the other on the causes. I'll read them carefully for a deeper understanding of this nightmare we're going through.

And I will recall the people in that circle in New Orleans and the victims and families affected all over the country, and Barbara Blain and David Clohessy, cofounders of SNAP, and Tom Doyle. They already have a deeper understanding of the nightmare. They know a reality, corruption -- not mistakes or misjudgments -- that the numbers can't contain, and for which the bishops have yet to take responsibility.


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