Criminal Priests: Openness, Zero Tolerance Must Guide Church Policy

Detroit Free Press [United States]
March 2, 2004

The release of reports that contain staggering numbers of sexual abuse cases involving priests and stern criticism of how such matters were handled moves the Catholic Church in the United States another step forward in restoring its tattered credibility. At least the hush-ups and payoffs are done.

But there is a long road ahead -- and some irreparable wreckage behind.

There are three sets of victims here. The most seriously wounded are those who were directly preyed upon by criminal priests. But the scandal also stains the dedicated clergy who remained faithful to their calling -- and their vow of celibacy -- and to Catholics everywhere who trusted their church and its leaders.

The studies, commissioned by Catholic bishops, found 10,667 children victimized by 4,392 priests from 1950-2002. The authors said the number of victims was probably low, because some people will never come forward. The number of priests is about 4 percent of all those who served the church during the 52-year period. The researchers estimated the church has spent $750 million on lawyers, damage payments and therapy for victims.

The church disgraced itself in its past handling of these incidents; that is unforgivable to some people. Others will allow redemption over time if the church is open and aggressive about such matters now and in the future. Zero tolerance and erring on the side of caution are essential for the recovery of the faithful. The weekend suspension of the popular pastor of a large parish in Canton Township pending an investigation of an accusation involving a minor 30 years ago indicates the revised attitude in the Archdiocese of Detroit.

However, the Vatican's recent decision to overrule U.S. bishops and reinstate another former Detroit-area priest to active ministry as a Navy chaplain does not bode well. The Vatican may not be grasping the magnitude of the repair work needed for this church in the United States.


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