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March 30, 2002
Column #1074
(Second of a three-part series)

Clergy Sexual Abuse: Needed Reforms

     In 1985 Father Tom Doyle, who worked for the Vatican's Ambassador to the United States, coauthored a landmark study on the problem of priests molesting children. He says the bishops "shelved the report," and he was dismissed from his prestigious job.

     Now a chaplain in Germany, Doyle criticized Pope John Paul's comments on the issue last week as "useless and misleading." The Pope denounced a "grave scandal" caused by the "sins of some of our brothers" who've succumb to "the mysterium iniquitatis (mystery of evil), which cast "a dark shadow of suspicion over all of the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity."

     Doyle countered, "What these priests have done is abuse children and young boys. To blame that on evil is blame shifting. The priests are in the grip of highly compulsive behavior. The real evil is the misuse of authority and the complete abdication of leadership by the hierarchy who have failed to do anything. There is a significant lack of integrity of the leadership of the church."

     "There are more predators in the Catholic priesthood than in other denominations. The  system protects men who become priests because they can have better access to kids. The system will cover for you," the priest charged.

     So far, 2,000 priests have been identified as predators out of 46,000 in the country. I predicted last week many more cases would surface due to four new forces driving this crisis: 

1. Aggressive press coverage. This week both TIME and U.S. News published cover stories on the widening scandal. The New York Daily News reported the "twisted journey" of Father Gennaro Gentile who has abused boys since 1971 in his rectory bedroom and at a remote upstate lake house. Although lawsuits have been quietly settled involving the abuse of three teenagers, "archdiocesan officials have chronically rejected the merits of the allegations while waging a vigorous fight to protect the priests reputation," though he was transferred to eight different churches in 31 years. He is still a priest.

2. Victims of sexual abuse are no longer silent. Bishop Anthony O'Connell came to Palm Beach to restore trust after his predecessor resigned over molesting a youth. However, a former seminarian paid $125,000 to keep quiet publicly named O'Connell as his molester, forcing a second Palm Beach resignation. Four more seminarians have filed a federal racketeering suit against U.S. bishops because the hierarchy knew, or should have known, of O'Connell's history.

3. The laity is very angry. Prominent Catholics William Bennett and Pat Buchanan demanded Cardinal Law's resignation. His refusal to quit has sparked "town meetings" in half of Boston parishes. On Good Friday, hundreds of lay Catholics will honor victims of priests, for the first time, outside Boston's Cathedral. 

4. Politicians are weighing in. New York State's Senate unanimously passed a bill requiring clergy of all faiths to report allegations of sexual abuse. Only 12 states now require it!

     William Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, an historic champion of the church, is disgusted: "I am not the church's water boy. I am not here to defend the indefensible." He calls for four major reforms:

     "All 50 states should pass laws stating that there are no exceptions for ecclesiastical authority when it comes to reporting cases of sexual molestation. The church should be forced to turn over the names of priests who have violated the law. This is not a legitimate separation of church and state issue.

     "There should be no statue of limitations" on when victims can file cases. In New York, if a person abused by a priest does not file by age 19, it is too late to file a criminal charge. Most do not grasp how profoundly harmed they have been for decades. That's why attorney Jeff Anderson, who's represented nearly 500 anguished victims in civil cases - has seen fewer than five of those child molesters go to prison. That is an outrage. The church now lobbies against such changes of law, protecting perpetrators. 

     If a state has not yet changed its law, all cases with credible charges should be given to district attorneys for prosecution. Los Angeles Cardinal Mahony has quietly removed a dozen priests from ministry, but won't even release their names. 

     Any priest who inappropriately touches a child should be defrocked. That almost never happens, though required by canon law. A man like Father Gentile poses a risk of re-offending, and should be not reassigned, as he was, to a marriage tribunal.

     Next week: celibacy.

Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus.

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