Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago should be commended for their plan to establish an independent, mostly lay board to investigate future charges of sexual abuse of children by Chicago priests. The board will act independently, but the cardinal will have final say over any step it suggests.
While relatively few priests have committed such offenses, the issue has long been a troublesome one for the church, and especially for victims and their families. Out of naivete or fear of disclosure, or a combination of the two, church officials tended to sweep charges under the rug by transferring the accused priests to other parishes.
During the last several years, however, the church has become more open about the problem -- and not just in the United States. In Ottawa last week, a committee sponsored by the Canadian Catholic bishops said candidates for the priesthood should undergo psychological testing to determine if they have any proclivity for sexual deviance.
The credit for forcing this new openness belongs, in part, to those victims who have begun publicly discussing the harm done to them. Recently, for example, after an initial news account about a former Massachusetts priest who had sexually molested children when he was a parish priest 30 years ago, more than 50 adults, including a Baltimore man, have come forward to say they were among the man's victims. The ex-priest has reportedly admitted to molesting as many as 100 children in the 1960s.
The church might also be more wary of pressure from the legal system since late 1990, when a Minnesota jury became the first to assess punitive damages against the Catholic Church in any kind of case. This particular case involved a priest's sexual abuse of a youth.
The Chicago archdiocese is the second largest in the United States, with 2.4 million church members, 3,500 priests and 1,100 parishes. (Only the Los Angeles archdiocese, with 3.4 million members, is bigger. Baltimore's archdiocese has 452,000 members, 690 priests and 154 parishes.) By numbers alone, the Chicago see is a leader of the American Catholic church. Now many church officials and plain people in the pews are counting on Chicago to inspire dioceses across the nation to form their own independent boards in order to bring a long-standing problem into the light.