Friday, March 26, 2010

Pope owes the faithful some serious penance -- and real reform

The headlines from Europe have been depressing of late. The child molestation scandal in the Irish church was back in the news as apologies were made and no significant punishments were meted out. Then, in Germany, came word that, years ago, there had been a child molesting 'priest' transferred -- after 'therapy' -- to another pastoral assignment, all while the current Pope, then Archbishop Ratzinger, was merely the bishop in that local diocese. This 'priest' was later convicted of molesting boys in another parish.

Most recently -- and most egregiously -- comes the revelation that a priest in Milwaukee, assigned to a school for the deaf, molested as many as 200 boys. The abuse took place over 24 years from the 50s into the 70s -- but the evil was not uncovered until the mid-1990s. Wisconsin bishops asked the Vatican in 1996 for a trial to strip this 'priest' of his collar and, after far too long a delay, a trial was convened. However, the trial was halted after the accused priest "personally wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger protesting that he should not be put on trial because he had already repented and was in poor health and that the case was beyond the church’s own statute of limitations." The 'priest' died a couple of years later, in 1998, still technically in good standing with the Church.

The Vatican has responded to these latest news stories -- whining in a front page editorial in L'Osservatore Romano about "the prevalent tendency in the media to obscure facts and force interpretations with the aim of spreading an image of the Catholic Church as if it were the only one responsible for sexual abuse, an image that doesn't correspond with reality."

There is only one correct statement in that little quote: The sad reality is that it is not only in the Catholic Church that one finds pedophiles. They are drawn to any place with children -- public schools, scout troops, Protestant youth groups.

What Mother Church fails to understand, however, is that it is only in the Catholic Church that molesters were protected and moved from place to place, giving them fresh opportunities to abuse children.

It was not that the Church intended to hurt children. Actually, the Church hierarchy took steps that seemed reasonable, for a while anyway, to obtain psychological and psychiatric counseling and therapy for their errant brothers before allowing any return to pastoral work. Ironically, a religious institution put too much faith in science.

Because therapy didn't work. And, instead of recognizing the awful truth that child molesters can not be "cured," the church fathers thought that they simply needed to provide more therapy, more treatment and that would solve the problem.

Thousands -- tens of thousands -- of children suffered around the world as a result. And the Church hierarchy tried its damnedest (and I use this word advisedly here) to keep things quiet, thinking by this means to "protect" itself.

The scandal only now erupting in Europe surfaced in the United States over two decades ago. (For those of you conservatives who think tort lawyers do no good, think again.)

A Chicagoan, Anne M. Burke, wife of 14th Ward Chicago Ald. Edward M. Burke, became interim chair of a lay National Review Board of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Perhaps the board was established to paper over the problem -- perhaps there was a sincere desire in the American chanceries to purge the Church of this grievous sin. It doesn't really matter. What matters is that in 2002 Justice Burke (then a justice of the Appellate Court, now serving on the Illinois Supreme Court) and her board forced the American bishops to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward child abusers.

No second chances. Therapy? Sure -- but no abuser would ever be put in a situation where he could have unrestricted access to children again. And -- most important -- we call the police now. The American Church has learned that it must treat an abuser like the criminal he is.

A few years ago, my pastor asked me if I'd be willing to participate in training so that I might serve, if asked, on a local board addressing clergy abuse. (Lawyers are always volunteered for these kinds of things.) I agreed.

I will not violate any confidences, even in an anonymous blog, but I have been asked by a couple of different religious orders to participate in review boards since that time and I have served.

It is not pleasant work.

But I am encouraged. Maybe it had to be dragged into it kicking and screaming, but I think the American Church is beginning to change for the better. The people I've dealt with understand the problem. They understand that molesters will not change, can not change. They understand that a pedophile often has a cheerful, sunny disposition that makes him attractive to families... and their children. They are adopting -- and, I believe, following -- policies which will keep them safe from false accusations and, most important of all, children safe from real dangers.

It's not just the Church. When I became a Cub Scout leader I was asked to take a course in sex abuse training. A lot of it is defensive -- and common sense: Don't put a child on your lap. Always have another adult present. Never be alone with a child. Religious fathers and brothers are getting this training now.

Will there still be incidents?

Yes. In Chicago, the example of the abuser Daniel McCormack -- where the Church's new policies were not followed -- is still fresh. But at least he went to jail.

To non-Catholics, it must seem astounding that any of us would remain faithful to an institution that has been so... evil (I can't find a different word). But the Catholic Church is not its venal bishops. The Church survived the Borgias and the Medicis. It will survive this, too.

But Pope Benedict must now "get it." The Pope, like his American brothers, must recognize the wisdom of zero-tolerance and the paramount need to protect children. Secrecy must be abandoned and civil authorities must be alerted whenever scandal is suspected. Joseph Ratzinger was part of the problem; Benedict XVI must confront his past and repent it -- and become part of the solution.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

I heard that there is a bit of whitewashing going on.

Ellee Seymour said...

The terrible thing for children abused by these priests is the helplessness they must have felt, that nobody would believe them. They must not go unpunished.