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Michele Somerville

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Catholic Child Abuse Scandal: Seeking Accountability

Posted: 07/09/10 12:35 PM ET

"To live outside the law you must be honest." - Bob Dylan. The latest news from the Vatican put me in mind of this verse.

A report in the July, 1 2010 New York Times offers detailed information about the complexities that attend the Vatican's handling of priests accused of molesting children. Although the particulars of canon law are quite interesting for people like me who find the details of law and things ecclesiastical interesting, they are irrelevant when it comes to truly addressing the abuse crisis.

On July 6, The New York Times reported that the Vatican is likely to announce its intention to revise its procedures for disciplining priests accused of raping children. Proposed changes may include modifying canon law to simplify the procedures for defrocking priests. According to the National Catholic Reporter, these changes might also extend the statute of limitations for reporting abuse. This seems disingenuous. I question the morality of priests, whose lives are (in theory at least) consecrated to the objective of living as models of Christ on earth, who would impose any statutes of limitations at all in these cases.

But the big question is, "Can the Vatican can be relied upon to police itself?" The obvious answer is, "No." The Vatican, which cannot police itself, needs to be policed. The Vatican can hold as many canon trials as it likes, and perhaps Catholics will pay for them, but the Vatican must be prohibited from continuing to violate secular law. Canon law verdicts mean nothing outside the Church. It's time for the Church hierarchy to render to Caesar what is Caesar's. The Vatican has been busted. Its credibility is shot.

It is now clear that as a direct consequence of Joseph Ratzinger's conduct in connection with child abuse cases (in his former capacity as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith) hundreds of children suffered needlessly. The Vatican is expected to roll out new guidelines for "defrocking" priests who abuse children, but in my opinion the "defrocking" question is a bit of a non-issue. I don't believe the Church has the power to "defrock" a priest any more than it has the power to dissolve a marriage. Catholics ignore formal excommunication all the time, and a priest who feels called to do so will ignore his defrocking in order to celebrate mass with or without the approval of the Holy See. The discussion of defrocking priests is a distraction, ecclesiastical bluster whose complexity the Vatican can hide behind.

One aspect of the abuse crisis that is lost amid the indignation and papist arrogance is that the Vatican betrayed both the victims and the men who abused them. Priests who abuse children are profoundly sick -- who would chose such behavior? -- yet the men in miters shuffled these pathetic men of the cloth around, hid their sickness, offered them fresh opportunities to abuse, and deprived them of the opportunity to free themselves of the shackles of their transgression. This, in the interest of damage control, public relations and avarice.

One of the terrifically beautiful aspects of Catholic life is how the Church looks at sin. The Church teaches that the Sacrament of Reconciliation can wipe away any sin. It is therefore entirely conceivable, in theory, that a priest sick enough to rape a child could confess, perform penance, seek and be satisfied that he has found absolution. Why should some poor pervert lose his frock when many of the men demanding that he give it up have committed far worse sins?

But a priest who has molested a child must, in every instance, be permanently removed from active public ministry.

It's not that complicated. The rape of children is both a crime and a human rights violation. A priest who molests a child should be arrested. A police investigation should then take place. Charges should be filed. Accomplices should be charged. It's not that complicated.

We know that law enforcement and politicians have sometimes "gone easy" on priests who commit these crimes. For generations, sentimental attachments to the Church, religious fear and -- in the case of politicians - reluctance to alienate Catholic voters have insulated pedophile priests from prosecution. A police officer is slow to arrest the priest who taught him to play basketball in CYO (Catholic Youth Organization); an assistant district attorney finds it inconceivable that the priest who ministered to his dying grandmother would diddle an altar boy. A devout housekeeper is loath to report her suspicions about "Father" and a child from the parish school.

It is not unusual to come to love one's pastor or spiritual teacher, but reverence run amok is a big part of the problem. I know a well-educated middle class couple which protested but failed to remove their children from the influence of a parish that had been infiltrated by the Legionaries of Christ (whose leader and founder, Roman Catholic priest Father Marcial Maciel, raped scores of children -- his biological son among them). I know a victim of clergy abuse, whose attempt (in childhood, more than fifty years ago) to report the priest who was abusing him was thwarted by the arrival of the police at his door, who hauled him off to a juvenile detention center for the crime of defaming a priest. The Catholic hierarchy has benefited from too much trust, too much benefit of the doubt and too much latitude in handling the child abuse crisis.

One change the Vatican is not expected to announce within the next few weeks is the adoption of a "zero tolerance" policy for priests accused of molesting children, whereby clerics "credibly accused" of raping children would be removed from ministry. Should the Vatican fail to adopt a "zero tolerance policy" it will eliminate all doubt that the suffering of innocent children matters little to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. When a credible accusation of child abuse is made against a teacher in a secular setting, even in the worst schools, the teacher in question is removed from the classroom. When it happens in a parish rectory, the Vatican elects to wait and see what verdict an expensive and protracted ecclesiastical court hands down. For generations the Vatican has looked the other way as priests victimized Catholic children, yet is still not quite ready to make the gargantuan imaginative leap toward a new "zero tolerance" policy. That the Vatican has not already adopted a "zero tolerance" policy is a sin in its own right.

For years, cardinals, perhaps hoping for some miracle cure, shuffled pedophile priests from parish to parish, allowing men they knew had no lack of motive, means and opportunity to engage in serial criminality. I have many Catholic friends, but many more who are not Catholic, and I see, as we discuss Catholic news, that the words "Catholic priest" -- which, for me, still conjure a feeling of high regard -- are fast becoming synonymous with "pervert" in the secular world. I know a few priests well enough to know the nature of what they do and how hard and important their work is. It saddens me to hear from priests that they can spot suspicion in the eyes of passersby when they walk the streets wearing Roman collars.

The Vatican's incompetence in handling the clergy abuse crisis has imperiled the entire priesthood. Even the way the bishops handle falsely accused priests is a sign of all that is wrong with how they operate in the context of child abuse cases. A priest falsely accused depends upon canon law procedure to protect him when what he really needs is a criminal defense. And what happens when it is discovered that such a priest could not have committed the crime in question? Not enough. The Church may issue some kind of pro forma, Errata-type statement, but it is not in the hierarchy's best interest to devote the cost and effort necessary to restore the reputation of such a priest. Because all accusations are made in the climate of distrust of priests that the hierarchy in its sinister arrogance continues to fuel, distinguishing between false and true accusations is all the more difficult. The Church hierarchy, by digging in it its heels, degrades priests of integrity almost as much as it does some of its clerical child abuse victims.

The hierarchy cares far less about the suffering and healing of victims of pedophile priests than it does about shielding the accomplices in and accessories to these crimes. Although the percentage of priests who rape is small, the perception of it is exaggerated, not by the media, but by the hierarchy itself which has engendered so perfect a storm of suspicion, paranoia, perversion, greed, brutality and arrogance that it contaminates everything Roman Catholic, leaves Catholic morale fighting for its life, and creates the very false illusion that the Church is as sinister as its leadership.

The Vatican's handling of accusations against priests has given free rein (and free reign) to predators who might have been stopped had the cleric in charge of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (the authority over sexual abuse cases) been more principled. But Joseph Ratzinger was in charge for two decades before becoming pope, and as a direct result of his disregard for their welfare, hundreds of innocent children were victimized by priests. He may indeed be contrite now, but Ratzinger can not no more be trusted to address the suffering it was within his power to prevent, than he can be trusted to absolve himself from the sin of his complicity in the abuse.

The pope may be heeding the "wake-up call," now, but he offers the victims of his negligence too little, too late. Had the cardinals who protected and enabled pedophile priests been more scrupulous and "Christlike" in addressing the scourge of clergy abuse, scores of children would have been spared.

This most unholy malfeasance has chased Catholics out of pews, had a disastrous impact on vocations, and caused hundreds of innocent people to spend their lives struggling with the grim psychological fallout of child abuse. The rates of suicide, substance abuse and sexual dysfunction are high among victims of clergy rape. These rapes have ruined lives, yet the Vatican is still deliberating over the particulars of policy and canon law.

Catholics of all stripes now know that their pope cannot -- and will not -- right this wrong. The Church hierarchy's over-reliance on canon trials, its fear of negative publicity and its readiness to obstruct lawful (secular) investigations have crushed any faith many (most?) Catholics might once have had in the ability of the hierarchy to police itself. Canon law trials are lengthy and expensive, but I don't think Catholics much care about canon law outcomes as they pertain to pedophile priests.

Roman Catholic canon law is complicated, but what has to happen is not that complicated.

Perpetrators should be arrested. Bishops must be prohibited from obstructing investigations. Trials must take place, not canon law trials -- real trials with secular judges adjudicating. Witnesses must be compelled to testify. Accomplices and accessories must be arrested, too; if they need to be extradited from such sovereign jurisdictions as La Citta del Vaticano in order that justice be served, so be it.

In other words, insofar as it has proven itself dishonest, the Vatican must live within the law and not outside it because -- well, as the poet says -- "to live outside the law you must be honest."

 

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