National Catholic Register
February 23 - March 1, 2003
Something unintended has happened as a result of the U.S. Church's response to the sex-abuse scandal. While Catholics were admitting the worst about the Church, people with an ax to grind and lawyers with a buck to make were listening in.
Don't get us wrong. Catholic bishops who covered up sexual abuse are undeniably to blame for current Church woes. Looking the other way at charges of sex abuse is inexcusable. The first, and worst, victims were those children who suffered abuse. They are owed an unpayable debt.
But Catholics, shaken by the scandal, exaggerated how widespread it was. To hear many tell it, you would think that the biggest problem facing the Church today was the safety of children in parish halls.
It's easy to understand why. The sexual abuse of children is so horrifying it justifies the strongest possible condemnations - like Christ's proverbial "millstone around the neck."
But that's all the more reason the Church should have been willing to tell the world the true scope of the problem.
At the height of the media frenzy last April, the Associated Press reported that it could find only half of 1% of priests guilty or accused. And only a tiny percentage of this tiny percentage had anything to do with pedophilia. Yet that statistic found practically no echo among Catholics.
Instead, Catholic journalists with quick-hit Web sites seized on abuse case after abuse case, bringing them to the public's attention and creating the impression that clergy sex abuse of children was rampant. If anyone dared stray from this counterintuitive orthodoxy, they were denounced as part of the cover-up. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger himself was ridiculed for pointing out the demographic fact that priest-abusers are few.
Last month, The New York Times did its own exhaustive study of the percentage of priests accused of sex abuse of minors (not the infinitesimal percentage accused of pedophilia) and found that - after a year of the media telegraphing that the Church was ripe for abuse claims - the number was only 1.8%. That's 1.8% accused, not convicted. And the paper had to go back decades to get the number up even that high.
The Times sounded disappointed that the percentage was so low, but, by then, a year of exaggeration allowed them to say something incredible without fear of being called to task by Catholics: "[A]lthough the problem involved only a small percentage of priests, it was deeply embedded in the culture of the Catholic priesthood." (emphasis added).
Now the chickens are coming home to roost, in state after state.
Responding to the scandal, California instituted a one-year moratorium on the statute of limitations in that state for the filing of lawsuits regarding sexual abuse of children. Kentucky wants to do the same but make it permanent. This allows allegations too old to be proved or disproved to ruin priests' reputations - often, posthumously.
Other states want to follow suit. In each case, Catholic priests are at the center of the argument for trouncing legal precedent.
Why is the Church's small percentage of abusers receiving so much attention from victims' rights organizations? If they want to stop abuse, why are they ignoring places (schools, for example) where far more abusers lurk?
The Portland, Ore., case we report on in this issue might explain why: because lawyers are drawn to money. The Church has a lot of assets, and it has a real and heartfelt repentance over even its small percentage of abusers. It's a ripe target.
Did lawyers cause the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church? Of course not. Abusers and enabling bishops did. But as horrifying as their stories are, there are fewer such stories in the Church than outside it.
The Church isn't ours, in the end. It's Christ's. He created it as his way of reaching the world. Catholics have a duty before God to not let his Church's reputation be unfairly tarnished. We have shown we can admit when we have been wrong. Let's also show we can stand up for the Church where it has been unjustly accused.
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