Cynthia M. Allen

The Catholic Church must follow sex abuse investigations with reforms

“We are profoundly saddened each time we hear about the harm caused as a result of abuse, at the hands of a clergyman of any rank.”

So begins the insipid statement of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in response to Pennsylvania’s nearly 900-page grand jury report on clerical sexual abuse.

Yes, the predatory behavior of 300 priests over the course of seven decades in six Pennsylvania dioceses is profoundly disheartening.

The abuses read like story lines from a seedy prime-time crime drama — child pornography rings, coerced abortion, sexual grooming, repeated rape. Sadly, they are not drama.

The victims — more than 1,000 of them (although the grand jury suspects there were thousands more) — were children and teenagers, whose young lives were shattered by abuse at the hands of men whom they and their families no doubt trusted — their priests.

But the USCCB’s characterization is far from adequate. The report is infuriating. To simply call it sad or shameful is more than a misunderstanding of the report’s contents, it’s confirmation that the most sobering allegations the grand jury identified are true — the depraved indifference of many in Church leadership to decades of abuse by priests and more importantly, to their victims.

Indeed, the grand jury found in case after case that bishops and cardinals wittingly ignored abuses, shuffled accused priests from parish to parish, expressed sympathy for abusers over the abused, and actively sought to quash accusations. Some of those implicated did not suffer for their silence but now occupy places of prominence in the Church hierarchy.

A report of this nature, with its sickening details and scathing indictments should induce church leaders universally to fall on their swords. It should produce a fury so visceral and compelling that prelates everywhere, moved by the power of God, choose to sacrifice their lives and professional pursuits to ensure the safety of the faith and the faithful.

Instead the reaction of many bishops and cardinals has focused mostly on defending their own reputations.

Washington Archbishop Donald Cardinal Wuerl, who served as Bishop of Pittsburgh for a period of time covered by the report, preemptively established a website (since taken down) detailing his record on protecting victims of abuse.

Wuerl, lest we forget, had a less than robust response to the resignation of his predecessor, now former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who rose high in the ranks of the Catholic Church despite supposedly widespread knowledge of his sexual abuse of minors and serial sexual harassment of seminarians.

To his credit, Fort Worth Bishop Michael Olson was not equivocal.

Justice he said, “requires that all of those in Church leadership who knew of the alleged crimes and sexual misconduct and did nothing be held accountable, morally and legally, for their refusal to act.”

Those sentiments are in keeping with Olson’s recent statements on McCarrick, which have notably been stronger than many of his peers.

There are still good priests and bishops among us.

The burden is now on them to prove their commitment not merely to preventing future abuses but to what Fr. Dominic Legge describesas “cleansing the Church of its clerical sacrilege.”

That will necessitate any number of reforms, including thorough investigations into the past and present handling of cases of abuse, and sanction and possible removal of any sexually active priests or seminarians (whether with children or adults). Prelates who turned a blind eye to reports of abuse or unchaste behavior, whether heterosexual or homosexual, should resign or be removed. Those who ignored or covered up credible reports of abuse should also be referred to civil authorities for prosecution if possible.

It might mean also that other states follow the example of Pennsylvania and enlist civil authorities to investigate Church abuses.

If the Church is going to survive, nothing less is required.Catholics should demand nothing less.

Sunlight is cleansing, but so is fire.