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Big News: Paying For The Sins Of The Fathers

BIG NEWS with Dave Crampton

Paying for the sins of the Fathers

It’s Easter already and that must mean the Church is in the news again. Usually at Easter the media report on some Church leader denying the virgin birth of Jesus or his resurrection, but that is so common now it’s not even news. This year’s news is sex abuse by Catholic clergy and it is the cover story on TIME magazines Easter edition.

The news throughout holy week is the holy scandal in the Catholic Church in the US. In the past two months, 55 priests in 17 dioceses have been suspended or have retired because they sexually abused children. This time of the year the churches should be concentrating on the events of the Easter story. But officials in the Catholic Church in the US have more pressing matters at hand – and they all revolve around the hands of sinful priests who abuse those who confide in them. It’s the worst form of abuse. Clergy are seen to have moral authority – well that authority is quickly slipping away because of the much publicised sins of the Fathers.

Since 1985, 70 US priests have been sent to prison for sexual abuse. One, Father John J Geoghan, abused 130 children and is now serving a 10-year prison sentence. In January, one diocese paid out $210 million dollars in an abuse case and since then at least 28 US priests have been forced to retire or have been removed from office. The latest scandals, mainly in Boston and New York, could cost the Catholic Church hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements and legal costs. The Boston diocese has agreed to pay up to $30 million for the sins of their 15 paedophile priests. Catholics are getting annoyed. Guess where their collection money is going?

When the news broke in the Boston Globe, then spread to the Washington Post then spread to TIME magazine and just about every metropolitan daily paper in the western world like a cancer, the Vatican decided to publicly comment. But Vatican officials didn’t overtly apologise – instead Joaquin Navarro-Valls, chief spokesman for Pope John Paul II, told The New York Times the church needed to prevent gays from becoming priests – as if it were gays that were doing the abusing.

Last week the Pope commented, and said the scandal was causing a “dark shadow of suspicion” over the priesthood and was undermining the Churches moral authority. To the Pope, the damage done to this “moral authority” appeared more important than the damage to those sexually abused at the hands of priests.

The Pope did not write the letter or read it aloud, and the main topic was penance. Maybe the Vatican thinks penance is for other people. He described the sex abuse as “mysterium iniquitatis” (the mystery of evil)", stopping short of using the P-word. Well, it’s certainly evil. There's nothing very mysterious about paedophilia. It's a crime.

Here’s how it the abuse happens: First, priests are suspected of "fooling around" with the altar boys, then complaints, then more complaints. Superiors take notice and so do diocesan lawyers. Those who have been abused are asked to keep quiet for the good of the Church. So they keep quiet. No parishioners find out. No-one tells the police. The lawyers (good Catholics) stonewall and hardball; the church's doctors (good Catholics too) pronounce the priest cured and the priest is quietly transferred to another parish. Then the cycle continues. The Vatican ignores the abuse, but the aged virgins in the Vatican certainly know what is going on, but the abuse is ignored to preserve the dwindling number of priests in the Catholic Church. The parish shunting treatment Geoghan got from his Archbishop Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law just gave him opportunities to abuse children in as many parishes as he could. And he did. Many are calling for Cardinal Law’s resignation as he concealed sin.

In January, the Vatican issued guidelines for handling sex abuse by clergy, but amazingly reporting the abuse to police wasn`t in the guidelines, giving priests a free rain to abuse more children under cover and with collar. The US Catholic Church prefers to keep the abuse in-house. It still does, it’s just that the media won’t let it any more.

The Catholic Church probably has no more abusers than, say, the Anglicans, but what is staggering is the extent of the abuse. Many priests are multiple abusers over several years in several parishes having been pushed from parish to parish by bishops hoping to hide priestly sin.

The publicity is leading to calls for the draconian rule of priestly celibacy to be removed, as if celibacy has a link with paedophilia. But the only link between priestly paedophilia and priestly celibacy is that celibacy stops good men from becoming priests. Consequently many who do become priests get paid by the church and sin against the church. In return the Church also sins by concealing the abuse. It’s an ongoing, repeating cycle.

About a year ago, Big News noted that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia splashed out NZ$250 000 for an advertising recruitment campaign through cable TV to get more priests. Ordinations have dropped 42 percent since 1975, while the Catholic population in the US has increased 23 percent. They need more priests. Last year one large US diocese enrolled just two priests. One large Irish diocese enrolled none. If that carries on there won’t be a priesthood in 15 years – which may not be a bad thing given the current state of affairs. The “Philadelphia Priest Call” has the slogan of “ordinary men called to do extraordinary work”. I wonder how many men answered the call to hide their urges? Paedophilia in Philadelphia, perhaps? Now that’s extraordinary!

But, back to the issue. To the Vatican, concealing child abuse by criminals in collars seems to be less of a sin than contraception and abortion. Breaking the law is less of a sin than breaking church rules that have nothing to do with biblical edicts. Women priests, married priests and breaking vows of celibacy are more of an iniquity than exposing abuse by clergy.

That’s where the Catholic Church of America has got its priorities wrong, and now its going to cost them a great deal of money. Church leaders could have avoided unnecessary payouts, and prevented hundreds of abuse cases, by being open and honest in the first place.


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