The Church takes action

July 07, 1993

Sexual child abuse was not invented in the past decade, but in that period it came to public attention in unprecedented ways. Every instance is disturbing, yet there is something especially shocking about stories of young children abused by priests. In a recent letter to the American bishops, Pope John Paul II offered encouragement and more help in efforts to deal with the painful issues of sexual abuse of children by priests. The letter was distributed at the same meeting at which Baltimore Archbishop William H. Keeler, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, appointed a committee charged with examining all aspects of the issue of sexual abuse by the clergy.

There are infamous cases of bishops covering up allegations of abuse by moving known pedophiles from parish to parish. But like the rest of society, church officials in this country have learned a great deal about these problems and the dangers of ignoring them. For one thing, angry victims have resorted to lawsuits, and by some estimates the church has paid as much as $400 million in out-of-court settlements in these cases.

These days, bishops dare not brush off charges of abuse, and the church is attempting to reach out to people victimized by priests. Part of the charge Archbishop Keeler gave the new committee is to explore ways in which the church can share with the larger society what it has learned about helping victims and dealing with perpetrators of abuse.

Priests are ordained for life. Even when bishops determine that allegations are true and that a priest is unfit to continue his duties, getting a dispensation from those vows is a complicated process, especially if a priest resists the move. In attempting to -- deal with charges of pedophilia, bishops must take into account the need to help victims and to protect other parishioners, as well as the rights of the priests not to be unfairly accused. In many cases, American bishops have found that their efforts to take speedy action have been delayed by Rome.

Few scandals could be as embarrassing and hurtful to the church as charges that those whom parents and children should be able to trust unreservedly could be guilty of such a gross breach of faith. The pope's recognition of the problem, together with concerted efforts to prevent these abuses and to heal the hurt they have already caused, is commendable and long overdue.

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