Hold Church Hierarchy Accountable

By Eileen P. Flynn
The Star-Ledger [United States]
February 27, 2006

It has been two years since the Catholic Church in the United States issued a report about the sexual abuse of minors by priests. Church authorities acknowledged that more than 10,000 victim-survivors had credibly accused more than 4,000 priests of abuse over a period of 50 years. Bishop Wilton Gregory, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said known offenders were not in ministry any longer, adding, "The terrible history recorded here today is history."

Catholics wanted to believe that new policies would bring needed changes and that the church was truly committed to putting the scandal behind it.

The bishops pledged themselves to transparency and accountability, and Catholics tried to overcome the temptation to distrust the church's leadership. Yes, the numbers of abusers and abused were dreadful, but two years ago Catholics wanted to be hopeful about the future.

However, careful attention to recent news accounts from dioceses all across the United States shows that the policies and procedures put in place to make churches safe environments for young people contain loopholes that still leave children at risk.

At the height of the scandal, bishops appointed review boards to assist them in evaluating charges against priests, and the bishops established a national review board to oversee compliance with policies throughout the country. It seemed as if the laity were finally collaborating in a meaningful way with the bishops, but this conclusion is optimistic. Lay boards are advisory in nature, and it is up to the bishop who appoints members to boards to accept or reject their advice.

Many bishops have ignored requests from survivor groups to have survivors of priest molestation on diocesan review boards. In some dioceses, the names of review board members are not even published. Without transparency regarding board deliberations about accusations, people do not know how those who report misconduct are being treated or whether appropriate action is being taken.

In June 2002, when the bishops met in Dallas to address the sex abuse scandal, they invited victim- survivors to their sessions and dialogued with them. Bishops then said how much they learned from victims and how pained they were to learn how victims were harmed by abuse.

The bishops seemed to be bridging the gap between the administrative and the empathetic. But willingness to dialogue did not last long. The atmosphere of the bishops' meetings quickly changed so that at subsequent meetings members of survivor groups were kept at arm's length.

In June 2002, the bishops agreed to adopt the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. This document describes how to deal with priest molestation of minors and establishes one strike and you're out as the policy governing priests against whom credible accusations of abuse are made.

Unfortunately, we now know that the policy has loopholes that need to be plugged.

Vetting priests who are U.S. citizens and who have worked only in the United States is straightforward; fingerprints and background checks reveal which priests have criminal pasts. Because there is a shortage of priests in this country, however, priests from abroad are frequently hired to work in the United States. In many cases, church administrators rely on information provided by priest applicants and their bishops to evaluate the applicant's past. This system leaves a lot to be desired, as recent victims of priest abusers who came from foreign countries demonstrate.

Priests who are removed from the priesthood because they sexually abused minors frequently are pressured by bishops to be laicized. By being reduced to the lay state, a man is no longer a priest and no longer subject to the authority of a bishop.

Who watches a former priest who eludes criminal prosecution because the statute of limitations has expired? Nobody protects children from him, and in some dioceses, bishops have not even named such men. Bishops who shrug their shoulders and say, "He is not my responsibility," are manifesting moral bankruptcy.

If bishops had not evaded the criminal justice system when they learned of priests' misconduct years ago, the former priests would either be in prison or be registered sex offenders. Since bishops protected offending priests from law enforcement authorities in the past, bishops should enter into humble dialogue with parents about steps that can be taken now to protect children.

Engaging in humble dialogue assumes that a bishop is sincere and aware of the enormous harm that the hierarchy has done to the Catholic Church in the United States. He is a bishop who is open to change and committed to reform. Some bishops fit this bill, but others do not. Some bishops strategize with lawyers to keep priest personnel records locked in the chancery basement and keep nasty secrets from coming to light. They observe the letter of the new policies while ignoring the spirit of the mandate to protect children. For example, a priest whose victim was just over 18 was allowed to continue in ministry because the guidelines require removal of priests who molest minors.

Another priest passed his cardinal's test for good standing because he was a seminarian and not yet a priest when he molested a victim. In April 2005, people watched as Pope John Paul II was laid to rest and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became the pope. Neither leader has adequately supervised the approximately 300 bishops in the United States. Despite all that has come to light, it bears noting that not one bishop has suffered a public penalty handed down by the Vatican because of egregious negligence in handling sex abuse.

This is why Catholics need to stay alert and informed and demand responsible leadership. Bishop Gregory was wrong when he said that the sordid story of priest sex abuse is history. Closing policy loopholes and demanding removal of bishops who evade their responsibilities must happen before the end is in sight.

Eileen P. Flynn, author of "Catholics at a Crossroads: Coverup, Crisis, and Cure," is a professor at Saint Peter's College in Jersey City.


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