Abusive priests belong in prison

April 30, 2002|By Steve Chapman

CHICAGO - At his meeting last week with American cardinals in Rome, Pope John Paul II took a tougher line than usual on the sexual abuse of children by priests.

He not only declared that it is "an appalling sin" but acknowledged that it is "rightly considered a crime by society." Chicago Tribune religion reporter Julia Lieblich rightly noted, "The pope's comments Tuesday were far more forceful than typical papal pronouncements."

That's what makes this one so dispiriting. Admitting that molestation of minors by adults is a crime is like recognizing that water is wet. From a leader of John Paul's vast moral authority, something far stronger and less equivocal was in order. If he had wanted to make the pointless ambiguous, the pontiff could have said what church officials should have been saying for years when confronted with evidence of sexual abuse: "Call the cops."

Instead, we are left listening to discussions of whether offending priests deserve a second chance, what can be done to restore the trust of the faithful and how the requirement of celibacy or the ban on women in the priesthood may contribute to the problem. All of these make for thought-provoking debate, but they're a distraction from the central fact: Sexual abuse of children is a crime and should be treated as a crime no matter who commits it.

We don't leave it to families accused of allowing pedophilia to address the problem internally, and we shouldn't leave it to the church. But because of our respect for religious freedom, or because some people regard this abomination as something less than a real crime, bishops have been allowed to handle decisions that ought to have been made by police.

The cardinals could have left Rome with clear orders to contact civil authorities whenever there is any evidence to suggest a child has been violated. Instead, the Vatican has chosen to protect the clergy even if it means endangering the laity.

The cardinals issued a statement vowing to remove priests guilty of "serial, predatory abuse of minors" if their conduct has become "notorious." This implies that for many Catholic leaders, the worst outrage is embarrassing the church, not inflicting terrible harm on an innocent child. Do it just once or twice, or in a non-predatory way, and keep it quiet, and you may be allowed to stay.

But would the church take that position with regard to a priest who robbed a bank? Or stabbed someone on the street? Or committed murder? Of course not. A priest who commits sexual assault on a youngster, however, is treated as a wayward soul in need of counseling, not a felon deserving of a jail cell. The offense apparently is seen as more akin to fornication than to rape - which suggests a grievous blind spot.

For years, turning in suspected clerical child abusers to police has been anything but the norm. The Philadelphia archdiocese has refused to provide prosecutors with the names of 35 priests accused of such crimes going back 50 years.

New York's Cardinal Edward Egan recently reversed course and agreed to give the Manhattan district attorney files on priests accused of sexual abuse. The diocese of Joliet, Ill., resisted such cooperation with prosecutors for nine years - and gave in only a few days ago.

Not until recently have practices begun to shift. "We've seen more cases voluntarily turned over to civil authorities in the last three months than in the previous 12 years," says David Clohessy, national director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP).

The delay dramatizes the gulf between the church leaders and their parishioners. An ABC/Washington Post poll found that 93 percent of Catholics think the church "should report to police any accusation of sexual abuse of children by a priest" - and 75 percent think it should be required to do so.

Last week, the Massachusetts legislature passed a bill to compel churches to report suspected child abuse, something already mandated by 30 other states. Illinois requires such reporting by teachers, social workers and others in a position to learn about such episodes, but it exempts members of the clergy.

Maybe some priests who have shamefully exploited kids can be redeemed, as the pontiff suggested. But that possibility doesn't relieve them - and those superiors who have abetted their crimes - of the obligation to pay their debt to society.

Rehabilitating abusive priests may be part of a long-run strategy. But first, a short-run remedy: Book 'em.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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