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Cardinal George should discipline priest for suing his accusers

December 7, 2006

By Barbara Blaine and David Clohessy


It may sound trite, but one question keeps coming to mind since the Rev. Robert Stepek sued two men who say he molested them as kids: What would Jesus do?

Two men are alleging that the former Burbank pastor sexually abused them years ago. They did what every Catholic bishop asks every victim to do: report the crimes to church officials.

Now they're being sued for more than $1 million by their former pastor.

Since 1950, more than 5,000 priests have proven to be, admitted to or been credibly accused of being child molesters. Only a dozen have sued their accusers. Not one of these 12 has prevailed in court. In at least two instances, the priests have been forced to pay damages to the individuals they sued.

So if history is any guide, Stepek will not get the money he so desperately wants.

What, then, is Stepek's goal with his lawsuit? To scare other witnesses and victims into keeping their mouths shut.

Jesus urged us to reach out to the lost and wounded sheep. But Stepek's mean-spirited legal attack will only make it harder to do this.

Jesus said "turn the other cheek." But Stepek is suing these young men for defamation (even though they haven't sued him).

Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor." But Stepek wants $1 million from these wounded young men.

Jesus said, "The truth shall set you free." But Stepek wants these young men to recant their sexual abuse report.

Ultimately, however, this case is not really about Stepek. It's about Cardinal Francis George.

The cardinal is Stepek's boss. The church is akin to a monarchy, so George has tremendous power and authority over Stepek and all archdiocesan employees.

He could forbid Stepek from pursuing this lawsuit. He could publicly admonish Stepek for attacking his former parishioners. He could instruct all other archdiocesan staff that suing victims -- actual or alleged -- is wrong.

Cardinal George, however, is being silent in the face of Stepek's hard-ball legal maneuver.

Again, consider Jesus' behavior. When he saw the money-changers in the temple, he didn't stay silent. He got angry and threw them out. Jesus didn't consult lawyers, split hairs, act impotent or dodge a controversy. He disciplined wrong-doers.

That's what Cardinal George must do with Stepek.

Some say that Stepek, like any citizen, has a right to defend himself.

We don't deny this. But one can defend oneself without attacking one's accusers. That's what most accused clerics do. That's what Jesus would do.

In some states, priests, like other citizens, enjoy the right to carry weapons, encourage abortions and go to strip bars. But just because they CAN do these things, doesn't mean they SHOULD do these things.

Just because a priest has a LEGAL right to sue others, he doesn't have a MORAL right to do so.

Cardinal George can't have his cake and eat it too. He can't claim he wants victims to come forward, then let his employees sue those who do come forward. George can't profess to care about the wounded, then do nothing while his staff inflicts on them even more wounds.

Vatican officials will determine whether Stepek should be defrocked. At a bare minimum, Stepek should wait until that ruling takes place before even considering suing his accusers.

Priests should model themselves after Jesus, not Rambo. When a priest fails to do so, his boss, in this case Cardinal George, should step in and discipline him.

Barbara Blaine and David Clohessy are leaders of the self-help group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. They can be reached through the organization's Web site, snapnetwork.org.