Shortage of priests breeds abuse

April 10, 2005|By Dan Rodricks

I ATTENDED Easter Sunday Mass in a small-town Roman Catholic church. The celebrant was an elderly, jolly priest who had come out of retirement to fill in for the elderly, sickly priest who usually serves the parish. The weekly bulletin reported a "serious priest shortage" and mentioned that a "Tanzanian connection for extra priestly help" had been established.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

It just struck me as quaint, odd and ironic that, all these years after Anglican and Catholic missionaries went to Tanganyika and Zanzibar to bring Christendom to the Swahili-speaking natives, here was an American church in a white-picket-fence town looking to an evangelized Africa for ... a missionary!

This is actually a trend.

"The number of foreign priests has been increasing [and] there could be an estimated 2,140 foreign priests in the United States in the year 2005," wrote Joseph Claude Harris, a church financial analyst and author of a book on the priesthood. "Present trends suggest a decline in the number of active diocesan clergy from 24,603 in 1990 to 18,544 for 2005, a drop of 6,059 priests. ... The need for new pastors may well be mitigated but certainly not relieved by international immigrants."

It would be wonderful to think of this as an effort to globalize - or denationalize - the American Catholic church, as Pope John Paul II had wished. But let's be real. It's happening because there aren't enough priests to go around. In 1999, the American church buried more priests than it ordained. By 2003, there were more priests over 90 than under 30, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

This shortage has existed for years, and it contributed to the problem of child sexual abuse, in that the lack of healthy, new blood in the priesthood forced the church hierarchy for decades to cover up offenses and to recycle pedophiles and other misfits from parish to parish, station to station.

The priest shortage and the severe spiritual and financial problems it caused now provide the church good reason to make celibacy optional for priests, to allow the Catholic clergy to have open, healthy relationships and to take the vow of marriage. The ordination of women should be allowed as well.

But here I am again, doing what conflicted and foolish American Catholics typically do: offering opinions as if they matter, as if the Vatican were something other than monarchy, as if anyone but a white-haired cardinal had a say.

If the American Catholic voice registered at all in the Vatican, Bernard Law would not be celebrating one of the mourning Masses for the Pope this week.

Law was one of the men who protected abusive clergy in the Archdiocese of Boston. He was forced to resign in disgrace two years ago, amid criticism that he had failed to remove abusive priests from ministry and even commended some while knowing they had been accused of molesting children.

Law left Boston and lived for a year at the Sisters of Mercy of Alma convent in Maryland. Then he got a position at the Vatican. He has been given the honor of presiding over a Mass for John Paul during the nine-day mourning period for the pope. Law also will have a say in the selection of the next pontiff.

So will the leader of the Archdiocese of Tegucigalpa, Cardinal Oscar AndrM-is Rodriguez Maradiaga.

He's had a brush with clergy sexual abuse, too. According to a 2004 report in The Dallas Morning News, the Honduran cardinal sheltered a Costa Rican priest who had admitted molesting a 10-year-old altar boy and who was a fugitive from his native country for a few years. Maradiaga gave the priest assignments in two Honduran villages in 2003, the News reported. The priest fled the country in early 2004.

It is not clear if Maradiaga had been aware of the priest's background, which included stints in New York and Hartford, when he put him to work.

But Maradiaga might have been more concerned with a problem drearily familiar to his colleagues in the north - the priest shortage. "He has about 150 priests to serve a Catholic population of more than 1.6 million," the News reported, "and, like many of his U.S. brethren, sometimes relies on foreigners about whom little is publicly known."

When the abuse scandal broke in Boston, Maradiaga publicly defended Law and blasted the media, comparing press reporting of child abusers among the Catholic clergy to the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. He also said he opposed pastors reporting abuse allegations to civil authorities. "I'd be prepared to go to jail rather than harm one of my priests," he said.

Maradiaga is frequently mentioned as a candidate for the papacy.

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