Removing Curran's Name Honors Victims

Morning Sentinel
May 29, 2008

The Rev. John J. Curran, who died in 1976, served as priest at Augusta's St. Augustine Church from 1962 to 1972. Curran was a central and powerful figure in the city's Catholic community, largely composed of Franco-Americans. So it was fitting that when the state wanted to honor Augusta's citizens of French descent, the downtown span crossing the Kennebec River was named the "Father Curran Bridge." So, too, it was fitting that two college scholarships in the area -- one at the University of Maine at Augusta, the other awarded by the Calumet Club -- were named in honor of Curran.

Yet much has changed since those honors were bestowed on Curran. Allegations of sexual abuse have been lodged against priests across the country, and Augusta's Catholic parish was not immune. At least two people came forward -- one to the Legislature and the other to the Attorney General's office -- and claimed that Curran sexually abused them when they were children. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland investigated both claims and spokeswoman Sue Bernard says the diocese believes one of those two formal accusations to be true. If Curran were alive today, says Bernard, the diocese would ask the Vatican to prevent him from ministering.

So a legitimate question has now been raised: If Curran would not be allowed to minister because the Church believes he committed an intolerable and indefensible abuse of his power, why should he continue to be honored?

It's more than an academic question. When Pope Benedict XVI came to the United States in April, he did something extraordinary: He met with five victims of clerical sexual abuse, something no pope had ever done before. Pope Benedict acknowledged that the clergy abuse scandal was "sometimes very badly handled" by the church, which took years to investigate allegations and often allowed priests to continue working with children long after allegations had been made. And the pope told reporters on his way over to this country that, "We are deeply ashamed, and we will do all that is possible that this cannot happen in the future."

There are many ways that the church can act, and has already acted, to prevent such abuse from happening in the future. The church can apologize, correct and vow to do better. It can properly investigate allegations, cooperate with law enforcement authorities to bring prosecutions, require education of clergy in sexual abuse issues, make records of confirmed abusers publicly available and award restitution to those who have suffered.

But it is not only up to the church to do "all that is possible" so that such abuse will not happen in the future. There are actions that can be taken by other institutions and individuals to redress grievances and acknowledge the suffering of the abused.

For far too long in our culture, those who abused in private were protected and even honored in public. Such public displays of respect constituted a painful rebuke to those who were victimized. The message to them was undeniably that their suffering did not count, and thus they did not count.

Removing Father Curran's name from the public institutions and structures on which his name has been placed would be a statement of respect and apology for those abused by Curran. It may not be easy, since renaming a bridge would take an act of the Legislature and renaming scholarships may require legal maneuvering to change what are essentially contract terms.

Hardship is nevertheless a paltry excuse for any failure to act on this issue. The victims of clergy sexual abuse have lived lives of hardship, including the hardship of having their suffering denied and their pain exacerbated every time they see the honors accorded to Father Curran.

It's time for that to stop.


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