Oklahoma Joe: Church must learn from its mistakes

By Joe Hight
Journal Record
October 14, 2019

Joe Hight

I’ll never forget attending an Oklahoma City-area Catholic Church in 2002 after the release of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team’s series. The pastor was blaming the media for revealing that priests had and were sexually abusing children.

I was outraged. Credible evidence and interviews with victims had already shown the “pure evil” intentions of the abusers, Walter “Robby” Robinson, editor of the Globe’s investigative team, said during the Oklahoma Pulitzer Centennial in 2016.

At that time in 2002, according to a recently released report from the law firm McAfee & Taft, the Oklahoma City Archdiocese had been actively involved in covering up sexual abusers. Perhaps the same could be said of the Tulsa Diocese.

As the brother of a former priest who was removed from the priesthood in the 1970s because of his mental illness, I might be expected to be angrier because other accused priests remained in their positions for years, despite credible abuse allegations. I and fellow members of the media might now feel vindicated.

But I don’t feel either emotion. I just feel utmost sorrow for the victims, especially those who were scorned for bringing the abuse to light. I’m more skeptical than ever that we are just beginning to see the depth of what occurred, especially in the Oklahoma City Archdiocese where 37 boxes of records have just been turned over.

I am also not commending the Archdiocese for the thoroughness of the 77-page report or the Tulsa Diocese for the findings in a much-smaller eight-page one. Any priest or official who is commending either report should stop now. Nothing should be commended or repair the damage that’s already been done.

Think about it, 17 years after we first started hearing about this, 17 years after, according to the Tulsa World, the Diocese of Tucson first released a list, both Oklahoma dioceses revealed the names of 22 priests and other clergy who had credible allegations of sexual abuse. And, with the additional boxes of information, that number could go up. During the nearly two decades, the McAfee & Taft report revealed, additional cover-ups of priests abusing children were occurring.

The low percentage of accused priests in both dioceses is also being questioned. But, even at 2%, we should remember those priests and other clergy were serving hundreds if not thousands of people.

After the reports were released, Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul Coakley and Tulsa Bishop David Konderla set a necessary tone by addressing the failure of both dioceses in the past and pledging transparency and zero tolerance in the future. I share their grief for the innocent priests who are being subjected to these reports, especially considering how long the cover-ups lasted. Many weren’t even ordained in 2002.

I recently heard Father William Novak, pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church and the Archdiocese’s vicar general, set a necessary emotional tone in addressing the report to his congregation. He didn’t commend. He said how sorry he was, how the church must learn from its mistakes, how full disclosure is “the way forward if we want to change the system.”

“The truth is we cannot change the past,” he said, but “make significant reforms” for the future.

“We had more concern for the priests or the reputation of the church, not the victims,” he said. “Every effort must be made to reach out to the victims with compassion and contrition. The church needs to be a sign of healing in the world.”

I agree but wish that healing would have started in or before 2002.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.