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Church unlikely to get tough with all abusive priests

June 3, 2002 - USA Today

By Mark Vincent Serrano

In today's 24/7 news-consuming society, buzzword phrases can have a powerful impact, good or bad. One of the latest is the U.S. Catholic bishops' proposed ''one strike, you're out'' child sexual-abuse policy for priests. It is certainly a powerful phrase, intended to demonstrate that church leaders have begun to understand that child sexual abusers are immoral and criminal -- something they have largely denied until now.

It also is a powerfully deceiving expression. U.S. bishops, who will meet this month in Dallas, do not have the desire or authority to implement a tough policy. The church is more likely to continue providing a safe haven for some sexual offenders rather than comfort victims and ''defrock'' clerics in all cases of abuse, past and present.

Every day, I relive the sexual terror committed against me as a child nearly 30 years ago. And every day, my perpetrator walks the streets without any restraint to further prey upon children.

The solution to today's crisis hinges on the same issue as the cause of the crisis: moral authority. Are church leaders truly moral, and do they truly have authority?

Obstacles to action

The knowing transfer of child sexual predators from parish to parish by their superiors, now publicly documented, is nothing if not immoral. Yet those who made the transfers are among the men entrusted to implement and enforce a one-strike policy.

Another obstacle comes from high in the Catholic power structure. A recent article by an influential Vatican lawyer, the Rev. Gianfranco Ghirlanda, said a bishop shouldn't take an abuse allegation to police until he was certain the priest was guilty, nor should a priest reassigned to parish work after molesting someone have his past revealed. His views were published in the Jesuit magazine La Civilta Cattolica, which often reflects official Vatican thinking.

If that's the Vatican's position, U.S. bishops won't have the authority to deny canon law in favor of American criminal and civil statutes -- which, in effect, is what must happen for a one-strike policy to be applied in all U.S. dioceses.

Given the church's obsession with secrecy, its desire to avoid scandal and its shaky moral authority, people should scrutinize the fine print of any new policy the bishops approve. Is it really different from past policies? How strong are its enforcement mechanisms?
I worry about possible compromises. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick recently told USA TODAY that ''you can have situations, say 30 years ago, when memories are not as accurate perhaps, or where people might have misinterpreted something. With something so old you might want to take a good look at it'' before expelling a priest.

No dimming of the horror

My memories of my sexual abuse are as real today as they were when I was a child. Cardinal McCarrick's ''not as accurate'' and ''misinterpreted'' are other buzzwords meant to relieve the pressure on the Catholic Church, minimize the scandal and dismiss the suffering of the victims.

A one-strike plan must apply to all past abuse cases as well as future ones. Even those who are guilty of just one act of abuse decades ago should ''strike out'' now, particularly because sexual offenders commonly victimize many before they are caught once.
Enforcement mechanisms raise other issues. Should bishops also be expelled from the priesthood if their decisions to keep known sex offenders in the church lead to more victims? What if a bishop does not notify civil authorities or overrules his lay review board?

The proper focus should be ''children and victims -- first and foremost.'' All investigations of abuse cases, past and present, should be turned over to police and prosecutors. Victims should be urged to come forward, and should have support to help them heal. All statute-of-limitations laws for child sexual-abuse crimes should be eliminated. The historic culture of deceit in church leadership should be stamped out for the good of the church and society.

''One strike, you're out'' sounds comforting to some, but not to the many clergy sexual-abuse survivors in America. The real question is whether anything will change once the news-consuming public focuses its attention elsewhere.

Mark Vincent Serrano is on the board of directors of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. He and his family live in Leesburg, Va.



Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests