April 17, 2005

Election of new pope to defuse abuse crisis

Telegram & Gazette

Robert Nemeth

It was the death of Pope John Paul II and a recent news report in the Boston Globe that prompted me to revisit a topic I had written about two years ago in this space: the crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America caused by an ugly sexual abuse scandal.

The passing of the Polish pope, who had contributed to the disintegration of the Soviet empire, filled me with sorrow. The newspaper story made me wonder if there is a limit to the relentless media pursuit of that overblown scandal. It is my hope a new era ushered in by the next pope will bring an end to this sad saga.

The Globe, which broke the abuse story in early 2002 and has been running with it ever since, traced the activities of Cardinal Bernard F. Law, former archbishop of Boston, as head of one of Rome’s largest basilicas. The story focused on the preposterous premise of whether the cardinal, who had resigned in December 2002 to defuse the crisis, should be permitted to join the conclave of cardinals that selects a new pope.

The report states: “Many Boston Catholics say it is difficult to see Law in this leadership role at the heart of the Catholic Church.” It quotes a representative of Voice of the Faithful, a self-appointed protest group presuming to speak for Catholics, that the cardinal’s visibility in Rome is a “painful reminder that we’re still dealing with the after-effects of his tenure as archbishop, and we’re not out of the woods yet in terms of healing from the wounds of the last three years.”

It goes on: “Here (in Rome) Law is out of the glaring spotlight of the American media and its culture of accountability. Here he has been welcomed back into the fold of the Curia, which never seemed to grasp the intensity of the sense of betrayal felt by American Catholics over the scandal and the hierarchy’s handling of it.” (The sentence fills me with nostalgia for the days when reporting the news and editorial comment were handled in different parts of a responsible newspaper.)

There have been other stories last week about protest by “abuse survivors” and the “anger” supposedly shared by Catholics over Cardinal Law celebrating a memorial Mass. Hollywood is taking its shot with a soon to be released cable movie, starring Christopher Plummer as the cardinal. There are several books in the pipeline, not to mention endless talk shows featuring “victims.”

Let there be no misunderstanding: Sexual abuse of children is an ugly crime that must be punished severely. It is especially disturbing when the abuser is a priest because men of the cloth are in a position of trust. Any attempt by church leaders to cover up wrongdoing or shield the abusers — either because of misplaced compassion or fear of scandal — is wrong.

But it is not unreasonable to ask: How long should the recrimination go on?

What started out as a legitimate effort to redress the sins of an errant few appears to have grown into a venomous and relentless attack on the church itself, uniting Catholic-haters, religion-bashers, attention-seekers and fortune hunters. It is entirely overlooked that less than 1 percent of all priests has ever been implicated in sexual abuse, and no new incidents have been reported in years. Yet bishops and cardinals are treated with the kind of contempt usually reserved for criminals, and priests are viewed with suspicion.

Until the 1960s and 1970s, when women’s groups and child advocates began to call attention to sexual abuse, society was pretty much in denial about such crimes. The realization of the problem triggered reaction with a vengeance.

Suddenly, there was “aggressive counseling,” “hypnotic repression” and “recovered memory,” along with survivors’ networks, victim advocates and, inevitably, false accusations. In the 1980s, the nation was shocked by reports of horrible child abuse at day care centers across the country. Most of the ensuing convictions were thrown out in subsequent years.

Today, sexual abuse litigation is a lucrative industry, spawning law firms that specialize in compensation and analysts digging into forgotten memories. It’s worth noting that large chunks of the settlement awards end up in the pockets of wealthy lawyers who often orchestrate media events to drum up more business.

People alleging abuse that occurred in the past began to come forward. Perhaps they still felt the pain and wanted their tormentors to be punished. Some may have tried to justify personal failures and seek vindication. Perhaps others were motivated by the prospect of financial rewards.

While true victims of sexual abuse deserve support, I find it difficult to feel sympathy for able-bodied adults in their 30s and 40s parading in front of the cameras, demanding “justice” for abuses that are supposed to have occurred decades ago. Some had collected six-figure settlements in exchange for confidentiality, only to return later to get more.

The church has been an easy target. Rather than letting the courts deal with each accusation, church leaders opted to pay huge settlements — a questionable strategy at best. Settling out of court tends to imply guilt or, at times, protect the guilty. We will never know how many of the hundreds of abuse claims settled by the Boston Archdiocese were justified and how many were bogus. But we do know the financial strain caused by paying out more than $85 million in awards led to the closing of dozens of churches.

The Forth Worth, Texas, Diocese recently settled for $2.75 million in an alleged abuse case involving the Rev. Thomas H. Teczar of Dudley and two unidentified men in order to avoid the “uncertainty of litigation and the related cost.” (The Worcester Diocese, which was part of the lawsuit, evidently did not contribute to the settlement.)

As long as the church continues to shell out huge sums, the claims are likely to continue. It would have been better to apply the presumed-innocent-until-found-guilty principle to all clerical sexual abuse cases.

There has been endless speculation about the kind of pope the cardinals will choose to be the Holy Father of more than a billion Catholics around the world. Hopefully, he will be a wise, compassionate but strong leader, upholding the lasting traditions and values of the institution, reaching out to all mankind, while protecting the church from detractors and self-styled reformers.

The sexual abuse crisis has caused the Catholic Church in America immense harm — in depleting its prestige, credibility and financial resources. But the greatest damage has been the erosion of trust in the tens of thousands of good priests who have served with selfless dedication.

As I said two years ago, if a priest no longer can hug a child to comfort, to wipe away tears or whisper encouragement, how can that young person learn about love and affection? If we see a child molester in every priest, how long can we bear the burden of our own cynicism?

Robert Z. Nemeth’s column appears regularly in the Sunday Telegram.

Posted by kshaw at April 17, 2005 12:06 PM