By Clyde Haberman
March 30, 2014
Cardinal Edward M. Egan, the former Roman Catholic archbishop of New York, is in no way the principal face of the sexual abuse scandals that have buffeted the church and its priesthood almost without pause for three decades. But he embodies a certain mind-set among some in the highest clerical ranks. It is an attitude that has led critics, who of late include the authors of a scathing United Nations committee report, to wonder about the depth of the church’s commitment to atone for past predations and to ensure that those sins of the fathers are visited on no one else.
In 2002, with the scandal in crescendo and the American Catholic Church knocked back on its heels, Cardinal Egan reacted with obvious ambivalence to accounts of priestly abuses that occurred in the Diocese of Bridgeport, Conn., which he had led before moving to New York. “If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry,” he said in a letter to parishioners.
The conditional nature of the apology, a style favored by innumerable politicians caught with hands in the till, was not lost on many listeners. Nor was the cardinal’s use of “mistakes” to describe a pattern routinely described by district attorneys as a cover-up. As if that were not enough, the reluctant penitent turned thoroughly unrepentant a decade later. By then retired, he withdrew his apology. “I never should have said that,” the cardinal told Connecticut magazine in 2012. “I did say if we did anything wrong, I’m sorry, but I don’t think we did anything wrong.”
That sort of unyielding stance amid institutional promises of change continues to bedevil the American church, the Holy See in Rome and, no doubt, many among the faithful. This issue shapes the latest installment ofRetro Report, a weekly series of documentary videos, with this one reaching back to the mid-1980s to explore clergymen who prey.
By now, the story is amply familiar. Thousands of wayward clerics have been found to have sexually abused and emotionally scarred many more thousands of boys and girls. It is, too, a story of the church hierarchy as enabler: bishops who ignored the criminality, or evaded public exposure by shuffling abusers from parish to parish. The scandals have cost the church dearly, both in lost moral suasion and in its coffers. According to a monitoring group called BishopAccountability.org, United States dioceses and their insurers have had to pay out more than $3 billion, most of that money going to victims.
Nor is this a uniquely American peril. Similar scandals have erupted in Europe, Latin America, Canada and Australia. The Vatican, struggling to show it is far from indifferent to the problem, confirmed in January that it had defrocked 384 priests worldwide in 2011 and 2012. That was an unusually large number, though some cases may have been decades old.
For sure, sexual maltreatment of children and cover-up are not Catholic monopolies. Charges have been brought against predatory rabbis in New York and elsewhere. In the Hasidic world, a code of silence governs much of life in this regard. Those who break it, by taking allegations to the civil authorities, find themselves ostracized. The existence of a website likeStopBaptistPredators.org points to problems in other denominations. As for secular institutions, who could be unaware of abuses within the Boy Scouts of America and at Penn State?
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