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April 6, 2002
Column #1075
(Last of a three-part series)

Clergy Sexual Abuse: What Should The Church Do?

     "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 standards." 

     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 priests.

     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 discussed."

Copyright 2002 Michael J. McManus.

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