What Are They Doing to the Church?

By David Kushma [Memphis TN]
Downloaded June 22, 2003

As a Roman Catholic born and raised, I'm pained to hear the church compared to the Mafia - by the former head of the American church's sex abuse oversight panel, no less.

I suspect that many more devout Catholics than I remain frustrated by the church's failure to dispose of its pedophilia scandal effectively and regain the full trust and confidence of the laity. Events of the past week alone suggest the dimensions of the church's continuing crisis.

Frank Keating quit as chairman of the laypeople's review board appointed last year by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to report on how the church has dealt with allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests. A former governor of Oklahoma and federal prosecutor, Keating complained that several of the nation's most powerful bishops had refused to cooperate with his panel's investigation.

Keating told an interviewer, days before his resignation: "To act like La Cosa Nostra and hide and suppress, I think, is very unhealthy." Taking that harsh characterization public robbed him of further effectiveness, but it spoke as much to the bishops' credibility as his own.

The bishop of the Phoenix diocese quit after he was charged with leaving the scene of a fatal hit-and-run auto accident. He struck a deal with prosecutors earlier this month to avoid obstruction of justice charges by conceding he had allowed priests accused of sexual abuse to continue working with children.

At their annual meeting last week in St. Louis, the bishops had a low-key discussion about their efforts to identify and combat sex abuse. That was a far cry from last year's meeting in Dallas, where the bishops approved a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People that promised openness, accountability, candor and humility in confronting the sex scandal - and "zero tolerance" of allowing sexual predators to do church work.

What happened between the two meetings? Keating's panel, acting on the bishops' charge, commissioned an academic survey of pedophilia and other incidents of sex abuse, and the expense of legal settlements, in all 195 U.S. dioceses. Nearly a third of the dioceses still haven't responded, even though the deadline to do so is this month.

Bishops of California dioceses, taking their cues from Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony (who said Keating was "off the wall"), cited flimsy legal and privacy concerns and alleged problems with the survey design to excuse their resistance to disclosure. The Los Angeles archdiocese faces lawsuits by 400 alleged victims of sexual abuse, and has stonewalled local prosecutors as well as the church panel.

With Keating's departure, the California dioceses now say they will take part in the survey as well as the church's broader reform initiatives. The Louisville diocese agreed this month to pay $25.7 million to settle 243 sex abuse claims. But dioceses in other parts of the country reportedly seek to quash lawsuits by threatening to publicize the names of abuse victims.

If some bishops still don't grasp what the scandal is doing to their church, and to Americans' attitudes toward religion in general, the faithful surely do. According to a new poll, American Catholics' approval rating of bishops has dropped from 83 percent just two years ago to 59 percent today.

More than one of five U.S. Catholics say the scandal has caused them to donate less to religious charities. More broadly, the share of Americans who express confidence in leaders of organized religion has dropped from two-thirds in 1975 to less than half today.

The church has made some progress. The bishops have set up an Office of Child and Youth Protection, headed by a former high-ranking FBI official, to perform outside audits of the compliance of dioceses with the charter adopted last year. There have been greater efforts to shield children from abuse and to reach fair settlements with victims.

Blessedly, Memphis generally has been spared the sordid accounts of child sex abuse that have plagued other dioceses across the country. But all dioceses - and all American Catholics - should share an interest in thorough reform and genuine accountability and transparency.

If the bishops try to use Keating's resignation as an excuse to evade tough, independent oversight by the church's laity, the relief will be only momentary and ultimately self-defeating. More foot-dragging, bluster and coverups aren't the answers. The church needs to show that it is at least as devoted to protecting children as it is to protecting errant priests and the church itself.

The authoritarian nature of the church has been the source of much of its appeal to its followers throughout its history. The idea that the church's leaders answer only to the Pope, and to God, confers powerful influence while it discourages nosy questions. But that mindset helps little in addressing the current crisis.

The Roman Catholic Church long has fought courageously and effectively for social justice and human rights, in this country and around the world. As long as its moral authority remains compromised by the sex scandal, though, its ability to appeal to the conscience and the heart will be limited as well.

And at a time when such appeals are especially vital, in this country and around the world, that's bad for Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

You can write to Editorial Page Editor David Kushma at The Commercial Appeal, Box 334, Memphis, Tenn. 38101, or via E-mail at:


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