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Priest Scandal

06/03/02 12:00AM By Allen Gilbert
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(Host) Commentator Allen Gilbert thinks that the Catholic Church has done a poor job of handling the abuse scandal that's facing American priests.

(Gilbert) It's been dizzying to follow the clergy sexual abuse scandal facing the Catholic Church. At times, there's been an air of unreality about the events. What's unmistakable, however, is that the church has handled things badly - very badly.

And it's not just the most recent attempts at disciplining priests and settling cases that the Church has handled badly. It's the many, many years that church officials had apparently been told of suspected abuse, or knew of it - and did nothing except reassign the offenders. Indeed, had teachers or social workers been involved in these cases instead of priests, their superiors - upon learning of possible abuse - would have been bound by law in Vermont, and in many other states, to report the suspected abuse to state welfare officers.

How has the Catholic Church been able to believe that it didn't need to do what other professionals must do? To protect children by reporting suspected abuse? The church may feel it is above the law because it is, in fact, older than the law. Except for a brief lapse in the fourteenth century, the church has had a clear, continuous line of leadership for nearly 2,000 years. At times it has held nations together. It often chose which emperors were crowned. In modern times, while its attitude toward the Nazis has been criticized, it stood against the totalitarian communist states of Eastern Europe.

John Paul II, the current pope, helped to resist the communists. He lived in a Poland where government officials could easily rid themselves of anyone they didn't like, including priests. By distorting justice, officials could make the innocent into victims. They could get rid of priests by accusing them of child abuse. Maybe that's why one Vatican official told The New York Times in April that "the pope is sensitive to the misuse of administrative power" when abuse cases are investigated.

Unlike dictatorships, though, our civil government assiduously protects religious freedoms. And innocence is presumed until proof shows guilt. I can think of little reason for the Catholic Church to feel persecuted in this country today, or to believe that its priests and officials will be treated unfairly by civil officials. Yet Washington's cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, told the Washington Post in April that "elements in our society who are very opposed to the church's stand on life, the church's stand on family, the church's stand on education ... see in this an opportunity to destroy the credibility of the church." I'm not sure what "elements" Cardinal McCarrick had in mind, but he certainly can't accuse government officials of attacking the church over the priest scandal. If anything, officials have been too slow to act.

It's hard to know the extent of damage that this scandal will ultimately cause the church. It is to be hoped that the church will cooperate fully with civil officials as they carry out their responsibilities. That may mean uncovering long-past incidents that some would rather forget. But for the victims of abuse cases, the harm that has been done can never be forgotten. Perhaps finally, holding the church accountable for misconduct by any of its officials, will be a small measure of relief. It is victims, and not perpetrators, who need comfort from our system of justice.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer an parent who is active in education issues.
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