The Earthly Power of a Philadelphia Jury

After months of testimony and deliberations the Philadelphia jurors who found Msgr. William Lynn guilty of child endangerment did more than any Vatican official has ever done to address the problem of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church. This was made possible by the simple fact that the men and women of the jury confronted him as a peer, in a system that confers equal rights and responsibilities upon all.

Those who wonder why the Church has been unable to halt the rolling catastrophe of sexual abuse claims need only consider the difference between the American system of law and Catholic justice. Within the Church, ordained men are regarded a special creatures with extra-human powers. They alone conduct the sacraments, such as communion and reconciliation (confession) and they alone can ascend through the clerical ranks to become bishops, cardinals and popes. Their superior status culminates in the pope's claim of infallibility, which places certain of his statements on a par with the voice of God.

Inside the institutional Church, ordination opens the doors to a brotherhood of men who have officially forsworn sex, marriage and children, and embrace the Church as their main source of emotional, spiritual and even financial support. This sacrifice makes many feel entitled to special treatment, and while they may not always get it from laypeople they generally receive it from each other. To put it crudely: priests give priests a lot of breaks. This is why complaints about sexual abuse were so often covered-up and resolved by sending "father" to another post. None of the men in charge wanted to discipline a brother.

Beyond this brotherly privilege, the clerical culture is also a setting for a kind of mutual blackmail that has made the idea that the Church could police itself almost ridiculous on its face. As many insiders report, the number of priests who actually keep to their vows of celibacy is very small. The rest break their vows -- by having all different kinds of sex -- and typically confess and seek absolution from another member o...


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