Features

Church in crisis

"Church in crisis" Continued...

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

The John Jay report is flawed, he said, because it is based on the assumption that bishops will suddenly become transparent and accountable, even though no one has been disciplined for the cover-up: "Let's put it this way: If the speed limit on a highway went from 55 miles to 25 miles an hour and the penalty for violating it was 20 years in jail and some people had actually been sentenced to 20 years in jail, then yes-we would and could assume that behavior would change. But in this case, behavior allegedly changed even though no one who misbehaved was punished."

In Germany, Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger called for an independent inquiry but has only gotten a roundtable discussion so far. When the Catholic Church objected to being singled out for its abuse problem, the Ministry of Justice widened the roundtable's focus to include the Ministry of Family and Youth, and the Ministry of Education.

Then there is the case of the pope himself. Most observers agree that Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, has done a better job of acknowledging the abuse. He has met with several groups of abuse victims-most recently abuse victims in Malta-and sent a strong reprimand to Irish bishops, saying they made "serious mistakes . . . grave errors of judgment" and failed in leadership, undermining their "credibility and effectiveness."

But when Ratzinger was an archbishop in 1980, he approved the transfer of an accused molester to another diocese only to have the molester be convicted of abuse in 1986. Pope Benedict's time at the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF), which oversees church doctrine, has also come under scrutiny. The New York Times said that the CDF failed to defrock a priest who abused 200 deaf children, ending Lawrence Murphy's canonical trial after he wrote a letter saying he was old and ill, and begging for clemency. However, Thomas Brundage, the vicar who presided over the canonical trial, corrected the Times and said that Murphy was still under trial at the time of his death.

In another case, the Vatican delayed in removing California priest Stephen Kiesle from the priesthood. In 1978, he pleaded no contest to tying up and molesting two boys; in 1981, he asked to be released from the vows of priesthood. Cardinal Ratzinger replied with a letter in 1985, saying it was "necessary to consider the good of the Universal Church together with that of the petitioner," and that the Congregation must take a longer time to consider. Kiesle was finally laicized in 1987.

It is important to note that these cases involve releasing priests from the vows of priesthood and making them lay people. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center, notes that a delay in defrocking doesn't endanger children: "Defrocking quickly is not absolutely necessary."

Victims are of two minds about laicization. Some want the priests removed from the priesthood to make a statement that the Church will not tolerate their behavior; others reason that it's safer to have priests locked in a monastery than out in the community, seeking more victims. (Defrocked priests in Ireland went on to immediately find jobs working with children.) Laicization is also rare. According to the John Jay report, the Vatican removed from the priesthood only 6.1 percent of priests with substantiated allegations.

Lawler said the media and those calling for a papal resignation have the wrong target: "I think the pope is part of the solution and I think the record shows it." SNAP's Clohessy said the pope could do more: "Benedict has said more words and clearer words and stronger words, but they're still words. Just words." Clohessy said there's an easy way to resolve the dispute: Have the pope turn over his records for the period when he was handling sex abuse cases for the Vatican.

The scandal in Europe has also changed the debate about the source of sex abuse. Until recently, European Catholics considered clergy sex abuse an American problem, said Reese. Now that it's clearly a universal problem, they can no longer blame the permissiveness of American culture. Some blame celibacy, but Reese points out that 96 percent of celibate priests do not abuse children. Others blame homosexuality, but Reese said the empirical data doesn't support that, either: "There are millions of homosexuals and they're not all out raping little boys. The evidence isn't there."

Accused priests still slip back into ministry. Staff at St. Michael's Medical Center in Newark, N.J., were shocked to find that the Archdiocese of Newark assigned the hospital a chaplain, Michael Fugee, who had been convicted in 2003 of groping a 14-year-old boy. The Archdiocese removed Fugee, who had confessed to police but whose trial ended in a mistrial, at the hospital's request. In 2006, a jury voted 9 to 3 that Eric Swearingen was guilty of abusing a 12-year-old boy in the 1980s. The two sides settled, but Bishop John Steinbock went on to appoint Swearingen rector of San Joaquin Memorial High School and Swearingen continues in ministry today. A priest accused of abuse in the United States, Joseph Jeyapaul, is still working in India. Francis X. Nelson, a priest convicted of fondling a girl, has also returned to India and continues to work as a priest.

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