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January 11, 2003
Column #1,115

The Catholic Church's Perfect Storm: Sex, Money, Power, Law

     Last year was the most difficult year in history of the Catholic Church in America. 

     At least 325 priests who had sexually abused children were forced out of ministry. The scandal also drove out bishops in New York, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Florida who resigned after being accused of personal sexual misconduct such as having sex with seminarians and an Archbishop who gave $450,000 to pay off a lover.

     Cardinal Law was the first prelate to resign for abusing his power by reassigning priests who molested children, to parishes where they ravished more of them.

     However, the Catholic Church's crisis is only at the end of the beginning. 

     "It is facing a perfect moral storm. It involves sex where it should not be. It involves money, a great deal of money; and it involves a compromise of moral authority. No one can stop or direct this storm. It is a movement out of control," asserts A.W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and therapist of hundreds of priests who wrote "A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy." He has been an expert witness in 100 cases of sexual abuse of children by priests.

     "Any one of these elements are very serious. When giving is down, people pay attention. The priesthood is synonymous with celibacy. The violation of it is a great disillusionment for people. Who has policed the bishops? Who believes the bishops on sexual matters? They have lost credibility, because they are not in dialogue with people."

     The bishops have pledged to place the welfare of children ahead of the defense of their priests. However, when Sipe met with the District Attorneys of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Ventura, all complained that they have to beg for documents, page by page.

     What brought Law down was that the court forced him to release 11,000 pages of internal documents that provided embarrassing detail about he covered up crimes of priests molesting children and adults. Law knew one priest had fathered children with a woman who later died from a drug overdose after sleeping with him, yet kept the priest in active ministry until November. Finally, 58 Boston priests took the unprecedented step of asking Law to resign. 

     Elsewhere, outdated statutes of limitation have blocked criminal prosecution and halted civil suits for damages. In New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and many other states, if a young victim does not report the abuse by age 18, criminal priests escape legal action. California unanimously passed a law allowing victims to file cases in 2003, regardless of their present age.  

     It will spark hundreds of new lawsuits against the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. New cases have already resulted in the arrests or removal of dozens of priests. However, church officials will challenge the law, arguing that lifting the statute of limitations is unconstitutional.

     "It is unconscionable that of all institutions, the church would try to oppose this law," said Mary Grant of the Survivor's Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP). "This law is going to enable child sexual abuse victims to expose sexual molesters and seek justice in court," she told the Boston Globe.

     Other states are likely to pass similar laws. The psychological toll on victims does not hit many until they are in their 30's, 40's or even older. "The very consequence of the crime is that victims will not tell about the abuse until well into adulthood," says Barbara Blaine, President of SNAP. So predators molest a new generation of victims. Pressure is mounting in Wisconsin and other states to reform statutes of limitation. Connecticut and Oregon have already done so.

     The problem of coverup by bishops is far more widespread than most people realize.  

     "Roughly two-thirds of top U.S. Catholic leaders have allowed priests accused of sexual abuse to keep working, a systematic practice that spans decades and continues today," according to the Dallas Morning News. (For detail on offending dioceses see dallasnews.com/cgi-bin/2002.)

     There are now nine Grand Juries investigating these crimes. Prosecutors have yet to convict one prelate of complicity in the sexual abuse of children. They came close to doing so in New Hampshire when Bishop John McCormack, a former aide to Cardinal Law, signed a legal document acknowledging prosecutors had enough evidence to win a conviction. 

     Sadly, there will be more resignations by bishops as more scandal and coverup surfaces.  

     Richard Sipe believes we are witnessing a "war of systems - the ancient monarchial system of the church versus a more democratic, accountable system of law."

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