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Op-Ed: Back to Sunday School

By Mark Vincent Serrano
February 14, 2003

Cardinal Francis George needs to go back to Sunday school.

Even Sunday school kids know that people who do evil things are themselves evil. They can't be good people again in God's eyes until they fix what they did wrong.

Yet Cardinal George wants Catholics to believe that the only thing that is evil when priests rape children is rape itself, not the priests who commit it. The priests themselves are still good; they just did evil things. "Something happens when people who are good do something evil. They put it in a compartment and seal it off," said Cardinal George.

Cardinal George recently visited a Chicago area parish where a priest was belatedly removed from ministry after credible sexual abuse allegations were made against him. Instead of going to the parish to seek out other victims and offer them pastoral comfort and support though, the Cardinal showed up and made excuses for felony sexual offenders.

I remember learning in Sunday school that when we sin we must seek forgiveness from those we hurt and then perform acts of contrition. Only when we accept the full weight of our sins can we achieve reconciliation with God and be a part of "His communion with the church."

I must have been absent the day that they taught us that priests are different from lay people because they can perform evil acts without themselves being evil.

Assuming that was not taught in Sunday school, then Cardinal George should return for some lessons on comforting the least among us as Christ himself taught. It is not Cardinal George's place to forgive sex-offending priests. That is the place of the victims if they are moved to do so. He should stick to his job as a pastor.

Cardinal George and his brother bishops across the country have expressed for a year that they will show greater compassion for victims. Yet how many victims do you suppose felt safe to come forward in that parish when Cardinal George expressed that "it's painful for the one accused and the one doing the accusing. And it's painful for the parish"?

No one can blame Catholic parishioners for expressing their anguish at losing their priests after they have been removed because of sexual abuse allegations against them. As bishops continue to hide from Catholic laypeople the truth about crimes committed against children and covered up by the bishops themselves, then some Catholics may regrettably continue to rally behind credibly accused priests and forget the victims in the process.

That is why a standard response is needed for parishes that have been affected by the abuse scandal. Parishes should assemble as communities to hear from victims' advocates about the effects of abuse in victims' day-to-day lives. Parishioners should invite bishops, abuse survivors, and prosecutors to address the claims that caused their parish priests to be removed from ministry.

There should be education provided to each parish about how to protect children and support survivors, and a cooperative plan for the future that includes the advice and counsel of abuse survivors.

Pastors should not lead their parishioners into attacking the victims when allegations against their brother priests arise, as one pastor did in New Britain, Connecticut where the victim was raped in December at the age of 17. In this case the priest admitted to digitally and sexually raping the orphan girl when he visited to offer her spiritual counseling subsequent to a previous rape by a cab driver.

There is nothing wrong with Catholic parishes praying and hoping that their priests are not guilty of raping children. It is wrong though when victims are shamed and disregarded because parishioners are misguided about sexual crimes against children by their bishops or pastors.

As we saw in the grand jury report from Long Island, New York this week, most of the truth about crimes against children and criminal concealment in the church is still hidden in personnel files and the bishops' archives in chancery offices throughout the country.

Since we will not likely see enough grand juries impaneled to unearth the evil secrets of the clerical culture in America, then regular Catholics must demand more. They must demand more disclosure, more information, more independent review of files, and more compassion for victims and alleged victims of priest perpetrators from their church.

The rights of accused priests are upheld both in U.S. law and in Canon Law. Cases where the criminal statutes of limitations have expired require real moral action on the part of the Catholic laity for the sake of children today and the original crime victims. The passage of time and the evasion of prosecution by perpetrators do not mean that children are not still at risk and victims do not need affirmation and compassion from the Catholic laity.

One church official in the Archdiocese of Baltimore stated recently that victims do not make claims of criminal sexual assault to seek compensation in the from of civil claims. They do so, he said, because they fear for the safety of children still in the midst of perpetrators today.

Evil priests use the guise of the cloth as a tool of their trade to rape children. Parishioners should not be deceived by the same tricks and tools of the evildoers, or by their apologist bishops. Once Catholic parishioners possess more of the truth to judge this crisis for themselves, they won't need to return to Sunday school to know what to do for sexual abuse victims of priests.

Mark Vincent Serrano is a national advocate for clergy sexual abuse survivors and is a board member of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests)

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