Good Counsel for U.S. Catholic Bishops
Our Opinion: Prevention Is Key to Regaining Moral High Ground

The Miami Herald [United States]
Downloaded March 4, 2004

The findings of a survey of Catholic clergy sexual abuse released last week reveal the scope and causes of a half century of these crimes. The research is an exceptionally frank ap praisal by a religious institution of its grave failures to protect children from harm. The appraisal is a positive step forward by the Catholic Church in its two-year effort to recapture its moral authority after damning revelations in 2002 about clergy abuse that went unpunished. In many cases, bishops reassigned predator priests to other parishes instead of removing them.

Failure to respond

The survey was commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and researched by the National Review Board, which comprises lay persons appointed by the bishops. The survey found that since 1950, 4.3 percent of all U.S. priests have been accused of sexually abusing minors. The majority of victims -- 81 percent -- were boys. From 1970 to 1980, between 600 and 800 abuse allegations were reported yearly, a staggering figure to which the church's hierarchy should have responded, but didn't. The number of charges has dropped to about 50 reported abuse cases per year between 1995 and 2000.

After the revelations two years ago, U.S. Catholic bishops revised their clergy sexual-abuse policy. Every allegation must be reported to civil authorities. Priests who are accused can be suspended until an investigation is concluded. Victims' advocates wanted the accused priests to be suspended automatically, but the Vatican balked, citing due-process concerns. In the Archdiocese of Miami, if an allegation is found credible by its board of experts, the accused priest is put on leave during the investigation.

Transparency needed

Critics, including the survey group, say the church still must make clergy investigations more transparent and involve more lay representatives. Indeed, opening up its procedures for handling abuse is paramount if the church hopes to regain members' trust and its own moral authority. The church also must be scrupulous in its screening of seminary applicants, always erring on the side of caution.

Time will tell if the Catholic Church's leadership is fully committed to ensuring that these new abuse policies will be an effective preventive to child molestation by priests. The survey's terrible history lesson is a tragic reminder of why that commitment must be kept.


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