Sex abuse scandal, a call to action

April 23, 2002

AS THEY prepared for an unprecedented summit with top Vatican officials in Rome this week, U.S. cardinals began offering possible responses to the child sexual abuse scandal rocking the church in America.

Cardinals William H. Keeler of Baltimore and Theodore McCarrick of Washington would like to see a national policy mandating every diocese in the country to report to civil authorities credible allegations of sexual abuse. Others have discussed a swifter route to discharge priests who sexually abuse and independent review boards to investigate complaints against priests.

They're scrambling now. And it's understandable. The American church hierarchy - namely the cardinals and their bishops - has been taking a beating. Its credibility has sunk: a recent Gallup poll shows 72 percent of American Catholics believe the church has done a bad job in handling the problem of priests who sexually abuse children. And an even greater number, 74 percent, say the church was more interested in protecting its image than in resolving the sexual abuse problem of its priests.

The cardinals have an opportunity now to forge a credible response, a plan of action, and receive Pope John Paul II's approval for implementing it. They must convince their skeptical and disillusioned parishioners that they are committed to resolving this problem instead of burying it under a mountain of hush money.

But if they only adopt a national mandatory reporting policy, they will not have done enough.

American Catholics want to be assured that the priests officiating at mass, overseeing their schools, counseling youth and teaching the next generation of priests are worthy of their trust and respect. To provide that reassurance, church leaders should review the church's system for recruiting and training candidates for the priesthood.

More than a decade ago, as the problem of sexual abuse by clergy began circulating, the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago proposed that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commission a research study on the sexuality of priests.

Nothing ever came of it, and we wonder why. A study like that deserves consideration; it could identify the nature and depth of the problem facing the church and provide a means to attack it.

If some cardinals have their way this week, the Rome meeting may veer off the single issue of child sexual abuse. The head of the Los Angeles archdiocese, the largest Catholic community in the country, wants his colleagues to tackle the more controversial topics of priestly celibacy and the ordination of women. Subjects worthy of greater discussion, to be sure. But the pope made clear this weekend that he doesn't see celibacy as the problem.

One thing's for certain: The conversations in Rome this week will set the agenda for the American bishops' June meeting in Dallas. American Catholics will expect their leaders to offer more than apologies and a reaffirmation that the safety of children comes first. They deserve a frank and open discussion, a decisive plan of action, and an invitation to help solve this pastoral crisis.

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