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Priest Child Abuse Cases Victimizing Families, Bishops Lack Policy Response

Jun 7, 1985 | National Catholic Reporter

In cases throughout the nation, the Catholic church is facing scandals and being forced to pay millions of dollars in claims to families whose sons have been molested by Catholic priests.

These are serious and damaging matters that have victimized the young and innocent and fuel old suspicions against the Catholic church and a celibate clergy. But a related and broader scandal seemingly rests with local bishops and a national Episcopal leadership that has, as yet, no set policy on how to respond to these cases. As the articles in this issue show:

All too often, complaints against the priest involved are disregarded by the bishops, or the priest is given the benefit of a doubt.

Frequently, local bishops exhibit little concern for the traumatic effects these molestations have on the boys and their families –even though mental disturbances and, in one recent case, suicide, have followed such molestations.

Only legal threats and lawsuits seem capable of provoking some local bishops into taking firm actions against the priests. In some cases reported here, the priests, once identified for their offenses, have been moved to other parishes and again placed in positions of responsibility.

In a decision following considerable internal discussion, the National Catholic Reporter decided to publish the names of the priests involved, though not those of the boys and their families. In each case, these priests have already been named in open court or in legal depositions, and they have been the subjects of national wire service or national magazine coverage. That alone, however, is not justification for in-depth publication in this newspaper.

Publication at this length comes in order to explain the extent of the serious nature of the problems involved:

Below, the current and potential effect of these cases on the bishops and dioceses is considered.

Examples are given of the widespread nature of recent cases, possibly reflecting a growing national attention given to the problems of child abuse or a growing willingness by victimized parties to file civil suits against the church.

The problems are examined from the perspective of the family.

There is a brief discussion of pedophilia by Catholic priest-psychologists.

Along with the rest of society, the church must examine the issues of child abuse, drawing most critical attention to those aspects of the problem involving church figures and structures that have victimized the young and their families. The crisis facing the bishops and dioceses, depicted by the stories in this issue, should help point out the extent to which the institutional church needs to cope with the problem of pedophile priests. A great deal is riding on the outcome of these cases beyond the pain and scandal they have already caused:

The possibility of class-action suits from parents.

The possibility of exorbitant insurance premiums for all dioceses resulting from the current crop of civil and criminal cases. In April, Wilfred Caron, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) general counsel, was in Lafayette, La., to meet with insurance lawyers preparing to admit liability in that diocese’s suits. Caron has to monitor the pace and extent of criminal and civil suits filed in other dioceses across the country. (Caron did not return NCR’s calls.)

In some states, bishops who fail to take action may be criminally liable under state law for failing to report suspected sexual abuse.

The privacy of diocesan personnel files may no longer apply. In the Louisiana case, lawyers sought diocesan and seminary documents on reputed homosexual priests, personnel records that related to sexual involvements with children.

Cases may be initiated to see whether the statute of limitations necessarily applies. Boys of families across the country, who have otherwise kept quiet, on seeing dioceses paying out millions in settlements, may consider the same course of legal redress.

Future court cases may play on the fact that church authorities fail to provide a mechanism to safeguard the children after an initial complaint against a priest.

Also in this issue is a separate, lengthy account of one case, in Louisiana. It shows how, year after year, the suspicions of nuns in the classrooms, of parents, of fellow priests and pastors and, finally, chancery officials failed to materialized into sufficient action against a priest who for more than a decade sexually preyed on his young charges.

Yet the tragedy, and scandal, as NCR sees it, is not only with the actions of the individual priests – these are serious enough – but with church structures in which bishops, chanceries and seminaries fail to respond to complaints, or even engage in cover-ups; sadly, keeping the affair quiet has usually assumed greater importance than any possible effect on the victims themselves.

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