Cold, Hard Facts Best Myth Slayers

National Catholic Reporter [United States]
January 27, 2006

In as convoluted a piece of reasoning as we've seen in a long time, The Tidings, official newspaper of the Los Angeles archdiocese, declares in its Jan. 13 issue that "the belief that bishops moved child abusers from parish to parish, allowing them to abuse over and over, may well be one of the greatest myths created by the press coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the church." A Jan. 13 article points out, "Bishops did not generally move abusing clergy around because they were very often not aware of the abuse taking place."

Now that's quite a sentence. Let's try to pick it apart: Bishops did not transfer priests they did not suspect of molesting children. To which the only logical response is … huh?

The more relevant question, of course, is how many priests known or suspected by their bishops of having abused children were whisked away from one parish (lest their activities result in scandal) only to show up running the CYO or training altar servers in another? The answer, and this is no myth, is a whole lot.

It gets worse.

As evidence for its contention that priest-shuffling was minimal, the article quotes the authors of the John Jay study, the 2004 report, which, using data provided by the dioceses, determined that nearly 4,400 priests between 1950-2002 abused minors. "Commenting on the data," says The Tidings, "Karen Terry, PhD, and James P. Levine, PhD, the principal investigator and the administrative coordinator of the study, stated categorically: 'It is clear that transferring priests with allegations of child sexual abuse was not a general response to the problem, and was limited to a finite number of cases.' "

The problem is that the comments of Terry and Levine cited by The Tidings referred only to the relatively small number of abusing priests (143) who they documented had been transferred from one diocese to another diocese. (The researchers, who relied on data provided by individual dioceses, were trying to be careful that they didn't double count the perpetrators.) The John Jay study made no effort, none, to document the much more common phenomenon of transferring molester-priests from one parish to another parish within the same diocese. Anyone who actually reads the John Jay study would understand this but, just to be careful, we confirmed it with Levine, the study's coordinator.

Of course, you don't have to rely on "press coverage of the sexual abuse scandal in the church" to understand that shuffling abusive priests was a time-tested strategy of bishops dealing with priest-rapists.

From the Philadelphia district attorney's report on the history of clergy abuse in that city: "Documents clearly established that Cardinal [Anthony] Bevilacqua knew that the priests had admitted abusing minors. They also established that he alone was responsible for subsequently placing or leaving the priests in parishes where they would present a severe danger to children."

From the Suffolk County, N.Y., district attorney: "Abusive priests were transferred from parish to parish and between dioceses. Abusive priests were protected under the guise of confidentiality, their histories mired in secrecy."

Then there's Boston, where transferring abusive priests was standard operating procedure for more than a generation. And, of course, there's Los Angeles, where Cardinal Roger Mahony has acknowledged some of his own shortcomings related to the assignment of abusive priests.

Myth? Hardly.

Still, The Tidings article does raise one issue worth tackling. Much of the information related to the assignment of abusive priests, and the local bishop's culpability in those transfers, is still unknown. The activists who run the Web site have done a good job gathering as much information as possible about abusive priests and their assignments, but they are constrained because bishops, including Mahony, continue to deny the Catholic community information we should have about abusive priests. So, rather than articles about "myths," it would be helpful if the church simply released the documents that would allow the extent of the problem to be quantified.

And, finally, victims groups and others have urged the U.S. bishops to establish a database of abusive clergy, a searchable centralized source of information available on the Internet that would provide information on the nature and extent (such as how many parishes were affected) of abuse committed by specific members of the clergy. The idea has been discussed by the bishops at their biannual meetings and their sex abuse committee is considering how such a resource might be made available.

The database is a good idea, one that will help protect children and shatter some myths.


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