Monday, March 14, 2011

Inquirer Editorial: Why did it take so long?

It was good to see the Archdiocese of Philadelphia place 21 priests on leave because of allegations that they sexually abused minors. But it is disappointing that the church is only now taking these appropriate steps for all the right reasons.

That makes it hard to believe church officials can be trusted in the future to do the right thing when it comes to protecting children and rooting out predator priests. After all, the decades-long record in Philadelphia and other dioceses has been one of ignore, defend, cover up, and move problem priests from parish to parish.

One of the priests whom the archdiocese suspended last week was first accused of repeatedly molesting a 16-year-old boy in 1976.

That's 35 long years ago.

One point that Cardinal Justin Rigali certainly did get right last week was when he said: "I know that, for many people, their trust in the church has been shaken."

More accurately, trust in the leaders of the church at the highest levels has been crippled. That is due to their repeatedly turning a blind eye and the cover-ups of criminal acts, including the rapes of young boys. To some extent, their actions are as egregious as the actual abuse of the children by predatory priests.

They have certainly undermined the good work done by the majority of faithful priests. And it has left many Catholics hurt and angry. As a result, some followers have left the church.

It is clear that the archdiocese removed the 21 priests only in response to a Philadelphia grand jury report released last month - the second one within a few years - which found 37 local priests were serving in ministry despite accusations of questionable behavior.

Rigali's initial tortured response attempted to downplay the report's findings: "I assure all the faithful that there are no archdiocesan priests in ministry today who have an admitted or established allegation of sexual abuse of a minor against them."

It is obvious now, to Catholics and others alike, that when it comes to the handling of sexual abuse of minors by priests, Rigali and other church leaders for years have been economical with the truth.

The latest step of suspending the 21 priests is welcome, but it comes very late. If anything, it demonstrates the need for legislation that further enables civil lawsuits for past abuse and the prosecution of older crimes.

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