March 23, 2002
(First of a three-part series)
Clergy Sexual Abuse: A New Reformation Hits
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
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
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 (http://www.survivorsnetwork.org).
. 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
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
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.