Catholics Still Waiting for Justice in Sex Abuse Scandal

There may have been an official change in policy regarding clergy sex abuse, but practice and culture appear to be lagging. In practice, the leadership of the Catholic Church has plenty of tolerance for the sexual abuse of children.

BishopAccountability.org puts it bluntly:

Thousands of Catholic clergy and religious have raped and sodomized tens of thousands of children—perhaps more than 100,000 children—since 1950. 

The website makes available a formidable archive of documents relating to the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church—letters and memoranda from priests, bishops, parishioners, and the Vatican dating back as far as the 1940s, and survivor affidavits from more recently.

BishopAccountability.org was founded in 2003 as it became clear that sexual abuse in the Church was truly an epidemic, and one that became as insidious and widespread as it did through the routine inaction and concealment of bishops. The project’s staff explains their mission as follows (in part):

It is our hope that the information we are collecting at BishopAccountability.org will help expose bishops who have abused children or vulnerable adults, or have aided abusers. We hope we can encourage an informed public to demand indictments of bishops where appropriate. And failing these legal remedies, we hope that our Web site will embolden priests and laity to beg the removal of culpable bishops by the Pope.

Last week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted to uphold its policy on sex abuse, called the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, to the dismay of BishopAccountability.org. The Charter is good, in theory: its zero-tolerance policy requires the removal of a priest after a single, substantiated accusation of abuse.

In practice, however, the leadership of the Catholic Church has plenty of tolerance for the sexual abuse of children. Though the revelations of abuse—and, perhaps more disturbingly, the degree of negligence and duplicity of bishops—prompted the USCCB to adopt the zero-tolerance policy in 2002, they don’t seem to have changed their ways.

Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane claims that the 2002 policy “involved not only a change in practice and policy, but I think culture as well, and so we are going to be reluctant to back off this commitment in any way to make any changes.”

There may have been a change in policy, but practice and culture appear to be lagging. As Laurie Goodstein reported in the Times in advance of the USCCB Assembly, a bishop in Kansas City is still covering up abuse, and Archbishop Justin Rigali of Philadelphia allowed 37 accused priests to remain active in the ministry. (Goodstein’s article, which claimed that Rigali reported none of the cases to a review board, was corrected to reflect that the bishop had reported 10 of the 37 allegations. Great work, Rigali.)

Incidentally, I wrote about Justin Rigali in 2009 and referred back to his stunning letter to Philadelphians on the eve of the 2004 elections, in which he differentiated between Red and Blue Catholic tenets as follows:

Prudent judgments made by thoughtful Catholics can lead to different legitimate approaches to solving the problems of poverty, immigration, healthcare and acceptable military force. Some issues, however, because they lie at the foundation of society and address fundamental aspects of what it means to be human, must be considered first and foremost. . . .As Catholics we revere life and find the destruction of innocent human life abhorrent.

I’m trying to understand why Cardinal Rigali would allow the children of his diocese, who certainly qualify as innocent human life forms, to be under the care and tutelage of abusive priests. He must think sexual abuse is not that big of a deal. Not as big as stem-cell research, for example.

I’ve long given up hope of seeing what I want to see in the Church hierarchy: a genuine expression of remorse and sorrow about sexual abuse; an acknowledgement of how deeply they’ve damaged an entire generation of Catholics. Instead, at last week’s conference, the bishops went back on the offensive as quickly as possible, hearing “updates on their multimedia campaign against same-sex marriage,” with the Archbishop of Baltimore bemoaning the turning tides:

“It seems like almost overnight we’ve lost the young adult community on this, including Catholics,” said Archbishop O’Brien, adding that young people had been misled to believe that gay marriage is a civil rights issue.

The chairman of the bishops’ committee on the defense of marriage defended heterosexual marriage as follows:

“Children are the most vulnerable in society . . . and children need a mother and a father.”

 Children are vulnerable, yes.