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Jewish World Review June 6, 2002 / 25 Sivan, 5762

Michael Kelly

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Guilty at the Top | Their last chance to get this right," is how the editor of the Jesuit magazine America has characterized the Catholic Church's new proposal to deal with its greatest existential crisis since the Reformation. The chance, it appears, will be missed.

The new policy, formulated after months of study by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, was reported, in draft form, in the Boston Globe yesterday. Its two most vital points are:

o "Effective immediately, even a single act of abuse of a minor will bring about a request for laicization [defrocking, to the laity], even without the consent of the cleric."

o "Regarding acts of sexual abuse of a minor committed prior to this date, if the cleric is a pedophile, or if he has committed more than one act of sexual abuse of a minor, there will be a request for the cleric's laicization, even without his consent if necessary."

Three things can be said about this. First, it is not nothing. Second, realistically, it represents an attempt at probably necessary compromise -- between those in the American church who want a "zero tolerance" approach to clerical sexual abuse of minors (which would seem sort of obviously the godly position to take) and those in Rome who, as has become clear, are reluctant to pick up any broom that sweeps as clean as all that.

The third thing that may be said, though, is that this is, ultimately and still, a shameful refusal to fully admit the horror of the church's moral implosion. It is -- again -- an attempt at ducking blame and limiting fallout for what is, in the end, a matter of institutional, not individual, corruption.

The most immediately obvious evasion of responsibility may be found in the directive pertaining to priests who have in the past committed sexual abuse of minors, what might be called the two-rapes-and-you're-out provision -- "if the cleric is a pedophile, or if he has committed more than one act of sexual abuse of a minor." This provision would allow priests who have not been diagnosed as pedophiles to remain in the clerisy. And, of course, this provision would protect from defrocking any cleric determined to have committed one (merely one!) act of sexual abuse of a child.

"But it was just that one time, your honor," is a defense seldom successfully employed in criminal sexual assault cases. It is not immediately clear to a layman why an institution devoted to the teaching of a higher order of morality should adopt a threshold for the punishment of immorality (not to mention criminality) that would be laughed out of, say, the Suffolk County courthouse. Perhaps it is a mystery of the faith.

But the real failing is not what is in the proposal but what is not. Not the slightest mention is made of any intention to investigate or punish the high church officials -- bishops, archbishops and assorted superiors and ecclesiastical bureaucrats -- who, it has been redundantly shown, have systematically aided, protected, hidden and promoted known predator-priests. They are the missing guilty, still.

This pretends, as is the institutional position, that the problem with the church is merely a plague of predator priests. Of course, this is not true. There are about 47,000 Catholic priests in America; the number accused of sexual abuse over the past four decades runs, by the most liberal estimates, only to a few thousand. The church's real problem is that its superior officers deliberately allowed these relatively few priests to remain -- in the face of powerful and mounting evidence of criminal wrongdoing -- in positions where they could exploit their priestly privileges and continue to prey on the young and the vulnerable.

We are speaking of men such as Boston's Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who stands naked before God for his years of protecting and hiding and promoting priests believed to be guilty of chronic, monstrous crimes of sexual depravity against children entrusted to the church's care. And of men such as Law's former top deputy, John B. McCormack, now bishop of Manchester, N.H., who reportedly admitted, under civil oath Monday, to years of effort in covering up credible allegations of clergy sexual crimes, in order to avoid "a scandal." And many more.

Certainly, the men who raped boys need to be defrocked, not to mention tried, convicted and jailed. But what about the men who let the men rape boys? Why do they still hold high office? Why indeed do they still wear clerical collars? If two rapes is enough to get a priest defrocked, shouldn't looking the other way from a few decades' worth of rapes be enough to defrock a bishop.

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© 2002, Washington Post Co.