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The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

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Bishops seek a way out from sex-abuse scandal

December 7, 2004
By John Salveson

John Salveson is director of the Philadelphia chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP)

The newly elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Bishop William S. Skylstad, personifies everything that is wrong with the handling by Catholic Church leaders of the sexual-abuse scandal. According to media reports, Skylstad sat by and allowed a sexually abusive priest to continue to serve in the ministry after:

Receiving a written recommendation from a fellow priest that the abusive priest be removed from ministry.

Serving as pastor of the parish, where the abusive priest served and abused children one floor below Skylstad's bedroom in the rectory.

Being told repeatedly by parish parents that that same priest was abusing children.

Meeting with one of the priest's victims to hear of the abuse.

Skylstad admits that he didn't report the abuse to the police, alert parents, attempt to find other victims or remove the priest. His defense? It would have been "an impossible thing to do." Also, it seems as though he has had trouble remembering many facts of the case, according to court documents. Largely because of the neglect and inaction of Skylstad and others, this particular priest admitted to abusing so many boys he can't remember all of their names. These victims, now adults, are living with the devastating effects of their abuse, and at least one has committed suicide.

The amazing thing to me is not that Skylstad behaved the way he did. His behavior typifies the way bishops across America have protected abusive priests and allowed them to continue to prey on children. It is nothing new or unusual. What is amazing to me is that the USCCB is so confident that they have dodged an abuse crisis that they would go ahead and elect such a pitiful leader to the presidency of their organization.

The election of Skylstad sends a very clear message. The U.S. bishops feel they have "dealt with" the abuse crisis and are moving on. They have avoided all personal accountability and have failed miserably in helping the victims of their abuse. The tough ex-FBI agent leading their enforcement efforts has left. They have canceled outside audits of diocesan compliance with abuse guidelines. They are declaring bankruptcy in selected dioceses (including Skylstad's) to subvert civil litigation. They have lawyers answering hotlines for victims in two New York dioceses. In one such diocese, they are cutting off treatment for some victims, telling them instead to attend "therapy" groups at the church. This is a sampling of the backpedaling that continues every day.

So why are the bishops behaving with such disregard? Because they can. They have never faced a single indictment for protecting child rapists for decades. People still fill their churches on Sunday and continue to support the church financially. Their priests labor on obediently, never taking issue with the behavior of their bishops. Why change?

The bishops continue to be treated with deference by law enforcement, the courts and the legislatures. The media largely have lost interest in this story. The bishops' strategy from the start was to make some cosmetic changes and then wait until people believed all was well. The election of Skylstad demonstrates that their strategy has worked.

Here in Philadelphia, we will soon discover whether this strategy will work. Before too long, the results of a grand jury investigation of the archdiocese will be revealed. If the findings are as bad as many abuse survivors expect, we will see whether the church will be held accountable to the law, and whether Philadelphia Catholics, and their priests, will continue to support a church with such disregard for the victims of its sexually abusive priests. Let's hope the bishops miscalculated, and that their sorry act doesn't play in Philadelphia.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests