New Challenge for Diocese

The Plain Dealer [Cleveland OH]
March 6, 2003

The Cleveland Catholic Diocese's new pol icy on sexual abuse is impressive on pa per. The challenge is to make this document a reformation of the duck-and-cover-up culture that has permeated nearly every Catholic diocese in the country.

It would be a mistake to put the regulations on the same shelf as the ill-fated 1992 sexual abuse policy. This is not 1992. This time, it's hard to forget or to forgive the egregious cases of clergy sexual abuse that many dioceses hushed up or ignored.

And this time, the diocese's financial health could be as much at stake as its credibility. Bishop Anthony Pilla recently announced plans for a series of major budget cutbacks. Much of that can be linked to the recession, but some parishioners undoubtedly have trimmed their donations to show their displeasure with the church's handling of sex-abuse cases.

The new reforms, prescribed by the 22-member special commission on sexual abuse, led by Bill Denihan, can renew parishioners' faith in their leaders. But only if the diocese embraces the cure.

According to the new policy, those who accuse priests of molesting them can expect compassion instead of an inquisition. Their allegations will be relayed to the civil authorities and a team of mental health professionals and a minister will provide pastoral counseling. A review board will make recommendations to the bishop on how to handle clergy members accused of molesting minors.

Pilla has prodded the diocese within sight of this promised land. He has suspended 15 accused priests from the ministry and has been willing to name names. Many other dioceses have refused to do as much.

The bishop has also reaffirmed his commitment to dismissing any cleric who ever sexually abused a minor. Unfortunately, Pilla is resisting the release of grand jury documents on 145 priests accused of child sexual abuse, although that would be in the best interests of the victims and the diocese.

A judge will make the final decision, but those documents could help the diocese conduct a more thorough investigation and flush out sexual predators who are beyond the reach of the law because of the statute of limitations.

The journey has other obstacles as well. The church must put aside old hierarchical habits and create a review board that is truly independent. Otherwise, neither the board nor the diocese can hope to earn much credibility.

In the end, Pilla may be forced to dismiss guilty priests despite pressure from their friends, families and parishioners, and despite the priests' own expressions of contrition.

But as Denihan, the special commission's leader, said: "The stories I have heard from the victims are so horrific, it's life-altering."

Those tales of betrayal and suffering must transfigure the diocese - on paper and in reality.

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