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Metuchen Diocese a model against priest abuse

By Rev. James Scahill - E. Longmeadow, Mass.
May 4, 2003

THE CATHOLIC Church must be challenged from within. The unhealthy paradigm that has put our children in harm's way must be confronted. Whither the institution that often values blind obedience above the basic tenets of moral right and wrong, while holding itself accountable to no one?

As many in the Catholic hierarchy strain to make the simple seem so complicated, the Diocese of Metuchen (N.J.) has stepped out of this unhealthy paradigm and dealt with the issue of sexual abuse of children without equivocation. Led by Bishop Paul Bootkoski, the diocese's words and actions have not been dictated by legal strategy but, rather, by three guiding principles: morality, truth and justice.

Catholics nationwide react with incredulity as dioceses wage absurd and demeaning First Amendment battles, asking courts to immunize them from fundamental issues of accountability for bad acts. By contrast, honoring the precept that the Catholic Church should at the very least be accountable to laws protecting children, the Metuchen Diocese has settled 10 claims of sexual abuse, 8 of which fell outside the civil statute of limitations. And Bishop Bootkoski has met privately with each victim to offer his apologies.

Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move, Bishop Bootkoski has reorganized his leadership team, appointing a lay person to one of the diocese's three leadership positions and expanding the diocesan review board to include three victims of abuse.

Working with prosecutors within the diocese, officials have scoured files, turning over any allegations of abuse. At this bishop's request, prosecutors have spoken to priests about sexual abuse, and regularly lecture at diocesan schools.

Elsewhere, though, the church hierarchy hides behind the cloak of canon law to justify ongoing support of child molesters -- shaping the law to fit its needs, while ignoring canons that prove contrary to those insular needs. It seems that canon law has been put above the very Ten Commandments.

Bishop Bootkoski has made it clear that he is prepared to petition the Vatican to waive any statute of limitations protecting abusive priests under canon law. Yet many other dioceses, rather than joining in this effort, justify the financial support of molesting priests as the "charitable" thing to do.

There's no charity here! Charity is reaching into your own pocket to help others. The Catholic hierarchy is reaching into the pockets of the laity -- a more appropriate term would be "misuse of funds."

Many in the Catholic laity continue to be more than willing to cede to the church's sense of entitlement to both their money and the power that's derived from that money. Doing what's right for the social institution that is the Catholic Church is not analogous to doing the right thing. The movement of the soul that Jesus created and nurtured is now at odds with the very institution that grew out of that movement.

The church hierarchy uses the term "removed from active ministry" in an attempt to reassure concerned citizens, and to justify continued payments to these abusive priests. Let's be clear: This involves a predatory crime committed by men who, according to most of the medical community, suffer from an incurable disorder. Unless the church intends to place a monitoring device on each of these offenders and keep them under surveillance 24 hours a day, there is no way anyone should feel reassured.

The Rev. Paul Shanley, of Boston, is released on bail, and rightly all are concerned; yet there are hundreds just like Shanley who are roaming free, carrying the title Father and being paid by their dioceses. Should we be more afraid of Father Shanley or of the hundreds of others we know nothing of?

"Something is manifestly wrong when the forgiveness that is possible for all repentant sinners is confused with restoring the sinner to a public trust," notes George Weigel, in a Dec. 17 article in the Los Angeles Times.

While the Diocese of Metuchen is to be commended for its active moral stance, it's important to remember that this diocese is merely doing the right thing! This should be the rule, not the exception.

As the money and support continue to erode, the Catholic hierarchy will eventually be forced to do the right thing -- tragically, for all the wrong reasons.

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The Rev. James Scahill, a Roman Catholic priest, is pastor of St. Michael's Church, in East Longmeadow, Mass.

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests