Actions louder than words

Sex abuse: Church leaders need to do more than apologize for clergy who prey on children.

April 05, 2002

CARDINAL Edward M. Egan of New York finally got the message.

Until this week, the cardinal had refused to turn over to law enforcement authorities old cases involving suspected child sexual abuse by priests in the New York Archdiocese. And he put conditions on his reporting of any new allegations: "When there is reasonable cause to suspect that abuse has occurred, and if the victims do not oppose the reporting, the archdiocese will make the appropriate reports to civil authorities."

That all changed Wednesday, when the New York Archdiocese released to Manhattan's chief prosecutor a list of priests who had previously been accused of sexually abusing youngsters and revised its policy on new cases of suspected abuse by clergy.

As we said, Cardinal Egan finally got the message: Roman Catholics in New York and beyond expect church leaders to report clergy suspected of child abuse to police even if the law in their state -- as is the case in New York -- doesn't require it.

Unfortunately, other church leaders have contented their contrite hearts only with apologies for the sins of the brethren. Throughout Easter week, many delivered impassioned sermons about a scandal that began with revelations in the Boston Archdiocese and then reverberated through the American church. They spoke candidly about the pain of victims and the need for vigilance and redemption.

From Florida to California, all stirring speeches, to be sure.

But sadly, some church leaders have abrogated their rights in this matter. The past practice in several dioceses of transferring abusing priests from one parish to another -- where, even after treatment, they nearly always abused again -- has broken the covenant of trust between the church and its people. The church hierarchy cannot be in the business of investigating its own. Not anymore.

The law in at least 23 states is silent on the issue of clergy reporting suspected abuse to authorities; Maryland mandates reporting by clergy, and the Baltimore Archdiocese says it has lived up to the letter and spirit of the law.

Despite the recent outcry about priests who molest, the response of some dioceses remains unacceptable. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati says it won't turn over priests suspected of child abuse without a grand jury subpoena. And the archbishop there defended his decision, citing, of all people, the victims.

"If the victim has said, `I want this under the cover of religious confidentiality,' we are not free to go to the police unless the victims allows us to do that," Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk told The Cincinnati Enquirer. In fact, the Catholic Church should be encouraging families to report suspected abuse to authorities.

The church is not as monolithic as its many fortresses appear. Dioceses operate independently of one another. But some -- such as Denver and Colorado Springs -- decided years ago to report suspected child abuse to police even though state law didn't require it.

That is the example to follow.

When the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets June 13-15 in Dallas, it will take up the issue of clergy and sexual abuse.

Since 1993, the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse has been at the center of the conference's policies and programs on the problem. The panel has a chance to clarify any misperceptions of its position and absolve church leaders of the stain of complicity by resolving that:

The church's first responsibility is to the child, and the first response to an allegation of child abuse by clergy is a call to police.

Because, as Bishop Norbert M. Dorsey of Orlando, Fla., said plainly recently, "Child sexual abuse is both criminal and sinful."

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