Church leaders childless, clueless

October 25, 2002|By Stephen J. Stahley

IN THIS world, there really are only two kinds of people - those who have children and those who don't. All other categorizations appear arbitrary and irrelevant in comparison with that fundamental distinction; differences of race, religion, nationality and even gender fade to insignificance.

Parents speak a language that only other parents understand, whether the words are Chinese, Hindi, English, Swahili or Polish. Being a parent determines how someone sees the world. Having children and raising them changes everything.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that the Vatican chose to pour cold water on the strict clergy child abuse policy adopted by the American Catholic bishops in Dallas in June.

The Vatican is composed exclusively of nonparents. The worldview of the Catholic hierarchy in Rome is light-years removed from the daily concerns of parents.

The prospect of elderly, celibate, mostly white men formulating an effective policy on child abuse seems highly unlikely. That the American bishops came so close with their "zero tolerance" policy was remarkable. Vatican endorsement was probably too much to hope for.

Invoking universal church law, Rome insists that due process rights for priests are as important as the safety of children. No parent that I know sees anything remotely equivalent in the issues of due process and the protection of children.

Whereas the innocence of a priest may require legal determination, the innocence of a child is an absolute.

A priest may be accused but still innocent.

A child's lost innocence can never be restored.

In the tidal wave of publicity since January surrounding the issue of child abuse by Catholic clergy, the nuances on the scale of abuse have been obliterated. There has been a rush to judgment. The shades of gray in which all human life is lived have been polarized to black and white. Some innocent priests have become collateral damage in the moral firestorm that has engulfed the church.

This is unfortunate and tragic.

Far more unfortunate and tragic, however, have been the routine transfers of known predator priests from one parish to another by bishops.

In some cases, bishops played a version of Russian roulette with the parishes in their dioceses for two decades or more.

Following these revelations, giving the benefit of the doubt to the hierarchy seems more than foolhardy. In the face of the monstrous crimes that have been committed, an appreciation for due process sometimes gets lost.

Since 1985, the American bishops have known about the problem of sex offenders in the priesthood. Seventeen years elapsed before they arrived at a "zero tolerance" policy.

And now the Vatican balks.

Is it any wonder that tolerance for the nuances of canon law has dropped to less than zero on the part of the Catholic faithful?

As with other controversial topics in the church, the fundamental issue in the sex abuse scandal is the exercise of authority.

In this case, however, the exercise of authority permitted the victimization of children. The use (or misuse) of ecclesiastical authority has moved to a wholly different plane.

This is no rarified theological debate about the merits of priestly celibacy, the role of women in the Church, or papal infallibility. This is about the protection of children from the horror of sexual abuse.

The rules regarding the welfare and safety of children are being dictated by people who are not parents. The Catholic hierarchy does not speak the language of parents. They just don't get it.

Short of sweeping changes in the church, at every level, they'll never get it.

Stephen J. Stahley, a free-lance writer who lives in Baltimore County, works for the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services in Rockville. He served as a priest from 1978 to 1988 in the order of the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity.

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