Where's the sympathy for priests' victims?

By Rekha Basu
Des Moines Register
October 1, 2003

Forgive me for sounding cold, but I don't get it.

I've heard excuse upon excuse this last week and a half for priests who committed sexual abuse while wearing their collars. I've heard very little sympathy for their victims.

Instead of relief that the Des Moines diocese is finally taking abuse seriously enough to weed out the rotten apples by defrocking three priests, I've heard anger toward its new zero-tolerance policy. Some Catholics have suggested the diocese was unfair or wrong, that the priests should have been given another chance or that the abuses shouldn't be allowed to cloud their other contributions.

Loyalty is a laudable quality, but not when the subtext is denying or minimizing a horrible offense. And not when it's done at a victim's expense. Reading regular interviews with detractors of the diocese's Aug. 19 announcement has made me want to shout: Do you realize what you're defending? He wasn't who you thought he was. He was a hypocrite who exploited your trust!

If you want to be angry at the diocese, there's reason enough in its failure all these years to protect the innocent. Those priests, Richard Wagner, John Ryan and Albert Wilwerding, gained entry into their victims' lives by using their holy standing. When they exploited children and violated that sacred trust, they forfeited the right to be purveyors of moral or religious values.

Some parishioners remark that they never saw the priests acting inappropriately. Are they suggesting the victims lied? Some have dismissively noted we all make mistakes, but that the priests are still wonderful, smart, caring people, even "the embodiment of Christ."

But child sexual abuse isn't just a regrettable lapse in judgment, like having one too many drinks before hitting the road, or making a fool of yourself at the office Christmas party. It involves sneakiness, predatory behavior, cover-up, and it makes a mockery of any claim to higher moral values. It leaves a lasting legacy of pain -to the child, his or her family, even future intimate partners.

Some people are blaming the celibacy vow priests are required to take. Sure, it's out of date. But honorable priests have had the courage to voluntarily leave the priesthood. They didn't sneak around preying on children.

This comes against a national backdrop of soul-searching within the church in the wake of scandals involving sexually abusive priests who were protected and moved around.

These incidents, all founded allegations, took place decades ago. Had the diocese had a zero-tolerance policy then, as it does now, none of the priests would have been allowed to continue in ministry. But prior practice was to refer abusers for counseling.

Some defenders of the 68-year-old Wagner in particular are upset that this is happening after he received treatment following his sexual abuse of a teenage girl while a priest in Red Oak in the late 1980s, and was allowed to return to ministry. He does pay a double penalty, true, but it's not too great a price in the interests of moving the church forward.

We now know that child molesters and pedophiles may never be safely rehabilitated to the point where they could be unsupervised around children again. "From what we know, it's extremely unusual that there's only one offense," says Beth Barnhill, executive director of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "And it is such a devastating event, enough to merit pretty serious consequences, that you need to not be around a child again. . . . It's way too great a risk."

So why all the denial? People want to believe sex offenders look and act like some stereotype, says Barnhill — not the person who baptized their kids, heard their confessions and performed their wedding ceremonies.

Some also seem to be questioning whether's Wagner offense with a teenage girl rose to the same level of seriousness as those of the other two priests, each implicated in the abuse of more than one boy. Few details of the offenses have been released, but from what I've seen, the allegation review committee, which heard testimony from victims, was careful not to act without compelling reason. It was fulfilling the new diocese policy toward priests who used a minor "for the purposes of sexual gratification." In two other priests' cases, it took no action.

In a service at the Basilica of St. John after the defrockings were announced, the Rev. Aquinas Nichols expressed fear that "those who do not understand will use such information to nurture anti-Catholic feelings and bias." Certainly, no one should do that. Abuse can crop up anywhere; it's how an institution responds and prevents it that matters.

It took courage for Bishop Joseph Charron to take the actions he did toward cleaning house and restoring confidence in the church. What a tragedy it would be if parishioners' resistance to change leads future abuses to be swept back under the rug.

REKHA BASU can be reached at or (515) 284-8584.


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