|The pope's darkest,
John Paul's handling of sex abuse scandals
besetting the Roman Catholic Church has compromised his reputation
as an icon of peace, political liberty and church reform
Friday, October 17, 2003
The Taipei, Taiwan Times
John Paul II entered the Vatican as a liberation figure of
sorts, a Polish patriot who represented budding resistance
inside the communist block that would eventually pull down
the Iron Curtain.
But since the 1960s, another liberation movement was underfoot,
one of human rights and sexual frankness that would eventually
lead to one of John Paul's darkest hours -- revelations of
how Catholic priests around the world had sexually abused
children for decades while bishops looked the other way.
It began most publicly in Ireland during the 1990s, when
thousands of adults testified about being raped and abused
by Catholic priests in state-funded institutions. Irish Prime
Minister Bertie Ahern apologized to victims. By the middle
of this year, the state was facing up to US$1.2 billion in
compensation payouts to victims.
The scandal washed to American shores, where court cases
revealed how Boston Cardinal Bernard Law and his predecessors
had protected nearly 100 pedophile priests who raped and otherwise
sexually assaulted hundreds of young children, and moved the
culprits to new postings without informing the new parents.
A flood of similar public revelations followed in at least
16 countries -- in France, Germany, Britain, Ireland, Austria,
Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Poland, the Philippines, Hong
Kong, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, El Salvador and Chile.
One abuse victim, testifying publicly before nearly 300 US
bishops in Texas last year, described his near suicide after
being repeatedly abused by a mentor priest.
"I sat in a room with my father's revolver in my mouth,"
the victim said.
Through it all, Pope John Paul II kept silent, refusing to
allow Cardinal Law step down as Boston archbishop and using
e-mail to apologize to victims in Oceania. He ordered a crackdown
on Catholic priests involved in cases of pedophilia, but made
no public statements.
Finally, at Easter last year, Pope John Paul II bent to growing
pressure and publicly denounced the "sins of some of
our brothers who have betrayed the grace of ordination"
by succumbing to "the mystery of iniquity."
"Grave scandal is caused, with the result that a dark
shadow of suspicion is cast over all the other fine priests,"
wrote the aging pope.
The forces that brought the powerful church figure to the
shocking admission included nothing less than the liberation
politics of the 1960s, which advocated civil rights, personal
expression, transparency of institutions and changes in women's
role in society.
In the US and elsewhere, explicit laws were passed to protect
women and children from sexual abuse and harassment, releasing
victims from a sense of guilt -- and freeing many to speak
out as adults about childhood assaults.
But some Catholic institutions and dioceses remained "shockingly
backward" despite all of the upheavals, wrote John McGreevy,
chair of the history department at the Indiana-based University
of Notre Dame, in the Catholic lay magazine Commonweal.
"The unwillingness of bishops and leaders of religious
orders to consult with parish members about the placing of
priests with a history of sexual abuse ... paint a sobering
portrait," McGreevy said.
In September, the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Boston agreed
to pay US$85 million in damages to a group of 552 people allegedly
sexually abused by priests. But the move will do little to
change the fact that the sex abuse scandal has been the "worst
crisis" in the American church's history, experts said.
"For Catholics under the age of 45, it may be defining:
the public event that shapes their adult relationship with
Catholicism more than any other," McGreevy wrote.
By the end of last year, John Paul had allowed Cardinal Law
to step down as archbishop, although he stayed on as cardinal.
At least five other bishops and archbishops had stepped down
over similar scandals, in Milwaukee, Poland, Ireland, Germany
In Ireland, more than 150,000 children and teenagers passed
through orphanages and other residential institutions over
the past 60 years, and many suffered at the hands of priests
and nuns who run them. The state may now have to pay US$1.2
billion in compensation.
The exploitation was graphically illustrated in Peter Mullan's
award-winning film, The Magdalene Sisters. It tells the story
of the Magdalene Laundries where thousands of young girls
thought to be a moral danger to themselves or others were
forced to work for no pay.
The girls were kept in prison-like conditions, often suffering
physical and even sexual abuse.
In Australia, reports of sexual abuse within the Catholic
Church were supplemented by allegations of child sex abuse
in the 1940s and 1950s at a Brisbane orphanage operated by
the Sisters of Nazareth. A group of women have lodged claims
against the Church in the Queensland Supreme Court.
Sydney Archbishop George Pell has won praise for getting
the issue out in the open. Under his leadership, 90 priests
have been taken to court and were convicted of sexual abuse
in Australia since 1995.
But earlier this year, Pell stood aside pending the outcome
of an enquiry into claims he sexually abused a 12-year-old
boy when he was a trainee priest in Melbourne 40 years ago.
Pell, who was named a cardinal this year, was exonerated by
an independent church panel.
Pell also penned an unprecedented apology to victims of sexual
abuse, which was also signed by his Melbourne counterpart,
Denis Hart. It ran full page in all national newspapers.
The court cases have brought a sea of change to the US legal
system, which had regarded church records as off limits for
evidence but now routinely subpoenas material from the church.
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