Church Moving to Take Action on Sexual Abuse by Priests

September 27, 1992|By FRANK P. L. SOMERVILLE

It would be comforting to be able to report that last week's announcement of new measures to deal with priests' sexual abuse of children in the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Chicago was motivated entirely by the church's outrage and its compassion for the victims.

The policy adopted by Chicago's Cardinal Joseph Bernardin goes beyond legal requirements, setting up an independent board to investigate accusations of child molesting among the clergy. It establishes a 24-hour toll-free hot line to receive complaints and stipulates that allegations must be reported to a state agency handling child-abuse cases.

In its comprehensiveness, the Chicago policy is a laudable model for other dioceses, including Baltimore's -- but it has been a long time in coming.

One cannot avoid the conclusion that, without the civil suits filed by aggrieved parents, the financial pressure of mounting damage awards and out-of-court settlements and the zealous probing by the press, this scandal would have remained hidden under the rock of official church secrecy.

Just how big a scandal is it?

Jason Berry, a New Orleans-based journalist (and practicing Roman Catholic) who devoted much of the last eight years to uncovering layers of clerical obfuscation across the United States, has just published a book on his findings that should be required reading for laity and clergy alike -- especially the bishops.

In "Lead Us Not Into Temptation -- Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children," Mr. Berry provides as authoritative an account as now exists of the extent of the problem.

"Between 1983 and 1987," he writes, "more than two hundred priests or religious brothers were reported to the Vatican Embassy [in Washington] for sexually abusing youngsters, in most cases teen-age boys -- an average of nearly one accusation week in those four years alone.

"In the decade of 1982 to 1992, approximately four hundred priests were reported to church or civil authorities for molesting youths. The vast majority of these men had multiple victims."

Sad and shocking as such revelations are, there is another fact that raises the issue to the level of a crisis that can't be ignored by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops or by the Vatican. "By 1992," Mr. Berry reports, "the church's financial losses -- in victims' settlements, legal expenses, and medical treatment of clergy -- had reached an estimated $400 million."

Nothing in the evolution of corporate religion, of religion as big government and big business, demonstrates any more clearly than the tragedy of pedophilia in the clergy and the way the church has handled it that the human element can overtake the divine.

rTC The Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, a Catholic priest and a sociologist who is a prolific author of both fiction and nonfiction, wrote a foreword for Mr. Berry.

The priest says, "It is my strong impression that the situation is actually much worse than it appears in this book," and he suggests that child abuse by the clergy "may be the greatest scandal in the history of religion in America and perhaps the most serious crisis Catholicism has faced since the Reformation."

He aims his sharpest darts not at the priests who succumbed but at the hierarchy and other clergy leaders who failed to deal with the problem honestly.

Of the Berry book, Father Greeley writes, "One will become very angry, I suspect, as one reads through its pages, not so much at the victimizers, who themselves were often if not always victims when they were children, but at Catholic leadership.

"Bishops have with what seems like programmed consistency tried to hide, cover up, bribe, stonewall; often they have sent back into parishes men whom they knew to be a danger to the faithful.

"I'm also angry at priest leaders -- officers of priests' senates and associations who all too often have rallied to support the victimizers and who have never addressed themselves to their responsibility to establish professional practice boards for the clergy."

Last week's developments in the Chicago archdiocese would seem to be a turning point.

"I share the anguish of all those affected by this tragedy: the victims, their families, their communities and priests," Cardinal Bernardin said. "While I cannot change the past, I can do something about the future."

He created a nine-member board of six lay people and three priests to review all complaints and determine an accused priest's fitness to serve. The board's members include parents, a former abuse victim who is an attorney, a child psychologist and a psychiatric expert in sexual dysfunction.

"I accept the clinical data which suggest that once it has been demonstrated that a priest is an abuser, he should never again return to parish ministry or any ministry which might place a child at risk," the cardinal said.

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