Bishops" Plan Is a Start

By Ted Slowik
The Herald News
June 15, 2002

I come from a large Catholic family. I'm the youngest of 12 children. My parents, devout Catholics to this day, sent my three oldest brothers to a seminary for high school.

I attended Catholic grade school for nine years (St. Cletus in LaGrange), a Jesuit high school for two years (St. Ignatius College Prep) and earned a degree from a Catholic university (Lewis).

My wife converted to Catholicism and our children attend a Catholic grade school. I'm not a Catholic-basher, nor am I on a witch hunt to root out every priest who ever broke his vow of celibacy.

But since April, when I met a man who was sexually abused by a Joliet priest, I've been profoundly affected by stories of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and how bishops responded to the situations.

I believe that some bishops, seminary rectors and other church leaders caused the current crisis. Instead of easing the suffering of people who were manipulated into sexual relationships, they treated victims and whistle-blowers with hostility. They failed to monitor their priests and allowed a culture of predators to thrive.

On Friday, bishops did the best they could to respond to the crisis by adopting a policy that hopefully will prevent future abuses from taking place. Already in the Joliet Diocese, parishes are implementing new rules of their own: No priest or other adult shall ever be alone with a child, except in confession, for example.

I feel that many priests committed crimes of sexual abuse because they believed they would get away with it, that their bishops would pressure families into remaining silent to avoid scandal. The zero-tolerance policy for future abuses hopefully will serve as a strong deterrent.

I also know that many victims opted not to report abuses until years later, a fact that hindered church leaders from properly assessing the scope of the problem.

The Dallas conference showed that bishops got the message that laity will not tolerate sexual abuse in the priesthood. But this is just the beginning. Some Catholics are asking if church leaders couldn't responsibly deal with the obvious issue of sexual predators all these years, why should we trust them when it comes to other issues?

It's hypocritical, to say the least, for an institution with such rigid views on issues like abortion, birth control and the death penalty to seek so much "wiggle room" for child molesters among its own ranks. Many believe the Catholic Church's credibility is shot when it comes to preaching about social issues.

I think that before the people in the pews restore their trust in church leaders, some more bishops have to acknowledge their gross negligence. The only way they can do this is by stepping down. And bishops that have resigned after admitting they sexually abused minors, like Anthony O'Connell of Palm Beach, Fla., should be defrocked.

Here in Joliet, I'm hopeful that Bishop Joseph Imesch will follow through on his pledges of reform. I'd like the bishop to acknowledge those priests, in addition to Larry Gibbs, who were defrocked in the past 20 years because of sexual misconduct or who were subjects of substantiated, credible allegations before they died.

I'd like to know how many people in the diocese have reported claims of sexual abuse by priests, lay teachers in Catholic schools or other officials over the years. And I'd like to know how much the diocese has spent on settlements, counseling for victims and legal fees. Any meaningful attempt to address the problem here must include a thorough study of its scope.

I'm troubled by reports that the Most Rev. Daniel Ryan, a former auxiliary bishop and chancellor of the Joliet Diocese, engaged in inappropriate relationships with young men. Ryan resigned, or "retired early," as bishop of Springfield in 1999 without admitting any wrongdoing. He is still held in high regard by our diocese, participating in confirmations, graduations and other ceremonies.

This is a marathon, not a sprint. The truth will emerge, with or without the diocese's cooperation. It will be better for Catholics to hear admissions from the bishop himself than from other sources.


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