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New York Times

April 17, 2008

Still Awaiting an Accounting

It is encouraging that Pope Benedict XVI arrived in the United States speaking about his anguish over the actions of pedophile priests who for decades preyed on thousands of children even as bishops and cardinals denied the abuse. “We are deeply ashamed,” said the pope who has been on a painful learning curve since he first sought to minimize the emerging scandal as a cardinal six years ago.

He has been studying case histories of some of the estimated 10,000 abused youngsters — “our Friday penance,” he called his weekly tutorial. This leaves the pope in an even stronger position to demand more from diocesan authorities who continue to deny their own complicity in covering up the abuse.

Four years ago, the National Review Board of laity, established by the American church to investigate the scandal, declared that “there must be consequences” for the bishops, not just for the more than 700 pedophile priests hurriedly dismissed after the scandal broke in the secular press. Some board members called for dismissal for prelates who instead of protecting children protected the abusers, denying the crimes and moving the abusers on to another parish. There has been no diocesan resolve to lay bare the hierarchy’s guilt.

The review board also found the Vatican’s response ineffective, which underlines Benedict’s opportunity to confront his bishops. There is a lot on the papal agenda, from immigration to world poverty. But the American church remains deeply wounded. By the church’s accounting, more than 4,000 priests, or 4 percent, across two generations, were reported to have committed abuse. Five dioceses have gone bankrupt as payouts to victims total $2.4 billion and counting.

Progress has been made with such obvious reforms as zero tolerance of abusers. But the church faithful still await an accounting of the long years of cover-up and the “stunning failures of the overwhemingly majority of U.S. bishops,” in the words of The National Catholic Reporter.