Catholics Begin to Hear Their Church's Confession

Palm Beach Post [United States]
March 4, 2004

America's Roman Catholics have listened for months as voices at the Vatican dismissed the widening child-abuse scandal in the United States as an overblown distortion by the media or anti-church subverters. The hierarchy in Europe predicted that an examination of American priests would find that less than 1 percent of them were guilty of sexual offenses -- an unfortunate yet statistically insignificant fraction that would not suggest a deep-seated institutional crisis.

But last week, the National Review Board, a lay panel created by the U.S. bishops, issued a report with stunning numbers to show that the problem of abusive priests is at least four times more widespread than the Vatican allowed and anything but an exaggeration. The board found 10,667 abuse claims against 4,392 priests between 1950 and 2002. Fifty percent of the victims were between the ages of 11 and 14, another 27 percent were between age 8 and 10, and about 6 percent were under age 7. Eighty percent of the abused were boys.

Shocking as the numbers are, this is an "at least" audit; it cannot hope to capture all offenders and all victims of predators who depend on secrecy. Victim advocacy groups already are claiming that the figures are too low and offer further evidence of a long-running coverup. Given the shameful record of many U.S. bishops in protecting pedophiles and abusers out of some misguided attempt to shield the institution, the faithful have good reason to be skeptical. Yet the report is a critical step toward dealing with the sense of betrayal that so many Catholics feel. Part of that betrayal is financial; the study made a conservative estimate of $542 million paid out in settlements, treatment and legal costs. Catholics did not fill collection baskets with these expenses in mind.

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that recent reforms -- including the removal of 700 men from the priesthood during the past two years -- will make children safer. "The terrible history recorded here today is history," Bishop Gregory said. Moving reform and deterrent efforts to the present tense is essential. Not much can be done to help the victim who was abused 30 years ago, or to punish the child's abuser because of inadequate statute of limitation laws. But the new candor promises to reduce the time lag. According to the review board's analysis from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, only 138 (3.1 percent) of offending priests were convicted of a crime.

American bishops appear resigned to carrying out reform to the best of their ability -- in some cases, whether they like it or not. The new priority in the U.S. church appears to be protecting children, not priests. The Vatican's commitment is more dubious. Last month, a scientific report commissioned by the Vatican criticized the American reforms as too draconian. It warned that removing and prosecuting offending priests could drive them to suicide or further offenses. The Vatican report recommended treatment and reintegration. If that sounds familiar, it's because that was the same policy that made victims out of at least 10,667 children.


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