Abuse Reports Mark Beginning, Not End

National Catholic Reporter
March 12, 2004

Two days after the National Review Board released its "Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States" along with the report it commissioned from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the scope of the sex abuse crisis, two ads appeared in The New York Times.

One, from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was headlined, "Promise to Protect. Pledge to Heal." The text of the ad was tightly focused on two areas: what the bishops, through the review board, had done to reveal the scope of the problem, and what safeguards have been put into place to prevent such a crisis from occurring again. It had a ring of finality about it, and echoed what conference president Bishop Wilton Gregory had said at a news conference immediately after the documents had been released: "The terrible history recorded here today is history."

The other ad, sponsored by the lay group Voice of the Faithful was headlined, "Our Trust Has Been Violated. But Not Our Faith." Its main feature was a box containing "petitions for reform." The group is seeking signatures on the petitions that ask:

That Pope John Paul II "meet with an international delegation of victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse";

That the pope hold responsible those bishops "who knowingly transferred sexually abusive clergy" and accept or call for resignations "where appropriate";

That each U.S. bishop disclose details of their oversight in transferring abusive clergy and clergy who have credible allegations against them.

The second ad had the sound of a campaign getting underway.

Which view prevails, those who think the issuance of the reports marks an end to a difficult chapter or those who think the event marks the beginning of a process aimed at essential reforms, could well determine the future shape and tone of the Catholic church in this country.

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Before looking too quickly to the future, however, it is only fitting to point out the value of the reports as they stand. Whatever argument one might have with methodology -- and the presumption in many quarters is that the reported numbers are low -- at least we now have some reliable information collected by professionals, along with an appraisal of both the figures and the causes written by, in the bishops" words, "a group of dedicated Catholic men and women."

We know now that at least 4,392 priests abused 10,667 children and that the church paid in excess, to this point, of a half billion dollars in settlements and legal fees trying to keep the scandal under wraps. The figures certainly portray a deep and disturbing evil that was present in the church at a number of levels.

On the other side of those numbers, it is only right to note that more than 95 percent of priests were not involved and remain faithful to their work as pastors amid extremely trying circumstances. They can take more than a small measure of consolation from the clarity that comes with the simple release of data.

Church leaders can certainly be commended for finally taking the step to do the self-reporting required to compile the reports, and they deserve our gratitude for cooperating with investigators. These were intrusions that, while perfectly logical to many given the nature of the scandal, would be extremely unusual in the life of any religious leader and were all the more unusual in the world of the guarded Catholic hierarchy.

Among the silver linings are the realizations that sex abuse by Catholic clergy apparently peaked in the 1970s and that safeguards initiated by different bishops at different times apparently are working.

Further, the church can take some consolation from helping the wider culture become aware of a problem that is society-wide, most often occurs in families, and for too long has remained hidden. Our children are at greater risk than we previously knew, and we also have learned that the effects of sexual abuse last a lifetime.

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Bishop Gregory, however, is incorrect when he consigns the scandal to history. For the sex abuse crisis is, however terrible, a symptom of deeper ills, the manifestation of what can go wrong when leadership, spiritual or otherwise, remains above accountability to the community it serves. The phrase "Pledge to Heal," which with "Promise to Protect" were repeated in the background at the bishops" news conference as if the gathering were some political campaign stop, is an odd phrase at best. We can only presume, in the context of the sex abuse scandal, that the bishops are pledging to heal the breach of trust that has grown between them and their priests and between bishops and lay people. It is difficult to pledge to heal, however, especially in this instance, where the healing should grow out of forgiveness and reconciliation.

But what are we, the laity, forgiving? We know -- it is in the sacramental fiber of the Catholic community -- that forgiveness in the Christian tradition is a starting point, the essential element in the community for finding peace and happiness. Forgiveness, however, does not mean simply forgetting, or tolerating another's behavior or simply smoothing things over and getting on with life.

It requires moral accountability. It requires, as every Catholic who has prepared for the sacrament of reconciliation knows, taking responsibility.

And that is what is missing. That is what millions of American Catholics await from their bishops. Apologies have been heaped upon apologies by the hierarchy during the course of the scandal. Apologies for what? That kids were abused? That priests did awful things to children?

Everyone is sorry those things happened. We know the stories of the priests. We know the stories of many victims. And we are beginning to learn about priests who have been removed from active service without due process, victims, as Fr. Thomas Doyle points out, of the hierarchy's rush to put this all behind us.

What we don't know in any detail, except in those cases where courts have opened the records, is what individual bishops did to enable and prolong the crisis.

It is interesting that in their ad the bishops give only one line to the report by the Review Board on the causes of the scandal. The board got pretty tough in some sections and unqualifiedly laid the major portion of blame for the scandal at the feet of the bishops.

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The scandal is not history, not by a long shot. Catholics as disparate in view as author Eugene Kennedy and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus agree that the bishops are kidding themselves if they think the release of the report signals the end of things.

What the report makes resoundingly clear is that at the center of what went wrong was a lack of accountability, and that lack of accountability continues.

Each bishop should disclose what he did in transferring priests, countersuing victims, and dipping into the church treasury to pay settlements and legal costs to hush up the scandal.

Further, the bishops themselves should continue serious discussions about what should be done with the report and its recommendations. Should groups of regional bishops gather to discuss how to disclose the kind of information that would begin to satisfy the community's need to know? That would be a positive step. Should the reports be a major agenda item for discussion when the bishops next gather? We would hope so.

Most important, what concrete sign will the bishops give their people that they, individually and, where necessary, collectively, take responsibility for their roles in creating and perpetuating the scandal?

In the June 7, 1985, issue of NCR, in a commentary accompanying the first major national story on priest sex abuse to be published in the United States, the editors of this paper wrote:

"In cases throughout the nation, the Catholic church is facing scandals and being forced to pay millions of dollars in claims to families whose sons have been molested by Catholic priests.

"These are serious and damaging matters that have victimized the young and innocent and fuel old suspicions against the Catholic church and a celibate clergy. But a related and broader scandal seemingly rests with local bishops and a national episcopal leadership that has, as yet, no set policy on how to respond to these cases."

The reports of Feb. 27 bring the church closer to the truth, but only closer. Much remains to be done in the way of fundamental reforms of governance and of relationships between bishops, priests and people.

When we all are able to admit that what happened in the past in not history but a sad part of our living story, and always will be, when the community learns what really was done in its name, and when the apologies from the bishops are not vague sentiment intended to smooth things over but are the difficult recounting of specifics, then there will be no need for pledges or for promises. Then we'll be living the healing, and the protection will be inherent in our trust.


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