A crisis of confidence

May 23, 2002

SLOWLY BUT surely, the Baltimore Archdiocese (and the American Catholic Church) may be learning that the truth offers the only way out of its ongoing sex scandal.

This week, lawyers for the archdiocese decided to release documents that proved church leaders had duly notified law enforcement authorities when the Rev. Maurice J. Blackwell was accused of child sexual abuse in 1998. They released the documents after city prosecutors said they couldn't find evidence that the archdiocese had reported the allegations, as required by law. The lawyers said they provided the internal memos because the archdiocese's credibility was at stake in this particular case.

But isn't credibility the issue the Catholic Church faces in this entire debacle? The church is under attack from parishioners and prosecutors for its alleged complicity in protecting priests who sexually prey on children. Not a week goes by that another diocese somewhere isn't singled out for past failures involving a priest accused of sexual misconduct with minors.

And still there are some church leaders who will provide only as little information as they can get away with. Members of the church hierarchy continue to duck the truth - and responsibility - rather than come clean about all that has happened and what was done about it.

The most shocking cases involve high-ranking clergy who transferred abusing priests from one parish to another as their young victims increased by the dozens. This revolving door of injustice has enraged the worshipping public and exposed church leaders to charges of complicity in the abuse.

Across the country now, the names of five cardinals and bishops have surfaced in criminal investigations. Lawyers for sex abuse victims in California and Missouri are employing a legal tool once reserved for organized crime figures that could have serious consequences for the church's leaders and its coffers. The attorneys are citing federal racketeering laws to allege that Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and four dioceses in Missouri aided abusing priests in their crimes. They accused church leaders of covering up the sexual abuse to protect priests from prosecution.

If successful, those lawsuits would allow damage awards to be tripled. With settlements in the millions, the financial hit could be monumental.

This crisis of confidence goes beyond any one parish or diocese.

The case of Baltimore's Father Blackwell gained national prominence last week when he was shot by a former parishioner who accused the priest of fondling him as a teen-ager. The archdiocese's actions with regard to the popular West Baltimore priest became shockingly relevant.

Now new accusations have surfaced against Father Blackwell, who was stripped of his ministry and priestly duties when he admitted in 1998 a past sexual relationship with a minor.

If these allegations are familiar to church leaders, the archdiocese should respond swiftly and fully to avoid suspicion and, more importantly, to reassure parishioners that the well-being of their children is their first priority.

Doing so begins with telling the truth.

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