Today’s priests and the sins of the fathers

New York Daily News

June 7, 2022

By Fr. Alexander Santora

An advertisement on a public bus reads “End clergy sex abuse now,” with an image of a silhouette of a priest in a Roman collar and a phone number for a lawyer.

It’s open season on priests, and there seems to be no end in sight. To date, more than $4 billion has been paid out in court verdicts or settlements to victims of clerical sex abuse in the United States. In April, the Diocese of Camden, N.J. agreed to settle claims for $87.5 million.

Priests and the Catholic Church are routinely fodder for comics. On the season finale of “Saturday Night Live,” Colin Jost, a Catholic, cited the story about nuns resorting to TikTok to boost vocations and said, “When the Catholic Church tries to connect with young people, it always goes well.” The audience groaned instead of laughing.

It is very difficult for a priest accused today to get a fair hearing. A priest is considered guilty until proven innocent even by the church. I know several long-time priests with otherwise unblemished records accused last November. Their priesthoods are effectively over.

New Jersey and New York relaxed their statutes of limitations on child sex abuse lawsuits, and accusations dating back 50 years were filed in civil court. Nonetheless, before an investigation, the priest is yanked from his assignment, cannot wear clerics, must find his own lodging and is often sued by the diocese to recoup any funds and has to hire his own lawyer. And this process can drag on for months and often years.

The hierarchy allows this injustice to continue. In 2002, after The Boston Globe uncovered massive cover-ups of pedophile priests in Boston, the Conference on Catholic Bishops hastily crafted “The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” The charter established that priests with even one credible accusation be removed. This process began a 20-year period of purification to help restore the church’s credibility.

But a 2004 study carried out by John Jay College concluded that 4% of priests dating back 50 years were abusers. In other words, the overwhelming majority of priests in the U.S. do not harm their flock.

The Charter’s essential norms state, “A priest or deacon who is accused…is to be accorded the presumption of innocence during the investigation…and all appropriate steps are to be taken to protect his reputation.” Back then some bishops, including Avery Cardinal Dulles, raised concerns that innocent priests could be railroaded.

‘’In their effort to protect children, to restore public confidence in the church as an institution and to protect the church from liability suits, the bishops opted for an extreme response,’’ Dulles wrote in the Jesuit magazine, America.

Dulles turned the bishops’ own words against them. The bishops’ 2000 criminal justice document, called “Responsibility, Rehabilitation and Restoration,” condemned “one-size-fits-all solutions” and urged society to “welcome ex-offenders back into society” when feasible. Sadly, it did not apply to priests.

Dulles predicted what would happen 20 years later: “Such action seems to reflect an attitude of vindictiveness to which the church should not yield.”

One accused priest I know well, who is considered one of our finest, had a single accusation from his first year, which just removed him from ministry. “If the priest were only accused and presumed innocent, why would the (church) remove him from the parish and ministry?” another priest asked. “It would not be far-fetched for some people to think there must be something to the accusation.”

Priesthood is not simply a job that one does and goes home. The work of priests is intertwined with his identity. Most priests live in the same place they work. Their family is the people they serve. Punitive measures before any investigation or verdict rob the priest of his identity.

That there were thousands of abusers over a 50-year period is a tragedy of massive proportions. The damage inflicted on the priesthood, including by the institutional church, which mismanaged the problem for decades since it was first exposed by journalist Jason Berry in The National Catholic Reporter in the 1980s, is lasting and unjust.

But a relatively newly ordained priest told me that there is a narrative out there that priests abused, the church covered it up and now deserves to pay and be sorry in perpetuity. The narrative today, lately supported by the problems in the Baptist denomination, is that priests are not likely to abuse — yet still, priests are much more likely to be accused with the hope of a large financial settlement. Priests accused today are carrying the burden of past sins of the fathers, and that is a grave injustice.

Santora, a priest for 40 years, is the pastor of The Church of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph in Hoboken, N.J.