THE U.S. CATHOLIC bishops are presiding over a scandal.
Three years ago, we took notice of a relatively new phenomenon in society: growing numbers of aggrieved and frustrated parents who were going to court with charges their children had been sexually abused by Catholic priests. We investigated and six months later published several articles on priestly pedophilia, an issue that has festered quietly in the church for more time than most would care to think (NCR June 7, 1985).
Looking into the matter, we learned of several dozen cases nationwide. As unsettling as these cases were, within them we often found something even more disturbing, a pattern of institutional cover-up. We found bishops far more focused on protecting the image of their diocese than on aiding the pedophilia victims. We found bishops who failed to remove known molesters from active church ministry and, instead, transferred them to locations where they continued their ways.
Nowhere did we find guidelines for bishops confronted with pedophilic priests in their midst. We called for such guidelines. We asked the church leadership to tackle this problem head-on and to view it primarily as a pastoral and moral issue – not solely a legal one.
But with few exceptions, the bishops have not responded. The church’s moral posture in society is at great risk as a result. Potential lawsuit settlements could cost billions of dollars. Millions have already been paid, and dioceses are increasingly finding insurance companies closing their doors to the church.
As late as last November, the U.S. bishops appeared yet unable or unwilling to comprehend the dimensions of the problem. In executive session at their annual meeting, the bishops discussed pedophilia, but from a legal – not pastoral – perspective. To the best of our knowledge the only person to speak on the matter behind those doors was Green Bay Bishop Adam Madia, NCCB canonical affairs chairman. Madia addressed only canonical and legal matters. As the bishops delay, the gravity of the issue increases. About 140 church-related pedophilia cases have been reported to church officials with nearly 100 having entered the legal system; many more are quietly being settled out of court. The possibility of a class-action suit looms real.
At least three major U.S. media groups are investigaing pedophilia in Catholic dioceses. Attention-grabbing new revelations are certain to come. The possibility of bishops being charged by prosecutors for complicity in failing to curtail the actions of offender priests looms as well.
And what will the public make of it? The public will be scandalized, particularly by the bishops’ insentitivity to the children and their parents.
Again, we call upon the U.S. bishops to seize the initiative on this grave issue. What is required?
First, find out the facts and share them openly. Enough church personnel have already been convicted for us to see we need a thorough look at what is going on. Such an investigation must include a thorough probe of the conflicts that exist within the clergy, conflicts that express themselves in peculiar patterns of relationships, personality styles and behavior.
Second, take an unequivocal stand in identifying and removing from pastoral service any and all who have been convicted of pedophilia offenses or who have otherwise compromised the trust that is the hallmark of their ministries. Make it clear to the public that such actions will not be tolerated by the church.
Third, develop a national policy that responds to the pastoral needs of victims and their families. Make it known that every church resource will be used to support and assist those who have been unwitting victims of sexual abuse.
Fourth, do not fall back on the advice of lawyers. In the final analysis, this is a moral issue that cries out for moral and pastoral answers. The response cannot be that of an institution, but of a church. We are not talking here about cash settlements, but about justice in the church. Bishops may be seen to be condoning immorality in order to protect the institution. They will not succeed.