Cardinal Knowledge

Church Leaders Can't Run From the Scandal, but They Can Hide

"Extraordinary" was the word many of the nation's big papers used to describe the emergency summit in Rome last month that brought 12 U.S. cardinals to meet with Pope John Paul II about the sexual abuse scandal that was quickly spiraling out of control.

The resulting "final communiqué," which spoke of "notorious" priests, "serial predatory sexual abuse of minors," and "true pedophiles," may have sounded good to the cardinals when they were drafting it, but it has landed in the hearts of American Catholics with a hollow thud.

What has been truly extraordinary is watching the bumbling escapades of church leaders over the past couple of weeks.

There was Chicago's Cardinal Francis George—one of the most impressive minds in the American church—who, while at the conference in Rome, said pedophiles should be distinguished from a priest who gets drunk and engages in a sex act "with a 17- or 16-year-old girl." (He later said he didn't mean it.)

There was Los Angeles's Cardinal Roger Mahony taking credit for his archdiocese's implementation of the country's toughest rules against pedophile priests. In reality, the policies were mandated as part of a record $5.2 million settlement the church was ordered to pay abuse victim Ryan DiMaria. (The cardinal said the policies were being put in place before the settlement was reached.)

There was Cardinal Bernard Law, whose arrogance and mismanagement got this whole ball rolling, and who, as The Boston Globe uncovered in court documents last week, blamed the parents of a six-year-old boy for allowing NAMBLA-friendly Reverend Paul Shanley to abuse him. "The defendant says that the Plaintiffs were not in the exercise of due care, but rather the negligence of the Plaintiffs contributed to cause the injury or damage complained of . . . ," reads the cardinal's legal defense. (Some of the cardinal's defenders say that's boilerplate legalese.)

The Sacramento Bee reported that its city's bishop, William K. Weigand, set up a hot line for victims of clerical sexual abuse. The problem? The woman answering the phone and counseling victims was a diocese lawyer. (The Sacramento Diocese said that the woman is not currently practicing law, but that her experience as a lawyer helps her counsel sexual abuse victims.)

But the most egregious and extraordinary comments are coming from those church leaders who are still confused about what to do with the often mentioned, but hypothetical, case of a single-violation offender, accused after 30 years of moral rectitude.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., said that if a priest abused a minor 30 years ago "and since then has never had any trouble, and the people know and say, 'He's a good man, we don't have to get rid of him, we'll monitor him, we'll take care of him,' do I say, 'You're out'? I've got to pray about that."

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Bishops, told The New York Times, "I may find out about an incident that occurred 35 years ago, and the perpetrator has been, as far as we know, absolutely faithful in his service since then. You can understand the dilemma."

So what do we do with a guy who represents God on Earth, who serves as his parishioners' moral compass but who fell from grace and sexually molested a minor? But wait—it's been a while, 30 years or so, since this happened, and no one besides the two of them ever knew. Since then, this priest has cleaned up his act, learned from his mistake—maybe even became a better man, a better priest, because of it. He's inspired his flock to good deeds and lived in devotion to Christ and his teachings for decades. What should we do with him? Should we contort our consciences with Bishop Gregory to find our way out of such a dilemma? Should we pray with Cardinal McCarrick about what to do?

No. The answer could not be simpler, or more obvious. As with any other American accused of such a crime, the police should be called, and if warranted, the priest should be arrested and a jury should decide his fate. If he's found guilty, what the church does with him later within its own walls and strictures—defrock him, send him to a pedophile resort in New Mexico, give him a desk job—is beside the point and, frankly, unimportant.

Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia seems to be the only guy in the church who understands this. The cardinal has said he believes that no priest guilty of even one act of sexual abuse of a minor—"both past and future"—should function "in any capacity in our dioceses."

Let's put aside the fact that most psychotherapists who deal with sexual abuse of minors say it's a crime committed by repeat offenders, and therefore, the hypothetical put forth by the cardinals—a priest who fell off the wagon once in his youth—is slightly silly. For now, let's give the cardinals the benefit of the doubt.

The most benign possible circumstance of a priest molesting a minor, let's say, is a drunken night of caressing between a 23-year-old priest and a 16-year-old girl. Jump ahead 30 years, and the now 46-year-old woman is upset: That night with the cute priest was confusing; it screwed up her ability to trust authority. She has problems with intimacy and has low self-esteem. Is that a result of the night Father Billy took her shirt off behind the Dairy Queen? Perhaps. But this is not the kind of thing American Catholics are furious about right now.

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