Church needs help to quash abuse cover-ups

by NCR Editorial Staff

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The cover-up of sexual abuse committed by dozens of predator priests over many years continues in plain sight. In this instance, in a Philadelphia courtroom.

At a contentious April 1 court hearing, Judge Renee Cardwell Hughes advised Msgr. William Lynn, former secretary of clergy under Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, and now facing child endangerment charges, to reconsider how he plans to pay for his defense. The Philadelphia archdiocese, it turns out, is footing Lynn's legal bills.

Lynn is one of four Philadelphia priests charged by a grand jury. The others, along with a parochial school lay teacher, face charges of sexual assault and rape.

The judge went right to the heart of the kind of conflict of interest that has characterized the church's handling of the crisis. "Your testimony could be detrimental to the organization that's paying your lawyers," she warned Lynn.

How can the church claim to act in the best interest of children while paying for the defense of one its priests who, according to the grand jury report, "has put literally thousands of children at risk of sexual abuse by placing them in the care of known child molesters"?

The Philadelphia archdiocese pays the piper. It expects to call the tune. That might work in the closed world of hierarchical culture, but the contradictions and crimes of the sex abuse scandal have long ago spilled outside the confines of the chancery.

Meanwhile, the contributions of faithful Philadelphia Catholics, who have had to contend with two scathing reports from grand juries about the diocese's leadership, presumably pay the defense of someone accused of endangering the communityÕs children. At least the parishioners are getting their money's worth: Lynn's attorneys hail from Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney, one of the area's pricey legal firms.

This is nothing new for the Philadelphia archdiocese. The recent grand jury, reflecting on the work of its 2003 predecessor made this point: "The previous grand jury was frustrated that it could not charge either the abusers or their protectors in the church, because the successful cover-up of the abuse resulted in the expiration of the statute of limitations."

Such legal shenanigans and ethical lapses by church officials are well-known to those who track clergy sex abuse nationwide. Each week, new revelations, new scandals. So, for example, it's no surprise that in the course of just the last few weeks, in addition to the revelations from Philadelphia, we find that:

  • The Jesuits' Oregon Province agreed to pay $166 million to settle abuse claims;
  • The leadership of the notable St. John's Abbey in Collegeville, Minn., decided to release the names of 17 monks "credibly accused" of preying on young people, even as the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese refused to disclose the identities of 33 priests facing similar "credible" accusations;
  • A Carmelite priest from Joliet, Ill., by way of Encino, Calif., faces charges in Florida for a second offense alleging abuse of a 14-year-old.

And so on and so on.

But if history is our guide, all this will pass from public consciousness quickly enough. Church leaders will, as they did in Philadelphia, continue to chant the carefully-crafted, lawyer-written claim that "no priest with a credible accusation of abuse is currently serving in active ministry."

Pardon our skepticism.

It is time for Catholics to acknowledge what is clear: Despite the promises made at the height of the sex abuse crisis nearly a decade ago, the leadership of the church on both a local and national level has failed to deal forthrightly with the clergy abuse crisis. Certainly many dioceses and bishops are diligently applying the charter they adopted in 2002. They respond quickly to accusations and do their best to work the canonical system to remove problem priests. But what Philadelphia reveals is that the system is easily compromised, dependent as it still is on sheer trust at too many levels and on the goodwill of bishops who remain above accountability.

What we are experiencing in the United States is the difficulty that Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland, described: "to bring an institution around to the conviction that the truth must be told."

Each and every time local district attorney's offices examine the church's behavior -- in Boston, in Manchester, N.H., in Long Island, N.Y., and elsewhere -- they find that public relations and protection from criminal and civil penalties trump reconciliation and truth-telling at every turn. Philadelphia is an example, not an exception or aberration.

Unfortunately, Catholics in the pews have abetted the church's inadequate and sometimes criminal response to the crisis. We nod thankfully when we read press releases in our diocesan paper stating that our diocese has "passed" its most recent child protection audit.

But here's the truth: The audit process is often an expensive sham, leaving even the conscientious reader without the information necessary to make a judgment as to whether the diocese is doing enough to protect children.

An informed commenter at Commonweal magazine's blog provided a spot-on example: "Here is what the [U.S. bishops' conference's] 'compliance' audit found for the diocese of Manchester one year: 'The diocese is found to be compliant with all articles of the Charter for the Protection on (sic) Children and Young People.'

"Here is what the AG's [state Attorney General's] 'performance' audit found 10 months later: 'The diocese has exhibited a general level of ineffectiveness in enforcing compliance with the agreement and its own policies. This ineffectiveness has resulted in: repeated missed deadlines for implementation of the policies, incomplete training, incomplete written acknowledgements, lack of background checks, and unfilled positions.'"

The extent of the scandal and lapses such as those that occurred in Philadelphia raise serious questions anew about whether church authorities can adequately police themselves.

Concerned Catholics should call on the hierarchy to adopt and implement on a national basis the recommendations of the Philadelphia grand jury, including those related to liberalizing the statutes of limitations.

It is time for more local jurisdictions to begin Philadelphia-style investigations. Over the past decade, in the few places where local district attorneys and state attorneys general have investigated dioceses within their jurisdictions, the inquiries have yielded useful information and have protected many children from sexual assault.

Finally, we recommend that Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia resign. His management of the archdiocese has been both ineffectual and incompetent on the matter of handling the sex abuse crisis. It appears he has intentionally designed a system where, according to the district attorney's report, "the procedures implemented by the archdiocese to help victims are in fact designed to help the abusers, and the archdiocese itself."

This is a shameful record.

On April 19, Rigali turns 76, which means he should have submitted his mandatory letter of resignation last year and his retirement is imminent anyway. His resignation now would be symbolic, but powerfully symbolic.

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