Seeking crystal-clear policy on priest conduct

April 29, 2002|By DAN RODRICKS

DESPITE international media reports that the American cardinals meeting in Rome last week had stopped short of adopting a zero-tolerance policy for clergy who sexually abuse children, Cardinal William Keeler called to tell me his colleagues support the remedy. "I wish we had said this more clearly in Rome," the cardinal said during the weekend. Keeler and other cardinals have spent the past few days attempting to set the record straight. In Philadelphia, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua said, "All of the cardinals are agreed on zero tolerance. ... We all are agreed that no priest guilty of even one act of sexual abuse of a minor will function in any ecclesial ministry or any capacity in our dioceses."

The communique released by the cardinals at the Vatican on Wednesday quoted Pope John Paul II, who earlier had said there is "no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young." And the communique promised "national standards" for dealing with sexual abuse among priests.

But it clearly did not say what Keeler and other cardinals are stating now.

As for the cardinals' communique making a distinction between "notorious" cases and "cases which are not notorious," Keeler said there was no difference, that the zero-tolerance policy would apply to all credible cases of abuse.

So if there is none, why make one?

As a former altar boy, I have difficulty telling cardinals what to do. But a little more clarity in their communications, and less mystery, would be greatly appreciated. Let the people say, "Amen."

Persistent poverty

What a difference 20 years make -- or don't. If you were rich in 1979, you probably managed to get richer by 1999. If you were of more modest means back in the day, you've probably made modest gains. If you were poor 20 years ago, there's a good chance you still are.

That's my take on what think-tankers at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute in Washington came up with when they compared the growth in income of Marylanders between the late 1970s and the late 1990s.

"The average income for the richest one-fifth of families in the state rose by nearly $61,000 ... while the average income of middle-income Marylanders grew by less than $13,000, and the average income of the poorest one-fifth of families in Maryland grew by $3,600.

"The average income among the richest 20 percent of Maryland families grew from $119,955 in the late 1970s to $180,796 in the late 1990s. The average income of the poorest 20 percent of Maryland families grew from $17,286 to $20,909.

"Only Connecticut and New Jersey have a greater disparity between the incomes of the rich and poor than Maryland."

Steve Hill, director of the Maryland Budget and Tax Policy Institute, said this is all about the quality of jobs here -- or the lack thereof. "Over the last 20 years, wages among lower-income workers have barely kept pace with inflation," Hill said.

Of course, the political-corporate class has fought increases in the minimum wage at every turn and has allowed corporations to ship hundreds of thousands of good manufacturing jobs overseas. The disparity in income, Hill said, is the consequence of the loss of these jobs and the increase in lower-paying ones in food service, hospitality and retail.

"The tremendous gap in income inequality becomes a greater problem when higher-income Marylanders cannot appreciate the struggles of poorer families. Richer families cannot understand the difficulty that food-service and child care workers have in finding adequate housing for their families, or that so many Marylanders go without health insurance because they cannot afford it."

Esther Reaves has her own set of numbers. She resorts to them in an effort to garner private donations for Manna House, which has been offering daily meals and other services to Baltimore's poor for years.

Reaves says her organization served 44,760 meals on 25th Street during the 2001 fiscal year, which ended in July. By January, Manna House already had served 70 percent of that number, and the numbers continued to grow during the winter.

And then there's Health Care for the Homeless, another agency in long service to thousands of Baltimore's poor.

"Last year," reports Jeff Singer, the out-front man for the agency, "HCH had nearly 50,000 patient encounters with more than 7,000 different people experiencing homelessness, 80 percent of whom have no health insurance and 100 percent of whom have incomes below the poverty line."

There's an American delusion about poverty -- that it doesn't really exist, or that it exists in a part of society satisfied to languish, or that it ended with the Clinton-era welfare reforms.

We might have ended "welfare as we know it," but we haven't ended poverty as the people at Manna House and Health Care for the Homeless know it.

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