The Catholic Church Needs to Make Protecting Children Its Top Priority
Dallas Morning News
September 5, 2018
The Catholic Church’s most recent — and perhaps most depraved — sexual-abuse scandal is stunning and has hit our community and our state hard. According to the most recent U.S. Religion Census, at least 56 percent of Texans are adherents to a religion; of those, nearly 20 percent are Catholics.
But one need not be a Catholic nor an adherent to any faith to be sickened by the Pennsylvania grand jury report that identified 301 “predator priests” throughout the state who abused more than 1,000 children — some as young as 2 years old — over seven decades.
The details are well-known and too heinous to repeat. But what’s lesser-known is that the roughly 900-page report said the strategies deployed by the Catholic Church — deacons, priests and bishops — to respond to allegations amounted to “a playbook for concealing the truth.”
Those strategies included using fellow clergy to investigate allegations of abuse, refusal to explain why abusive priests were removed or transferred to a different diocese, use of euphemisms like “boundary issues” in cases that were clearly rape, and, lastly, not reporting accused priests to law enforcement.
The scandal hit closer to home when Bishop Edward Burns of the Dallas Diocese announced last Sunday that the Rev. Edmundo Paredes, pastor at St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Oak Cliff for 27 years, has fled the state and likely the country after being accused of stealing up to $80,000 from the parish and molesting three teenage boys over a decade ago.
The revelations regarding Paredes were made public just a day before Pope Francis’ letter to all Catholics addressing what he called the “atrocities” in Pennsylvania. “We showed no care for the little ones,” he wrote, “we abandoned them.” Regarding Paredes’ flight from justice and the abuse scandal, Burns said, “I recognize this diocese cannot cover its ears, its eyes, its mouth. We need to look at this head-on.”
We agree, and hope Burns and his fellow bishops take Francis’ words on the responsibility of clerics to heart. As the pope wrote, “Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”
As happened in 2002 after the Boston Globe’s investigative report about the cover-up of decades of sexual abuse by priests, many Catholics are withholding donations and demanding accountability. The Globe investigation led to the prosecution of five priests. But due to Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations on child sex abuse and the deaths of many involved, only two of the 301 accused priests have been charged.
Understandably, many in Pennsylvania and around the country are calling for the statute to be lifted — at least long enough to provide alleged victims a window to receive justice.
In 2013, Minnesota did just that with passage of the Child Victims Act, which opened a three-year window for victims to report cases. Hundreds flooded in, leading to the 2015 bankruptcy of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.
Similar legislation proposed in New York and other states has faced strong opposition from the Catholic Church. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the archbishop of New York, has called the proposed one-year window in his state’s Child Victims Act “toxic” and “strangling” for the church.
After last month’s resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, over allegations he sexually abused minors and adult seminarians for decades; after what the pope has called “wounds” that “will not go away” in Pennsylvania; and after what the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has called a “moral catastrophe,” perhaps Dolan and like-minded lawmakers will better understand that it is the crimes against children that are toxic and strangling.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, archbishop of Galveston-Houston and president of the USCCB, has rightly acknowledged that the church needs to “make the reporting of abuse and misconduct by bishops easier.” He’s also called on the church to “develop and widely promote reliable third-party reporting mechanisms.”
As Burns explained, since 2008, over 125,000 people in the Dallas Diocese have been vetted and trained on how to protect children and other vulnerable individuals from abuse. Priests who come to the diocese, he said, must have a “letter of suitability” from the church that reviews their past. But, he added, “Bishops rely on other bishops to indeed assure the truth.” The abject failure of this self-policing is the reason grand jury investigations have proved necessary and “third-party reporting mechanisms” are essential.
Nevertheless, we would remind all clergy, regardless of faith, that the separation of religion and state does not mean anyone is above the law. Section 261.101 of the Texas Family Code mandates that anyone who suspects child abuse or neglect must report it immediately. This, the law clearly states, “applies without exception to an individual whose personal communications may otherwise be privileged, including ... a member of the clergy.”
Importantly, the law also applies when “an adult was a victim of abuse or neglect as a child and the person or professional determines in good faith that disclosure of the information is necessary to protect the health and safety of another child.”
No prison sentence, fine or award of damages can ever make up for the abuse of a child. Such crimes, as Pope Francis wrote, “inflict deep wounds of pain and powerlessness, primarily among the victims, but also in their family members and in the larger community of believers and nonbelievers alike.”
We must hope — and yes, pray — that the Catholic Church can reform itself. It remains an important institution and must take every measure to continue to be so. But we must be vigilant and hold all individuals who abuse a child, or fail to report abuse, accountable for what are nothing less than crimes against humanity.