Associated Press/Photo by Plinio Lepri

Church in crisis

Religion | In Europe, both the church and the state have responded better to the Catholic abuse scandal than they did in America, but big problems remain

Issue: "Flame-outs," May 8, 2010

"John Doe 1" says that Father John Fiala raped him at gunpoint when he was 16 years old, then threatened him, saying, "If you tell anyone what happened, I will hurt you and your family." When the boy spurned the priest's text messages, the priest allegedly said he would kill the boy and then kill himself so they could go to heaven together. He allegedly lavished gifts on the boy and demanded sexual favors, until the boy ran away from home and tried to commit suicide.

This abuse allegedly occurred not decades ago, like most clergy abuse cases, but in 2008. The petition for a trial also claims a cover-up, saying the Archdiocese of San Antonio knew that Fiala had sexually abused other boys, that it agreed to conceal the abuse, that it failed to report the abuse as required by law, and that it "repeatedly placed him in environments where he could prey on young boys." Just days before the suit was filed in April, the Vatican appointed the defendant archbishop, Jose H. Gomez, as archbishop of Los Angeles.

American bishops wrote stricter rules for dealing with sex abuse cases and now report that last year, only six allegations of abuse took place involving victims who were minors in 2009. But the abuse scandal has erupted worldwide.

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In Germany, hundreds of abuse victims have come forward following the news that abuse took place at Canisius College, a Jesuit high school. The German newspaper Der Spiegel surveyed the nation's 27 dioceses and found that 94 priests are suspected or have been suspected of child abuse. Provost Martin Tenge, the regional Catholic deacon, said, "The entire institution is guilty because it fostered a 'please don't talk about it' mentality." Investigative stories have pointed to Pope Benedict XVI himself, alleging that he moved too slowly in defrocking offending priests as a senior Vatican official in charge of such matters.

The question now is what European Catholics have learned from the American sex abuse scandal, and what American Catholics still have to learn.

One positive outcome of the European scandal: It has led to a few more resignations. In Ireland, Bishop John Magee, who reportedly failed to inform police about abuse in the 1990s, has resigned with the pope's acceptance. Four other Irish bishops have offered their resignations but the pope has accepted only those of Magee and Bishop Donal Murray. Cardinal Sean Brady, who has admitted that he swore two minors to secrecy after they informed him of abuse, has not resigned.

Philip Lawler, director of Catholic Culture, says the Church in Ireland has done a better job holding its leaders accountable: "There's some progress." In America, none of the bishops who presided over abuse have resigned. Cardinal Bernard Law resigned as archbishop of Boston in 2002, but he remains a cardinal and participated in the conclave that chose the pope in 2005. Lawler called the resignation of guilty American bishops "huge, enormous, necessary, overdue. . . . I don't see how the healing can be complete until those who are responsible are held accountable. I don't think that the American hierarchy has yet realized that there are two parts to the scandal and they have dealt with the abusive priest part of the scandal but not with the complicit bishop part."

Secondly, the European scandals have shown the need for a strong government response in abuse cases. Government officials certainly bear their share of the responsibility for ignoring abuse victims in decades past. For instance, former California priest Steve Kiesle was sentenced to only three years probation after he was found guilty of tying up and molesting two young boys. Victims of Wisconsin priest Lawrence Murphy pleaded with both the police and the church for justice. In Ireland, the Department of Education inspectors failed to see and address child abuse.

More recently in Ireland, though, the government has responded with a thorough, independent inquiry. It commissioned a study that took nine years to complete and produced 2,600 pages describing the physical and sexual abuse that was "endemic" in Catholic industrial and reform schools. Another government report released in November 2009 named church leaders who covered up abuse to avoid scandal.

This is a much more hard-hitting report than the John Jay report in the United States, which was commissioned by U.S. bishops and depended on their disclosure for its statistics. David Clohessy, executive director of the Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said we know more about abuse in Ireland than we do about abuse in America.


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