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The Archbishop's Apology

May 28, 2002 | The Times-Picayune

As infuriating as it has been to learn that some Catholic priests sexually assaulted minors in their care, it has been equally troubling to learn that some church officials knew of the priests' actions and quietly moved them on to other parishes.

On top of that, too many church officials have shrugged off blame and claimed not to know that their decisions to shuffle such priests around endangered other young Catholics.

Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes apologized to local Catholics a week ago at St. Louis Cathedral "for the actions, my own and others', in returning offending priests to parish ministry." The archbishop also issued a written apology that appeared Wednesday in the archdiocese's newspaper, the Clarion Herald.

"Our action or inaction failed to protect the innocents among us, our children," he wrote. "I ask forgiveness."

Archbishop Hughes' admission of culpability is important if local Catholics are to get beyond this scandal. The public -- Catholics and non-Catholics alike -- will remain disappointed with the church's hierarchy as long as there is a perception that it is minimizing crimes committed against children.

The archbishop's apology, therefore, is an important step. But in order for such contrition to make a difference, the archdiocese must make sure that its policies for reporting accused priests are equally candid. Ideally, the archdiocese would turn over all credible accusations of sexual abuse against its priests to the proper law enforcement agency. Police and prosecutors are the ones who are best-equipped to determine whether a crime in fact has been committed.

The Rev. William Maestri, a spokesman for the archdiocese, says the archdiocese wants to cooperate with police, but confidentiality agreements signed with some victims complicate matters. If the church can get permission from such victims, they'll turn over information to police, he said.

Archbishop Hughes is a recent transplant to New Orleans, but it was while he was an official in the Archdiocese of Boston that men like John Geoghan and Paul Shanley were alternately being accused of abuse and moved to other parishes. Such shuffling can't be allowed to take place here.

According to a recent polls, almost three quarters of Louisianians are dissatisfied with the way the Catholic Church has responded to this sexual abuse scandal. Forty percent of those who responded said they were Catholic and among them, 62 percent said they were dissatisfied with the church's response. Only 28.3 percent of those Catholics said they were satisfied with the way the church has responded to the scandal.

The survey was conducted between May 3-11, after archdiocese officials here said they would turn over all allegations of sexual abuse by priests to a board made up of Catholic laypeople but before that board determined that such accusations against 12 priests were credible.

For now the names of most of the accused priests remain secret while the archdiocese tries contact victims.

Officials should realize, though, that the insistence on secrecy troubles some Catholics, who are just now learning that for years the church has been using their monetary contributions to enter into out-of-court settlements with alleged abuse victims.

Admittedly, church officials are in a tight spot. They have many things to reconcile: the Christian tenets of forgiveness against zero tolerance policies being demanded of them from within and without the church; requests for privacy that some victims may make against the legal responsibility to report felonies to the police; legal advice that may encourage them to keep secret any self-incriminating evidence against the expectation that as clergymen they are duty-bound to reveal the truth, no matter what the consequences.

Archbishop Hughes' apologies suggest that he understands that in order for the church's image to be repaired, its officials must first admit their own failings. He's done that. But an even harder task remains: dealing with offenses committed by priests in the past and preventing these sorts of crimes in the future.

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