Friday, February 18, 2011

Catholic scandal
Catholic Scandal
Total People in Discussion: 12
Categories: Current Affairs, Religion
I have a good friend who is a devout Catholic. Every time I write about sexual abuse by priests and the church hierarchy’s institutional schemes to cover it up, he accuses me of being anti-Catholic.

Since my column today is about the latest grand jury report on sexual abuse within the Philadelphia Archdiocese, I expect another phone call from him. My answer will be the same I offered in today’s column and that I’ll offer in today’s blog: Read the grand jury report. You can do it here.

It’s 124 pages that should be a clarion call to Catholics and law enforcement authorities alike that nothing much has changed and that it won’t until these criminals — predator priests and their Catholic church leader accomplices — are sent to jail and church leaders start firing anyone responsible for allowing this to continue. And this report was tame compared to another grand jury’s 2005 report on the archdiocese. In the end, it made little difference.

In preparing today’s column, I spoke to David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, both to get his take on what has happened in the Philadelphia Archdiocese and to confirm that this problem is not pecular to this region. I didn’t have space to fully report our conversation in my column, so I figured I would elaborate here, where space is no concern.

Is the local archdiocese atypical? He said, "I think they are atypical in that twice, independent professional law enforcement officials and impartial jurors have forcibly gained access to their files through subpoena and exposed the wrongdoing that is largely happening around the country." If people think the Philadelphia Archdiocese is unique, he noted, "The culture and structure of the church is nearly indentical across the country." This is not some loosely knit alliance of independent dioceses. This is a highly structured, hiearchical organization.

Clohessy said the na├»ve assumption that things are much worse in this one diocese "is a key reason why literally thousands of priests have molested tens of thousands of kids all through the ’80 and ‘90s and beyond."

One thing the church has been very good at is public relations, and that effort instantly kicked into high gear after the latest report was released. As I reported today, Cardinal Justin Rigali issued a statement that said, "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." One Catholic who called me this morning to complain, nicely, apparently had latched onto that as proof that all this was old news.

What the cardinal didn’t mention in his statement was that the church no longer ASKS accused priests about the allegations — hey, that way nothing is admitted — and that its notion of what constitutes an established allegation may not fit that of someone whose goal isn’t avoiding scrutiny and, especially, lawsuits.

Here’s what the grand jury said. I only had space for a small portion of this quote in my column, but it’s worth seeing more of it:

Most disheartening to the grand jury was what we learned about the current practice toward accused abusers in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. We would have assumed, by the year 2011, after all the revelations both here and around the world, that the church would not risk its youth by leaving them in the presence of priests subject to substantial evidence of abuse. That is not the case.

In fact, we discovered that there have been at least 37 such priests who have been kept in assignments that expose them to children. Ten of these priests have been in place since before 2005 – over six years ago. We understand that accusations are not proof; but we just cannot understand the Archdiocese’s apparent absence of any sense of urgency.

On the other hand, in cases where the Archdiocese’s review board has made a determination, the results have often been even worse than no decision at all. The board takes upon itself the task of deciding whether it finds "credible" the abuse victims who dare come forward. It is the board, though, that strikes us as incredible.

Our review of just some of these priests’ files shows that the Review Board finds allegations "unsubstantiated" even when there is very convincing evidence that the accusations are true – evidence certainly alarming enough to prompt removal of priests from positions in which they pose a danger to children.

Six years after an earlier grand jury documented sexual abuse by priests whom church officials shielded for decades, and in the face of current assurances that Archdiocese procedures now protect families, credibly accused priests have routinely been permitted to stay in ministry.

Indeed, the grand jury said, the process ostensibly set up to help the victims has the opposite purpose. "The procedures implemented by the Archdiocese to help victims are in fact designed to help the abusers, and the Archdiocese itself," the report said.

Speaking of public relations, in the wake of the report, the cardinal hired two more lawyers, rehired the victim assistance consultant whose 11 recommendations were ignored after the last grand jury report, and announced that three of the priests specifically named in the report were being placed on administrative leave pending a new review of their cases.

Clohessy said this kind of thing is window-dressing. "What he needs to do is fire someone, not hire someone." He said two "untested sources of reform," at least until now, have been charging complicit church supervisors with crimes — and the church firing and severely punishing those who ignore and conceal sex crimes.

While I’m on the subject of "old news," I’ll point out that one reason District Attorney Seth Williams — a Catholic, by the way — was able to file charges was that the cases the grand jury focused on here fall within Pennsylvania’s predator-friendly statute of limitations. He talked about this in a statement he issued in conjunction with the report’s release, here specifically about Monsignor William Lynn, whose criminal charges for endangering the welfare of children were encouraging news to anyone who wants justice for the church officials who have so dismally failed in their responsibility to protect children. Williams said:

"A word about Monsignor Lynn, the former Secretary of Clergy for the Archdiocese who was not himself an abuser but is being charged today for knowingly endangering the children he was supposed to defend. The previous grand jury concluded that prosecution of high-level Archdiocese officials would be inappropriate on the evidence then available. The primary problem was the statute of limitations. In addition, in the absence of evidence that the actions of these officials led to the abuse of any juveniles who could be identified at that time, it would be difficult to meet our statutory burden of proving that the officials had a supervisory role in relation to the victims.

"This time, however, we have far more specific evidence, within the statute of limitations, directly linking Monsignor Lynn’s actions to the abuse of two new victims. He had all the information he needed to protect them. Instead, he lied to parishioners and went out of his way to put known abusers into contact with adolescents, resulting in assaults against at least two more young boys. Let this be a clarion call. This behavior will not be tolerated."

In addition to the criminal charges, the grand jury had some recommendations, for the archdiocese, our Legislature and victims themselves. I’ll summarize them quickly, first for the archdiocese: Fund a victim assistance program that is independent of the archdiocese and its lawyers. Revise the Review Board process so that credibly accused priests are removed from ministry. Conduct the review process in a more open and transparent manner. Use independent treatment facilities to evaluate and treat priests accused of sexually abusing minors.

For the Legislature: Enact a two-year window to allow child sexual abuse victims to have their cases heard, a "window of opportunity" that would suspend the civil statute of limitations. Abolish the statute of limitations for sexual offenses against minors. ("We see no reason that sexual predators should benefit because they choose vulnerable young victims who are unable to come forward for many years.") Amend reporting law so that mandated reporters are required to report sexual abuse of a child even though the victim is over 18 at the time of the report. Demand improved protection for children.

Finally, the report’s advice to victims coincides with what Clohessy told me: Report sexual abuse allegations directly to law enforcement authorities. Clohessy said he hopes that the revelations contained in the latest grand jury report will make that more likely. "In Philadelphia now, the next victim or witness or whistleblower who thinks: ‘Call the police or call the pastor? Hmmm. What should I do?’ Hopefully they’ll make the right choices."

As disgusting as the alleged actions of some of these pedophiles were, I suppose you could argue that they’re sick and they can’t help themselves, although I can’t muster any sympathy. But what excuse can we offer for such church leaders as — if you believe the grand jury findings — Lynn and many others whose names have appeared in these two grand jury reports and others who have been able to keep their actions secret?

That they were protecting the church from lawsuits? That its reputation would suffer if any of this came out? That Catholics might stop contributing if they knew what was going on?

I’ve spoken to some of these anguished victims and read about many more. That "men of God" could put monetary considerations ahead of the suffering of innocent children is monstrous. At the very least, we as a society — including Catholics — need to serve notice, loud and clear, that we won’t tolerate those kinds of twisted priorities when it perpetuates this terrible cycle of abuse.

Clohessy told me that there still are Catholics who swallow the church P.R. and conclude that surely they’ve changed by now. "When I speak to Catholic groups," he said, "I tell them: ‘You know who the enemy is? Surely. Oh well, surely, they don’t keep bad priests in the ministry anymore. Surely if I come forward, they’ll believe me. If the cardinal says these allegations aren’t credible, surely they aren’t.'"

I’ll add another one. Surely some Catholics reading my column and blog today will conclude that I’m treating their church unfairly by tarring it with the actions of a relative handful of wrongdoers and that church leaders will clean this up eventually on their own. In fact, I’ve already heard from such defenders.

You’re entitled to your opinion. But I’ll tell you the same thing I’ll tell my friend when he calls me:

Read the grand jury report. Visit the SNAP website and read what’s happening, not just in this area, but all over the country. I think you’ll conclude, as I have, that nothing will change as long as good people go along with a systematic effort to cover up this ugly, ugly secret. It has nothing to do with faith. It has everything to do with right and wrong.

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