Only Confronting Full Truth Will Allow Catholic Church to Move Past Scandal

Erie Times-News
July 6, 2003

In his most recent correspondence with a 43-year-old Erie man, Erie Catholic Bishop Donald W. Trautman offered what passes for good news.

"I write in reference to Thomas Smith. ... I am happy to inform you that at this point he has obtained a secular position and will be residing outside of Erie County and no longer in any clerical setting," Trautman wrote the man in February.

The man, who said the Rev. Thomas E. Smith sexually abused him when he was a boy, more than 30 years ago, had been prodding Trautman to remove Smith from the ministry and banish him from Erie.

The bishop's news might have been welcome for the man and his family. But I doubt Trautman would be happy to inform Smith's new neighbors that a man with his past had settled among them and their children.

If those people, wherever they are, find out that Smith bears watching, it will only be because a couple of Erie Times-News reporters kept digging. If those people live beyond this newspaper's reach, they might not find out at all.

Smith is one of at least five priests with ties to the Catholic Diocese of Erie who have been removed or resigned over allegations of sexual misconduct, mostly involving children. He and the others represent a disturbing consequence of the church hierarchy's long pattern of covering for sexual predators.

The nature of pedophilia makes it likely, absent intensive therapy and oversight, that offenders will seek out more victims. But cutting loose priests with that background removes any remaining tether on their whereabouts and behavior.

And because Trautman refuses to name all the priests who have left the ministry because of sexual misconduct, more than we know about might be right here in Erie.

Nearly all of what the public knows about how this scandal has touched the Erie diocese came from this newspaper, and for the most part it was dug up in spite of Bishop Trautman. Most of the reforms occurring in the Erie diocese and others around the country result from the revelations of journalists and the public outrage they created.

The bulk of the evidence leaves little doubt these men never would have cleaned up this mess on their own. But the evidence also suggests Trautman is doing better at facing the music than some of his brothers.

In addition to putting in place tough new policies outlined by the U.S. bishops at the height of the scandal, Trautman also has pledged to cooperate fully with auditors from the National Review Board and to fully complete an exhaustive national survey meant to catalogue the extent of the abuse and how it was handled by the hierarchy.

Some bishops have balked at those steps, helping to ignite the rhetorical firestorm in June that put an early end to former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating's tenure as chairman of the National Review Board.

Keating, who harbors a razor-sharp tongue, crossed a line when he compared the tactics of some bishops to those of La Cosa Nostra. His "extreme rhetoric," to use Trautman's description, prompted his board colleagues to show him the door.

But Keating's underlying point was right on. Some bishops show little appetite for reform, especially when it means answering to some other power.

Keating's penchant for blunt talk, so rare in the Catholic hierarchy, also might offer a clue to why his departure struck a chord with the bishops' critics. He offered what many Catholics have been looking for, largely in vain, from their bishops — a sense of outrage and a willingness to confront in stark terms what really happened here.

Priests committed monstrous crimes against children, and bishops deployed the vast powers of the institution to shield them from justice and in some cases arrange for a fresh supply of victims. It's despicable and ugly and infuriating in a way that can make the gauzy, almost detached responses from some bishops seem like a fresh offense.

The protectors of these criminals did what they did in a perverse, morally blind attempt to protect the church. Now some resist reform and disclosure for the same reason.

But the naming of names, the exposing of crimes and the catharsis of justified outrage won't harm the church. Not in the long run. Not in the ways that ultimately matter. More secrecy and obstruction will.

As opinion polls and collection plates around the country show, people don't lose faith in God. They lose faith in bishops. Let us pray enough of them find the wisdom to understand that only a full reckoning can cleanse this stain.


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