Scandals involving the sexual abuse of children by priests have been plaguing the Roman Catholic Church nationally and in Greater Cincinnati.
For several months the Hamilton County Prosecutor has been using a grand jury to investigate the way abuse cases were handled in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Prosecutor Mike Allen has accused the archdiocese of withholding some information from investigators.
Late last year in Boston, Cardinal Bernard Law, who transferred abusive priests from parish to parish rather than punishing them, resigned. The U.S. National Council of Bishops has formulated a stringent new policy for handling such cases that was recently approved by the Vatican.
Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk recently sat down with the Enquirer Editorial Board to discuss these issues and what they mean to the church, its priests and its parishioners.
What was the process leading up to the new rules for clergy who sexually abuse minors?
First you need to understand the nature of church norms. Last June, the U.S. Catholic bishops approved a pastoral document on sex abuse questions, which we call a charter (Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People). The Holy See makes the norms church law when it gives its recognitio, or affirmation. It means now this is law; you have to follow it in each diocese. In approving the norms, we accepted that nobody who has abused a child is to be in ministry. It also changed rules in canon law on the statute of limitations. In cases from long ago, when it comes time for an ecclesiastical trial, you must ask the Holy See for dispensation from the statute of limitation. It will be done on a case-by-case basis.
The Holy See is saying: We will waive the statute of limitation but you must ask for the dispensation. The bishop has to ask. You put together a dossier, and every case has to be sent over to Rome. My guess is that if the perpetrator says, “Yeah, I did that,” we get a return mail saying, “Fine, he’s out.” If he wishes to contest it as false, the bishop has to write that all up and send it. The Holy See will probably say you have to go to ecclesiastical trial. I have authority to remove someone from ministry, but I can’t do it permanently. The Holy See has that power, to say someone will never minister again but is still bound by the vow of celibacy or that he will return to the state of a layperson. Those are two ways you can “defrock,” but both mean the priest will never minister again.
What happens to the five or so priests here who have been accused of sexual misconduct?
The first thing is we will revise our decree on child protection. A couple of priests have already been removed from the ministry. A couple of others, I am going to have to remove from the ministry. Many of these took place long ago. This diocese has had a sexual abuse policy in effect since 1993.
They subpoenaed all of our records having to do with child sexual abuse cases. We were happy to comply, except for those documents protected by legal privilege. We sent over boxes and boxes of records, but the prosecutor seems to believe he also has a right to the attorney-client files. The judge appointed a special master who found 80 percent of those files are protected by the attorney-client privilege. Some files are in dispute. At this juncture, the issue with them is not sexual abuse. The issue is civil rights. I don’t even know what those documents are.
What are your obligations to report charges of past sexual abuse to the civil authorities?
It’s my understanding, from an opinion of the Ohio Attorney General, that if no child is presently in danger and if the (accuser) is no longer a child and says to me, “I don’t want anyone else to know about this,” then we are not obliged to go to the prosecutor. I have the obligation to respect the confidentiality of a member of my flock. We will urge the complainer to allow us to approach the priest, but if the (accuser) refuses, I think we are bound by that. It’s not sealed in confessional, but it’s the next step from that.
The situation is different if a child is being abused. All I know is we have kept the law as directed by our attorney. We have nothing to hide. We have handled these cases correctly and appropriately. We have a right not to give up the content of those (protected) files. I don’t know of another diocese that has this scenario playing out.
What do you expect to be the result of Boston’s Cardinal Law’s resignation?
I don’t know what will be the result. It’s extremely sad. I am ashamed and sorry our priests did this kind of things to people. I am ashamed and sorry Cardinal Law apparently didn’t handle those cases properly. The concept seems to have been in some dioceses that we’re all in this together. I feel deeply sorry for everybody – the victims, the bishop and his collaborators, the priests and the people. I don’t think anybody can fully understand what victims have suffered unless they are victims. This is a situation where there are no winners, only various degrees of losers.
Were unprecedented calls by Boston-area priests for the Cardinal’s resignation what finally led to his stepping down?
I don’t think I would say that. Certainly a number of priests called for his resignation – about 70 out of 1,100 or 1,200. But I don’t think that’s what did it. One, he may have decided he couldn’t handle the (crisis) in an appropriate satisfactory way. Second, the situation may have been such that he had to get out of the way. An important element may have been the bankruptcy question. It may be that he went to the Holy See and said, “I want to declare bankruptcy,” and they said, “We won’t let you.” The consent of the Holy See is needed for major financial issues, I think, anything over $5 or $10 million.
How will cost concerns about lawsuits from abuse victims affect the church?
One of the dangers is we lose sight of the victims. We want to help them. But the fact is we live in a society where there are laws, money and material assets, so we have to be concerned about those things. The church owns buildings. There is always a tension between the spiritual and temporal dimensions of the church, but I often have to remind people that unless we have money to buy bread and wine, we can’t even have Mass. The church cannot live in the abstract, without its feet on the earth.
Each of our Catholic dioceses is independent, on its own. What happened in Boston is sad and will really hurt Boston, but it will not hurt Cincinnati. The whole bundle of issues from abuse cases here cost the diocese $2.5 million. Our legal fees are high. But I don’t perceive our diocese is in danger of some big (financial blow). Pledges for the annual Archbishop’s fund totaled 103 percent of the goal, and we get an astounding 98 percent to 99 percent (follow-through) on pledges.
Would the Catholic Church be better able to handle such scandals if it opened up more of its operations to lay people?
That may be the case, but in most archdioceses, the laity have an immense role in day-to-day management. Most of the people working in the (diocesan headquarters) Eighth Street building are lay people. Almost all our teachers and principals are lay people. We may be there already. A lot depends on the management style of the diocesan bishop.
Some blame church sex abuse scandals on gays in the priesthood. Are gay priests the problem?
I don’t know. Priests are to be celibate, not to engage in sexual activity. The issue is chastity and faithfulness to the vow of celibacy. Nobody knows how many priests are gay. In our culture, it is presumed everybody is sexually active. Celibacy is a concept not out there in our culture. A certain number may be homosexually active, but no, we haven’t changed any of our rules. If a priest is sexually active whether homosexual or heterosexual he’s out.
It is patently incorrect to say that because we have a celibate priesthood, we have child abuse in the priesthood. Most child abuse takes place in families. It’s a question of human nature, not a question of the priesthood.
One study reported that by the age of 18, one-third of girls have been sexually abused and one-fourth of boys. It just doesn’t wash that there is a logical connection between child abuse and celibacy.
What assurance do you have that a priest transferred to this diocese is not an abuser?
In our diocese, if a priest wants to come here, his bishop has to send a letter certifying he’s clean. I want a letter saying he’s clean. Can one bishop lie to another. Sure, but bishops now are more careful. In today’s world, if a priest is removed for sexual misconduct, the people are told.
Have the news media unfairly singled out Catholic priests from other ministers for the crime of molesting minors?
If we didn’t have misbehaving priests, we wouldn’t be getting the publicity. But there is no data that shows Catholic priests offend with this crime more than any other identifiable group. We have gotten more publicity. Perhaps we keep better records. It antagonizes some people when the church speaks out that abortion kills unborn children and capital punishment fries criminals. But no, it’s not all a big plot to `hit’ the church. Media people can’t resist the combination of religion and sex. But is there a plot? I don’t think so.