Zero Tolerance Only Way to Go in Abuse Crisis

By Ted Slowik
The Herald News
April 27, 2002

I hope when the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops meets in Dallas in June that it adopts a zero-tolerance policy for all cases of priests who sexually abuse minors from now on.

Even if consensus is reached on that point, American bishops remain sharply divided about whether men who abused children years ago should still be allowed to serve as priests. Some, like Joliet Bishop Joseph Imesch, believe abusers who have cleaned up their acts should be allowed to serve in limited ministries.

The bishops are trying to show compassion for people who were abused while at the same time protecting an accused priest's right to due process.

If bishops are sincere in their concern for victims of abuse, then they ought to consider the wishes of the families of abuse survivors when considering a priest's fate. Before someone is sentenced in the American criminal justice system, people affected by the crime have an opportunity to give a victim impact statement. The church's process should at the very least provide a similar chance for survivors to be heard.

And if a bishop decides that it is OK for a child molester to remain a priest, the people who will supervise that man's ministry must know about his past. Then, administrators of hospitals, prisons or parishes can make informed decisions about whether to accept that man and how to satisfy the public's right to know about sex offenders.

By now, it's clear that a diocese cannot bear the responsibility of policing itself. When sexual abuse is alleged, the first report should be made to police. When a family approaches the diocese first, the diocese should be obliged to share that information with authorities immediately. Anything less amounts to obstruction of justice.

I think that in order for people to fully restore their faith and trust in all priests, the felonious criminals need to be removed.

As for the Joliet Diocese agreeing to hand over to prosecutors the names of priests accused of abuse, I'm glad to finally see some action instead of words but I view the step with some skepticism. How are we to know this list is complete? And it sounds like this will do little to get to the truth about what diocesan officials knew about inappropriate behavior and what they did about it at the time.

"We also acknowledge that in retrospect, some of our past actions were inconsistent with our goals to protect children and act responsibly and compassionately toward victims," Imesch said in a statement this week.

This is Imesch's first public indication that he knows far more than he is saying, that he is afraid of documentation coming to light that would show he enabled molesters to have continued access to children. It is not enough to say, "We didn't know any better at the time."

Imesch's handling of abuse cases over the years is now a criminal investigation. I'm confident that investigators and prosecutors will thoroughly evaluate all the claims of sexual abuse and press charges against individuals when the evidence warrants. I trust that those individuals will receive fair trials and appropriate punishments under our criminal justice system.

I think Catholicism will survive the current crisis, but not until people regain confidence in their bishops and other church leaders. As a community, the Joliet Diocese will have to endure many more painful revelations before the process is complete.


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