Another Corrosive Wave

November 30, 2006

The negative impact of wrongdoing by powerful people ripples beyond the immediate individuals and institutions involved.

Misconduct by a few federal lawmakers paints all politicians as corrupt and "only in it for themselves." The outrages by WorldCom and Enron executives have stockholders questioning the veracity of CEOs and presidents in other large U.S. corporations.

Sexual abuse cases involving Roman Catholic priests in one diocese raise eyebrows and under-the-breath questioning of all clergy.

As one of 10 Boston priests who were barred from ministry after being accused of sexual misconduct said, "All of us are being fed to the wolves."

The "wolves" to which he referred are the media, and the extensive coverage of the allegations of sexual abuse by priests no doubt nibbled on innocent men along with those who deserved it. But it's difficult to work up sympathy for the upper ranks of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth after reading the details of Star-Telegram staff writer Darren Barbee's eye-opening report of what the diocese's own files revealed about obfuscation by church leaders.

The records, made available Tuesday after state District Judge Len Wade released selected documents related to a sexual abuse lawsuit against the diocese, show that Fort Worth Bishop Joseph Delaney and other church leaders intentionally misled the priests' accusers, parishioners and the public.

The files from the settled suit build on what has been reported previously: Delaney was duplicitous in masking the extent of the problem in the diocese.

Bishop Kevin Vann, who took the helm of the Fort Worth Diocese last year after Delaney's death, did not comment Tuesday, but he did say during an August news conference that the church could have "acted more promptly, forthrightly and with greater compassion to those who came forward with allegations."

Anyone who has sat through a Public Relations 101 class knows that it is better to get all the bad news out at once than to have it seep out, one corrosive story at a time. The cost of the cover-up almost always proves too high.

An Oct. 28, 2005, editorial in the National Catholic Reporter about sexual abuse cases in the Los Angeles archdiocese said in part: "If the church in the United States is to survive with any integrity, bold new steps must be taken to get at the truth of this scandal. The way the truth so far has been squeezed out of reluctant members of the hierarchy is demoralizing to the faithful and demeaning to a community that calls itself Christian."

Local Catholics understandably are disturbed to see their diocese splashed all over the front pages of North Texas' major metropolitan newspapers. But the diocesan leadership must take responsibility for the bad press. Every time that a new wave in this sickening story arises, old wounds are reopened and fresh ones are created.

In late October, Pope Benedict XVI addressed the issue of sexual abuse among clergy when a delegation of Irish bishops visited Rome.

"It is important to establish the truth of what happened in the past, to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again," Benedict said, according to a copy of his speech released by the Vatican.

Benedict went on to say that the church must "ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected."

Eternal forgiveness is between the sinners and their God. The earthly consequences -- those principles of justice -- come in the form of lawsuits, legal judgments, loss of credibility and the sale of property to pay monetary damages to the victims.

It is impossible to say whether long-term lessons have resulted from the continuous tales of abuse and evasion within the Catholic Church. But the long-term impact of the clerical sex abuse scandal likely is irrevocable.

Priests and bishops may have lost the moral claim to unquestioning trust from their parishioners, but they retain the responsibility for the stewardship of the church -- a responsibility that deserves renewed commitment to the faith they presume to teach and live.


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