Release of Church Files a Needed Disinfectant

The Telegraph [New Hampshire]
Downloaded March 9, 2003

The first step to cleaning up a festering problem is to put it on the table, face it and then take action.

The state's release of 9,000 pages of "problems" the Diocese of Manchester encountered in a 40-year period with predator priests allows everyone - Catholics, non-Catholics, clergy and laity - to assess for themselves the scope of the problem and the failure of Catholic Church leaders to protect children.

It will push all involved to confront this long hidden problem and hopefully never let it happen again.

Most importantly, release of the once confidential church files will send a signal to priests inclined to molest children that they can no longer count on the diocese to shelter them by routing them through psychiatric counseling and then reassigning them to unsuspecting dioceses where they can again abuse youngsters.

Indeed, the deal struck with the attorney general's office requires that office to be involved early on in any new sexual misconduct complaint filed against any member of the clergy over the next five years. That's a welcome move. It will prevent backsliding by the diocese.

The attorney general's office in compiling the records about alleged past abuse has forced the diocese into the confessional to admit years of abused trust buried under a heavy layer of secrecy.

Release of the documents opens windows to begin the clearing-out process in the church.

The documentation presents the lengthy history of priests accused of taking sexual advantage of children and then being protected by diocesan leaders who covered up the abuse and silenced victims with hush money.

The documents depict a damaging culture within the Catholic Church that was unknown to most of the laity but engaged in by a succession of bishops and auxiliary bishops.

It began with the ignorance of the 1950s, '60s and '70s when little was known about the lasting psychological effects of sexual abuse on children and even less on how to deal with it.

Even school districts in those years would accept the resignation of teachers suspected of sexual abuse and say nothing when they resurfaced in another district.

By the 1980s, society became better informed about the lasting damage caused by sexual molestation and, by the 1990s, there was no uncertainty about the need to separate molesters form children and to bring them to justice. Yet, the church even then did little to bring accused serial molesters among the clergy to justice.

In the past, church leaders feared creating a scandal by bringing the problem into public view. They now must face the ruinous consequences of keeping church members in the dark for so many years.

How much of all this was known by the rest of the clergy isn't clear. Certainly, priests who have been faithful to their vows and aboveboard in their conduct must resent the mistrust sure to come their way and the damage that's been done to the institution to which they've given years of service.

The church has already felt the anger of the laity. Some have protested by withholding donations. Others have called for the resignation of Bishop John McCormack. It's a call The Telegraph has joined in and a step it still believes the bishop should take so the diocese can start afresh.

Auxiliary Bishop Francis Christian ought to take the same step, based on his role in the disposition of recent sexual abuse complaints.

McCormack wasn't in New Hampshire when most of the abuses listed in the documents occurred, but he was part of similar problems in the Boston Archdiocese, where he previously served.

The diocese faces multiple victim lawsuits that will strain if not break its treasury. It has greatly damaged its credibility and its moral authority. And it has gravely hurt children.

The once unquestioning trust the faithful had in their diocesan leaders may have forever evaporated, though the diocese has said from now on it will seek greater involvement by the laity in the church's management.

Painful as these revelations may be, they serve a worthwhile purpose. They're a dose of badly needed disinfectant. They shine a light on the dark shadows few knew about. They'll serve to ensure that henceforth no priest will get protection when he's guilty of sexual assault.

Above all, the documents expose an old human tendency - given great power over the lives of others and unquestioning trust without much public accountability, the temptation to put forth one's best face can trump one's sense of obligation.

The released documents present an ugly picture, but they also can be the beginning of finally resolving this dark chapter in the Catholic Church's history, and truly usher in a new era when the church can again focus on its spiritual and charitable missions without harboring odious skeletons in its closet.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.