Removing the 'Smoke of Satan'
Abuse Report Is Seen As a Document That Could Alter the Roman Catholic Church's Culture

By David O'Reilly
Wichata Eagle [United States]
Downloaded March 6, 2004

Robert Bennett had one overriding goal for the second of two stunning reports last week on the Roman Catholic sex-abuse scandal.

"I wanted to get the sucker right," the Washington, D.C., lawyer said the following day.

Bennett was principal author of "A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States," a 140-page study authorized by the nation's Catholic bishops to explore the "causes and context" of clergy abuse.

The National Review Board study was issued in tandem with a study that found that 4.3 percent of priests had been credibly accused, and nearly 11,000 minors molested, since 1950.

What Bennett and his lay colleagues on the review board produced was not the blandly worded wrist slap that some had predicted, but a scathing portrait of "leadership failings" in the American Catholic Church.

Its open rebuke of the hierarchy is unprecedented in an officially sanctioned document of the Catholic Church. And while some bishops may be wincing, the breadth and acuity of "A Report on the Crisis" suggests the work may reverberate for years to come.

Starting in the 1960s, it said, many bishops allowed "immature, sexually dysfunctional men" into seminaries, including large numbers of homosexuals.

Bishops failed to prepare them for the challenges of celibacy, it continues, and later were so fearful of scandal that they concealed incidents of sexual abuse from the laity, the courts, and even one another.

"The 'smoke of Satan' was allowed to enter the Church," the report declares in one of its already most quoted observations.

"Ridding the Church of the hundreds of priests who have engaged in sexual abuse of minors is not enough," the report continues. "There also must be consequences for bishops, diocesan leaders, and seminary administrators."

"I know they didn't expect this," Bennett said. "But we did write it with a view that it not be ignored."

The study has quickly won praise as a document that could transform the leadership culture of American Catholicism.

Last week, as they waited to speak at a forum on sexual abuse at Catholic University of America, Bennett said, Bishop John D'Arcy of Fort Wayne, Ind., turned to him and called it "a milestone in church history."

The Rev. Richard Neuhaus, a prominent church conservative who sharply denounced the creation of the review board in 2002, "retracted" that criticism and called the report "an important document," Bennett said.

George Weigel, a Catholic columnist and official biographer of Pope John Paul II whose views often reflect those of Catholic leaders, called the reports "very important."

Lay groups were quick to use the report's call for greater lay involvement in church leadership, including a role in the selection of bishops.

"The restoration of the laity to full partnership in the decision-making process... will go a long way to preventing the kind of tragedy so clearly outlined in the Catholic bishops' reports," the Philadelphia chapter of Voice of the Faithful, a liberal reform group, said last week.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops created the National Review Board in June 2002, at the height of public outrage over news reports of abuse and cover-ups.

The bishops also authorized two studies: One into the "scope and nature" of the sexual abuse; the other into the "causes and context" of that abuse.

Last week, the National Review Board issued both reports.

The "scope and nature" report was stunning. Based on confidential data supplied by 98 percent of the nation's 195 dioceses, a team from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York determined that since 1950, nearly 11,000 people had reported they were sexually molested as children by 4,392 Catholic priests.

The Diocese of Wichita reported that 33 people accused nine priests of sexual abuse between 1950 to 2002.

The number of priests nationally represents 4.3 percent of the 109,694 men between 1950 and 2002. John Jay researchers said they had strong anecdotal evidence from the dioceses that at least 3,000 more abuse victims had not come forward.

The "Report on the Crisis" said the bishops' responses to an abuse incident were too often characterized "by moral laxity, excessive leniency, insensitivity, secrecy, and neglect."

"All of the presumptions weighed in favor of the accused priest at the expense of the victim," a misplaced empathy that the authors ascribed in part to an attitude that "priests and bishops are apart from and superior to the laity."

"I think a lot of the bishops thought we (the review board) would be coming in at level two with our criticisms: Criticisms of predator priests and the psychiatrists," Bennett said. "I don't think they thought we'd go to level 11 and 12."


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