Recalling an Old Sin Can Bring Healing to Victims
Bishop William Curlin stood last Sunday morning at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Asheville to announce that the parish priest had sexually abused several children in the 1950s.
On a bitterly cold morning in the mountains of Western North Carolina, the bishop apologized to the congregation's 300 families for the hurt inflicted by the Rev. William J. Kuder, who died in 1960.
"Evil," Bishop Curlin called it.
Bishop Curlin helped relieve the victims - now grown men haunted by their past - of guilt often felt by the abused.
"I assure you that you were innocent of all sin," said Bishop Curlin, head of the Diocese of Charlotte. "You were a child who was abused and molested by a man who hid behind his priesthood and took advantage of it to use you for his personal pleasure."
And during this time of Lent, when Christians seek reconciliation through penance, the bishops pledged to do everything in their power to rid churches of the stain of sexual abuse.
"The Apostle Paul reminds us that where one suffers, we all suffer," preached Bishop Curlin. ". . .Although none of us can erase the past, we can work together to prevent such a crime from happening again."
Despite the public announcement and poignant words, The Observer chose at first not to write a story. The priest died long ago, we said among ourselves on the metropolitan news desk the night the story broke. The acts were 40 years old and happened in another city. What reason could there be to chronicle this dredging up of the past?
But with a week to think about it, to appreciate the Catholic community's eagerness to confess this sin and the bishop's determination to pull back the curtain, I now believe there's good reason to dredge up the past.
How else can the church safeguard the next generation if it doesn't reach back to the victims of a previous generation?
And how can the church express its regret and resolve if we don't help spread the word?
Society has been rocked in recent years by the frightening figures of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Since 1984, an estimated 400 priests out of some 50,000 in North America have been accused of molesting children. Because many victims are still afraid to come forward, those numbers surely don't reflect the true scope of the scandal. Maverick priest and novelist Andrew Greeley estimates that up to 4,000 priests have sexually abused some 100,000 children in the last quarter-century.
Shocked out of their lethargy by the abuse - and by lawsuits against the church - Catholic leaders have gotten tougher on offending priests.
In Charlotte, where no allegations have ever been proved, a committee of laypersons that includes a victim of child abuse is in place to investigate suspected wrongdoing.
Bishop Curlin told the Asheville congregation Sunday that candidates for priesthood in the Charlotte diocese are psychologically tested and questioned about their past. If a credible allegation is leveled, the priest would be removed from ministry. If the accusation proves true, he would be expelled and his case turned over to civil authorities.
But rules and regulations can't match the power of church leaders when they muster outrage over sexual abuse 40 years later. A committee of compassionate laypersons can't equal two bishops standing up to set the record straight.
All this came home to me one afternoon this week as I listened to Bishop Curlin recount the details of his Sunday morning in Asheville. He was hurt, of course, by having to break the shocking news. Some angry churchgoers demanded to know how he could tear down a priest who has already died.
Bishop Curlin answered the skeptics from the pulpit: ". . .The victims of Father Kuder and their families have never ceased to feel the intense pain he brought them. Their Calvary has lasted a lifetime and continues to this very day."
But I saw more than just pain in Bishop Curlin's eyes at having to confront a departed priest's conduct.
There is the pride that comes with confession, or reconciliation.
There is purpose at being able to drive home the point that all good priests suffer for the misdeeds of one bad one.
There is relief in knowing Sunday's announcement is already helping. Some people victimized by sexual abuse outside the church have come forward to say they're better able to deal with the pain.
Finally, there is confidence that comes in knowing that justice demands we set the record straight. No matter how long it takes us to see the light.
The Catholic Diocese of Charlotte has also set up a toll-free number
for members who have been sexually abused. Those in need of counseling
or referrals can call 1-800-338-6319 anytime.
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