Candor on clergy abuse

September 26, 2002

`THERE CANNOT be forgiveness without confession and repentance. There cannot be healing without acknowledgement of pain and care for injuries. There cannot be trust without truth."

Those words, which begin the Baltimore Catholic Archdiocese's public accounting of the ongoing sexual abuse scandal, reflect an institutional recognition of how the church can begin to heal its fractured relationship with its flock.

Truth is the essential element, and, after several months of review and personal reflection, Cardinal William H. Keeler has opened his heart and church files to Baltimore Catholics. He twinned a personal admission that the church "did not go far enough to protect children" over the years with an accounting of the breadth of sexual abuse allegations in the Baltimore archdiocese - accusations that date to the 1930s and involve 83 priests.

He has named 57 of the accused priests and listed summaries of findings, actions taken and clerical assignments. (The identities of 26 priests were not disclosed because allegations were made after their deaths.) He has revealed the financial cost of clergy abuse to the diocese: more than $5.6 million in settlements and counseling for victims and legal fees, living expenses and treatment for accused priests.

This public venting could not have been easy for the cardinal. He is a leading church prelate in the country, a cautious conservative reserved in his demeanor who blamed the media for the attention given the sex abuse scandal emanating from Boston. But his apology to churchgoers reads like a personal act of contrition, rather than a slick product of public relations designed solely to improve the church's flagging image.

Since June, when the nation's church leaders adopted a zero tolerance policy on clergy who abuse children, a majority of bishops have taken steps to achieve that goal. But Cardinal Keeler has emerged as one of the toughest judges of priests credibly accused of child sexual abuse, removing all from ministry.

At least 27 of the 57 priests named in his letter have admitted abuse or inappropriate behavior or been convicted of such crimes. Five have proclaimed their innocence.

Most of the other cases involved allegations against priests from other dioceses and orders, and the outcomes were not shared.

The archdiocese has refrained from publishing the names of priests who it felt were falsely accused - but they are few.

Clergy here and elsewhere who feel their due process rights have been trampled by these tough measures may be justified in claiming as much. But the actions of their superiors over the years - indifference to the problem of child sexual abuse by clergy, and outright deceit about the behavior of abusive priests - have created an atmosphere of mistrust within the greater church that leaves bishops with little recourse. This time, they're putting the well-being of children above all other concerns.

Cardinal Keeler has made clear his vigilance in this matter, and neither parish priest nor parishioner should doubt his resolve. The public accounting may bring more victims to light; it may bring relief to those who suffered in silence, believing they were the only ones.

But Baltimore-area Catholics should take solace in the knowledge that their leaders are working to change a culture that for too long sought to protect the accused and not the innocent.

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