Penance in Spokane

The Seattle Times
February 3, 2006

An enormous step toward reconciliation and healing between 75 sex-abuse victims and the Catholic Diocese of Spokane is a welcome part of a settlement offer from the church.

The financial piece is sizable at $45.7 million, but the settlement moves beyond dollars and cents to recognize the wounded humanity behind a legal deal. The diocese and victims will talk about what happened and identify those responsible for this tragedy. The financial settlement is bold, especially as presented, with no clear indication where the money will come from: property sales, insurance coverage and contributions from parishes and individuals.

The money is important because that is one way the larger culture metes out punishment and signals the grievous nature of an infraction. Here were abusive priests - persons in a powerful role who betrayed society's trust and respect to attack children. Sexual predation claims a life without killing - that is the message of the settlement's dollar figure.

For the church and those who had their bodies and faith violated by priests, the real progress is to be found in the balance of the agreement. Settlements often seek to silence the aggrieved. Not this time.

As proposed, and yet to be approved by a bankruptcy judge and those who sued, the bishop would go to each parish where a victim was abused and identify the offender. Victims would be allowed to address parishes and write about their experience in the diocesan newspaper. Letters of apology would be sent to victims and their families. The church would also advocate for abolition of statutes of limitation on sex crimes.

Perhaps the most liberating step will be to stop referring to victims as alleged victims.

A central failure of the Catholic Church in this national scandal was an early, persistent refusal to admit a problem existed and look beyond the needs of the vocation. As settlements from Massachusetts to Kentucky to Washington make clear, this has never been an isolated tragedy.

Resolution and reconciliation are about mending broken lives, not a legal problem to be contained. For a church grounded in the remission of sin, it is amazing there was so little acknowledgment of what needed to be done.


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