April 6, 2002
(Last of a three-part series)
Clergy Sexual Abuse: What Should The Church
"This is the Catholic Church's Watergate, and
these wounds are entirely self-inflicted," says William Donohue,
president of the Catholic League, a 350,000 member group known for
denouncing anti-Catholic bias in the media. "The Catholic Church is
wholly to blame for this dereliction of duty, the collapse of
An ABC News poll found 71 percent of Catholics
say the sexual abuse issue is a "major problem that demands immediate
attention" compared with 48 percent a month ago. Non-Catholics are as
likely as Catholics to say a clergy member in their own congregation has
been accused of sexual abuse of children (6 percent in both cases). The
difference is that a third of Catholics are angry and another third
dissatisfied "with the way the church has handled it, transferring
accused priests, settling claims quietly, not calling the police."
The coverup is continuing. An ABC News Special
on Wednesday surfaced 30 new examples of priests guilty of molestation
who are still serving as priests in 17 states. On the same day New York
Cardinal Egan turned over to police the names of dozens of abusing
A TIME cover story asked the key question:
"Can the Catholic Church Save Itself?"
Weeks ago, I would have said no. However, the
hierarchy is under immense new pressure from the media, from prosecutors
who've released previously secret evidence of coverups, and from
lawmakers who are reconsidering statute of limitation laws that prevent
most adults who were abused as children, to testify.
Also, lay Catholics are organizing to pressure
the hierarchy from below. On Long Island one parent was so angry that a
priest was still working after being ousted in another church, that he
put 100 fliers on windshields, saying he is a pedophile and the diocese
is doing nothing. That forced a bishop to remove him.
Three key changes are needed within the Church
if it is to lead its own Reformation:
1. Credible independent investigation. Commonweal, a Catholic
magazine, argues "The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops "should
immediately commission a professional study to determine the prevalence
of the sexual abuse of minors by priests and how dioceses have handled
such cases. Ideally, the study should be conducted by eminent
independent scholars, non-Catholics who would bring credibility to the
undertaking," with a published report. "It is crucial that American
Catholics and their fellow citizens see a church unafraid of the truth
and undaunted by the task of setting its own house in order."
2. Empower U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Up till now the
USCCB has not attempted to investigate or sanction errant bishops who
transfer molesters and then cover up. William Bennett, a Catholic
former Cabinet member, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, that "priests,
including Cardinal Law, who have been involved in these coverups must be
removed from positions of authority." However, Law refuses to go.
Therefore, the USCCB should assume authority to publicly ask for the
resignation of such prelates.
3. Optional celibacy. "It is not a problem of celibacy. The
sexual abuse of innocents is in no way related to celibates. The problem
is one of vowed celibates failing to live the truth of their professed
vocations," argues George Weigel, author of "Witness to Hope," the best
biography of the Pope.
However, Weigel does see the need for a "deep
reform" of the priesthood. He notes that most priests who have abused
minors are not pedophiles, like John Geoghan who molested pre-pubescent
boys - but homosexuals who ravished adolescents: "It can no longer be
denied that the Church has a serious problem of homosexually-oriented
clergy who are not living chaste lives."
However, the celibacy requirement makes the
priesthood attractive to pedophiles and gays who will never marry women.
The needed deep reform is to make celibacy optional. Jesus and St. Paul
were celibate but St. Peter was married, as were most priests and
bishops for 1000 years.
If an Episcopal or Lutheran priest converts to
Catholicism, he can bring his wife and kids into the rectory.
In the Fort Worth Diocese for example, Father
Allan Hawkins was an Episcopal priest before converting along with 120
church members in 1994. Today his parish has 500 attending. He says,
"The vocation to celibacy and the vocation to priesthood are different
things. People who come to see me are likely to encounter a family, not
just an office. It gives me emotional independence to be supported by a
wife and family."
Although Rome opposes change, Los Angeles
Cardinal Mahony said last week, "The Eastern Catholic church always had
a married priesthood, and it works out fine. So I think it should be
Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus.