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The Problem That Hasn't Gone Away

Once again, revelations and allegations of sex abuse among Catholic priests are in the news. For any hope to emerge, strong steps must be taken.

Published Sunday, February 12, 2006
The Daily Southtown, Illinois

By David Clohessy

After all these painful years, scandalous exposes, criminal investigations, civil lawsuits and alleged church reforms, why are we still seeing cases of clergy sex abuse and cover-up by our highest church officials?

Over the past few weeks, Chicago-area Catholics have learned that:

Joliet's bishop kept an accused molester, the Rev. James Burnett, in active ministry for at least two months after allegations against him first surfaced,

Chicago's archbishop kept an accused molester, the Rev. Daniel McCormack, in active ministry for six years after allegations against him first surfaced.

Chicago Catholic school officials received verbal and written complaints about that same pastor, yet apparently did nothing.

While McCormack spent time in the Gary diocese, church authorities there are publicly refusing to investigate whether he molested kids in Indiana.

Another Chicago pastor, the Rev. Joseph Bennett, was kept in his South Holland parish for approximately two years after at least two victims brought their abuse allegations to the archdiocese

Another cleric, the late Msgr. Dominic Diederich, was credibly accused of sexual abuse, but Chicago's archdiocese kept silent until a lay woman pressured Cardinal Francis George about the case last week at a public meeting.

Joliet's bishop repeatedly failed to call police about several abusive clergy, and excuses his secrecy by citing allegedly bad advice he received from therapists.

These disclosures come in spite of, not because of, the church hierarchy. Brave victims, determined police, tough lawyers and aggressive journalists have exposed this continued corruption.

So why are Catholic officials continuing the same hurtful behaviors? Why are the alleged reforms adopted by bishops apparently not working?

The answer can be found in three simple words: checks and balances.

For centuries, monarchs ruled the world. Corruption was rampant. Kings kept secrets, acted arbitrarily, and put the lives of their subjects at risk.

Then, an upstart colony devised another approach. They wisely drew up a plan in which power was shared, with no one person or persons having too much of it.

The result: an imperfect yet fundamentally healthy and largely self-correcting system.

The Catholic church, on the other hand, remains perhaps the only real monarchy. Each of the world's 5,000 bishops is the lord of his own kingdom. (On paper, each bishop answers to the Pope. But it's unrealistic to expect one elderly man to effectively supervise 5,000 staff across the globe.)

What this means is that bishops can essentially make and break promises at will. So under pressure from victims, parishioners, prosecutors and reporters, bishops hastily draw up and publicize new sex abuse policies, then ignore them when the furor subsides and media attention wanes. When abusive clergymen and complicit church officials are exposed again, allegedly "inadequate" policies are blamed, revised, and again touted.

While their words on paper change, their actual behavior has not. Bishops seemingly heave a sign of relief, and return to business as usual. And, kids are still at risk.

Not so fast, bishops might say. We do have oversight, they claim. Each diocese now has a "review board" that helps bishops deal with abuse cases.

In theory, this sounds positive. But keep in mind that virtually every review board is composed of devout, loyal, well-intended but largely untrained Catholics who are hand-picked by their bishop. They operate in a secretive, purely advisory capacity using information provided almost solely by church employees.

So if the church hierarchy is incapable of self-reform and self-policing, what will help prevent future abuse?

The short answer: reduce bishops' opportunity to abuse their power.

First, victims and witnesses should report crimes to criminal authorities, not church officials. The district attorney shouldn't try to give the Easter homily in church. Nor should the Cardinal try to investigate sex crimes. It's much harder for a bishop to cover up child molestation cases once the independent professionals in law enforcement are involved.

Second, lawmakers should eliminate the dangerously restrictive civil and criminal statute of limitations on child sex crimes. Many Catholic families reported pedophile priests to their bishops because they had no other choice: the courts were closed to them, because of arbitrary and archaic time limits. These laws basically give predators and their supervisors incentives to intimidate witnesses, threaten victims and destroy evidence. They must be reformed.

Third, parishioners should donate directly to schools and charities that directly and effectively benefit the needy. Why give to church officials so they can more effectively evade their responsibility and hide their secrets using more high-priced public relations professionals and shrewd defense lawyers?

Fourth, Catholics must insist that some heads roll at the chancery office. By bishops' own admission, nearly 5,000 American priests have been accused of molesting countless children. Yet not one church employee in an administrative position overseeing priests who were found to have committed sexual abuse has lost even a single day's pay for his or her role in the scandal. (Boston's Cardinal Law resigned voluntarily.) Until there are real consequences for shunning victims, ignoring allegations, telling lies, covering up sexual crimes, such wrong-doing will continue.

Finally, all of us must reverse our assumptions about church officials. In court, we must (and should) presume innocence until guilt is proven. But given the painful, recurring, widespread pattern of child sex-abuse corruption in the church hierarchy, and given the long-term devastation to innocent children, here we must presume just the reverse. In our minds and our assumptions, we owe it to kids to assume that the truth is still hidden until it's conclusively been proven otherwise. We owe it to kids to assume that an ancient, rigid, secretive, all-male hierarchy has not radically changed course in three short years.

David Clohessy is national director of the Chicago-based advocacy group, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (snapnetwork.org).