A sacred trust

Abuse: New reports about the sexual abuse of children by clergy remind us to be vigilant.

March 17, 2002

LET'S BE perfectly clear: A clerical collar should exempt no one from the law's reach in matters of child sexual abuse.

Recent reports about the years of alleged abuse perpetrated by a now-defrocked priest in Boston -- and his superiors' shocking pattern of transferring him from one parish to the next -- have led to similar admissions across the country.

The bishop in Palm Beach resigned after his abuse of a seminarian became public.

The Diocese of Manchester, N.H., identified 14 priests accused of abuse in the past 20 years.

In Los Angeles, the cardinal recently fired about a dozen priests suspected of sexually abusing youngsters.

Maryland and 26 other states require church leaders, among others, to report to police allegations of child sexual abuse by employees. But astonishingly, 23 states do not require church hierarchy to report such allegations.

Catholic archdioceses have responded to the scandal by reviewing their records, re-examining their policies, and in some instances reporting suspected abusers to law enforcement authorities. And a Baltimore archdiocesan spokesman has assured Marylanders that "there are no priests in parish ministry who have been credibly accused of child sexual abuse."

Even before these most recent revelations, the Catholic Church had been slowly abandoning its practice of quietly relocating priests and paying off victims. But clearly, states have an obligation to ensure that clergy are held to the same standards as medical professionals, social workers and educators when it comes to the safety of their charges.

That means those 23 states need new laws, and the others should strictly enforce the ones they have.

To be sure, clergy suspected of child sexual abuse should be afforded all the protections of the law to which they are entitled. And they deserve compassion and help with what is often compulsive behavior that can be treated, not cured.

But make no mistake -- compassion and treatment are no replacement for criminal charges.

This pernicious problem is not new and, sadly, is no doubt far from over. It goes beyond the abuse of children to strike at the financial health of the Catholic Church in America. In Boston alone, the cost of settling civil lawsuits related to this issue is expected to exceed $35 million, and the church may have to sell property to meet that obligation.

There can be no debate on the church's first priority when priests are accused -- and that priority must be to protect the most vulnerable among us, the children.

The clergy, whether a parish priest, teacher or pastoral counselor, hold a position of trust in the community by virtue of their vocations. How many Catholic school graduates remember the priests, brothers or nuns they looked up to, learned from, and confided in?

Those relationships, those bonds, can be an integral part of a child's development. To take advantage of them, to twist them into the perversity of child sexual abuse, ought to constitute more of a crime, not less of one, because the sexual criminal is a priest.

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