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Ethics & Religion
Column #1,969
May 16, 2019
Pope's Initiative on Sexual Abuse
By Mike McManus

Pope Francis issued a sweeping new church law aimed at holding Catholic leadership accountable for clerical sexual abuse. It is the church's first major step to field and investigate claims of sexual abuse.

For the first time priests and nuns will be required to report abuse accusations to church authorities. Dioceses will have a year to set up offices to receive complaints while offering protection for victims and whistle blowers.

The document comes nearly three months after the pope hosted a landmark clerical abuse summit in Rome where he pledged to deal with the worldwide Catholic crisis. However, he offered no specifics at that time. As one sex abuse survivor, Peter Saunders, put it: "I don't think we can rely on the institution to clean up its act."

One organization that sent people to Rome was SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. Mary Dispenza of SNAP said, "We wanted to hear very specific actions that would deal with clergy abuse - and the covering up of it by bishops - but we did not hear anything like that."

How do the new rules measure up?

The good news is that all priests and nuns are required to swiftly report allegations of abuse or coverup to religious authorities. They are also encouraged (but not required) to report abuse to police if their state requires reporting "to competent civil authorities."

However, SNAP is unimpressed. Zach Hiner, its executive director, said the church erred by thinking it could eradicate abuse by changing the rules but are still relying on "the very same church structures that have been receiving and routing abuse allegations for years."

Further, the new rules also do not address the contentious issue of how to punish clerics convicted of abuse or coverup. It's also not clear how the church will protect whistleblowers.

Another question mark is how bishops will be policed. At present, bishops are only answerable to the pope. The pope's new rules offer a new way that the bishops can help police their own ranks.

If a bishop is accused of abuse or coverup, a metropolitan bishop - the person who heads the largest regional diocese - can look into the case with the support of Rome. If a metropolitan bishop himself is accused, another bishop in the region is chosen to investigate.

The pope has also fired some archbishops and cardinals who have covered up priest abuse. Former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who ran Washington's archdiocese, was defrocked after a church trial found him guilty of abuse.

Late last year the Attorneys Generals of Pennsylvania and Illinois created Grand Juries to investigate clergy sexual abuse. A Pennsylvania Grand Jury accused 301 priests of sexually molesting at least 1,000 children. However, only two priest molesters were prosecuted. Victims of child abuse have until age 30 to file civil suits for damages and until age 50 to file criminal charges. Many victims are ashamed by their experience and file no charges.

Illinois Att. Gen. Lisa Madigan reported that six Catholic dioceses, which had previously identified 185 priests "credibly" charged with molesting minors - identified 500 additional clergy who "received allegations of child abuse."

The good news is that Attorneys General of 17 additional states have launched comprehensive investigations like those in Illinois and Pennsylvania.

In California Atty. Gen. Xavier Becerrer asked Los Angeles for documents on sexual abuse allegations over two decades. More than 100 reports of abuse in Los Angeles, Oakland, Santa Rosa, Fresno and San Diego have been investigated. The L.A. Archdiocese was one of the first in the nation to publish a report in 2004 listing accused clergy.

The result? The church has paid a record $740 million in settlements to victims - the largest in America.

The archdiocese knew for 13 years that one of its bishops, Alexander Salazar, was accused of sexual abuse, but had not informed the public until December - though he had been investigated by Pasadena Police back in 2002. Fortunately, Pope Francis accepted his resignation recently.

Among the states where Attorneys General have followed the example of Illinois and Pennsylvania are New York, West Virginia, Florida and Kentucky. All 15 Catholic dioceses in Texas will publish a list of 286 accused priests.

One major reform not being discussed in any of these states - is for the Vatican to make celibacy optional, so that married men might serve as priests. There are 18,000 married Catholic deacons who can baptize, witness marriages, and perform funeral services. Most would love to be priests who can hear confessions and conduct Mass.

Their ordination, would, in time, make clergy sexual abuse largely history.

__________________________

Copyright (c) 2018 Michael J. McManus, President of Marriage Savers and a syndicated columnist. To read past columns, go to www.ethicsandreligion.com. Hit Search for any topic.

 

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