Rare candor on rogue priests
September 30, 2002
"Telling the truth cannot be wrong." With those simple words, Cardinal William Keeler last week released a torrent of information on decades of child abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Baltimore.
Keeler posted on the Internet the names of 56 priests and other clergy members accused of preying on minors, along with details of the allegations. They include parishes where the men were assigned and a breakdown on church costs for settling the cases.
The accessible public disclosure is among the most detailed accounting of sexual-abuse accusations by an archdiocese since reports surfaced this year that dioceses across the USA were covering up abuse allegations. At a time when the Vatican is dragging its feet on approving a strict new policy for dealing with child abusers among the clergy, Keeler's actions can serve as a needed model on how to rebuild trust with a shaken public. Indeed, the chairman of a national lay-review panel created to oversee a new "zero tolerance" policy adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in June has hailed the move as an example for church leaders.
Yet despite a year of unrelenting bad publicity and promises to do better, many dioceses continue to hide facts and attack their accusers. Just in the past month:
* The Archdiocese of Lexington, Ky., argued in the state's Supreme Court to keep from the public portions of a lawsuit alleging sexual abuse by priests.
* A Nashua, N.H., Catholic high school charged that plaintiffs in an abuse case against members of the Brothers of the Sacred Heart had invited the abuse.
* Dioceses in California worked out an agreement with prosecutors to turn over a limited list of alleged sex offenders without reviewing the files of all current and former priests for allegations.
Such hardball legal tactics aren't stopping facts from coming out. If church officials won't release information, secular authorities will. In Bristol, Mass., a local prosecutor released the names of 20 priests accused of sexual crimes alleged to have occurred too long ago to prosecute. In Boston, a state judge ordered the archdiocese to turn over the personnel records of 87 priests to plaintiffs who charged that the church had an official policy of hiding misconduct by priests.
The church's legal counteroffensive only deepens the scandal. Imitating Keeler's approach might restore church leaders' credibility by showing they want to confront the problem rather than suppress it at all cost.