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March 23, 2002
Column #1073
(First of a three-part series)

Clergy Sexual Abuse: A New Reformation Hits Catholicism

     Every day there are major new revelations about the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. Yet there is a lot more to come out - perhaps 100 times as much as has been published.

     The church is facing a crisis that insiders compare to the Protestant Reformation initiated by Martin Luther. " We are at 1515, between when Martin Luther went to Rome in 1510 and 1517 when he nailed his 95 theses on the door in Wittenberg," said A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and therapist of hundreds of priests who wrote the landmark book, "A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy."

     On Sunday The Hartford Courant published a 5000 word story revealing that New York Cardinal Edward Egan, while serving as Bishop of Bridgeport, Conn. "allowed several priests to continue working for years - including one who admitted biting a teenager during oral sex...He alleged a dozen people who made complaints of rape, molestation and beatings against the same priest may have all been lying," according to secret court documents given to the paper.

     On Tuesday in Boston, after weeks of delay, the Archdiocese of Boston gave state prosecutors four boxes of files about 90 priests accused of sexually abusing children over the last 50 years. Last week the Archdiocese reached a settlement with 86 victims of a single priest that could cost $30 million.

     Also on Tuesday, New York Cardinal Egan finally broke his silence on the issue by labeling pedophilia an "abomination" and encouraging "anyone who has an allegation to bring it immediately and directly to civil authorities." 

     However, he refused to routinely report cases that came to the church's attention,
asserting, "As has been made clear, when there is reasonable cause to suspect that abuse had occurred and if the victims do not oppose the reporting, the Archdiocese will make appropriate reports to civil authorities." 

     Only rarely do victims want to prosecute. They simply want the molesting priest removed from parish work so that others will not be sexually abused. Therefore, Egan did not make as full a commitment as did Cardinal Law, under the pressure of relentless reporting by the Boston Globe, and an unprecedented rise of anger by lay Catholics in that city. In his 12 years as Bishop of Bridgeport, Egan did not turn one case over to the police to prosecute.

     A stunning fact is that of the nearly 2,000 priests who have been identified as molesters of minors, there have been only "two dozen who have served a jail sentence," according to Barbara Blaine, founder of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (

     . I have been covering this sad story since the mid 1980's, when the first articles were reported in the National Catholic Reporter by Jason Berry. This column gave the first national visibility to the scandal in American newspapers. 

     My hope was that church leaders would learn the lesson that child or teen molesters are incorrigible. Once credible evidence has been presented against a priest, he had to be removed from parish ministry where he is trusted and his access to altar boys leads him into temptation.

     Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore learned this painful lesson. In his newspaper column last week, Keeler quoted St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians: "Take no part in the fruitless deeds of darkness; rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible." 

     The Cardinal added, "All around us today darkness is being brought to light as we hear stories from Boston, Palm Beach...and even from St. Thomas Aquinas School in Baltimore," where a lay teacher was dismissed in February on pedophile charges and has been rearrested twice since.

     Sadly, however, other prelates have compounded the crimes of their priests by transferring known molesters from one parish to another. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles denied such problems in his Archdiocese, and then quietly dismissed a dozen priests recently.

     The last round of priest scandals were a decade ago. There are four new forces driving this crisis which will expose many more deeds of darkness. First, aggressive reporting by major newspapers has only just begun. Second, victims of sexual abuse are no longer having their silence bought by large financial settlements. 

     Third, prosecutors are demanding dioceses turn over secret diocesan files of predatory priests. Finally, an outraged laity is beginning to organize in cities like Boston, and is demanding the resignation of prelates like Cardinal Law. 

     More on these powerful forces next week.

Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus.

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