Remove every abuser
America's Roman Catholic bishops have made a promising start toward addressing the church's sex abuse scandal, with one grave exception. A recommendation that goes to the bishops next week would defrock every priest who abuses in the future, but would give a pass to clerics "who have not committed more than one act of sexual abuse of a minor" in the past. This is a terrible distinction that offends the concept of morality and justice, and it sends the message that there are those in the Catholic hierarchy who still believe sex abuse is a problem to be managed, not eliminated. The bishops should insist that every abuser be removed. Anything less will fail to convince that the church is breaking from past practice.
The proposed disciplinary policy, crafted by a committee of American bishops, is by and large a comprehensive plan that is clear, responsive, forward-looking and fair. Under the proposal, clerics who abuse minors from this point on would be removed from the priesthood. The bishop in charge of every diocese would be required to report allegations to the police and be expected to cooperate with the authorities. Only in rare cases could a claim against the church be resolved by requiring the victim to sign a confidentiality agreement.
These changes are the most important to make, for they target the institutional deceit that allowed the abuse of minors to go on as long as it has. Bishops could no longer protect abusers from having to face the law. They could no longer relocate problem priests to unsuspecting parishes across the country through the equivalent of an underground railroad. A bishop would be obliged to cooperate with authorities not only in the case of a minor child, but throughout the term of that victim's life. Dioceses would also establish internal review boards, made up mostly of lay people, to receive complaints, regularly review disciplinary policies and advise the bishop on a priest's fitness to serve.
These are substantive changes, and the proposal would involve the laity more in church administration, addressing what many Catholics see as an underlying factor in the scandal. Dioceses would be directed to answer questions from the media and the public. Bishops would be required to do a better job of screening candidates for the priesthood and documenting the record of priests who serve in pastoral ministries. Accused priests also would have clear protections in the disciplinary policy to protect their rights to due process.
That the bishops' panel would choose to muddy the clear obligation before them by giving so-called one-time abusers a second chance reflects the sharp divisions in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops over a policy of "zero-tolerance." The bishops, who will debate the proposal in Dallas next week, will tie themselves in theological knots if they seek to draw distinctions among perceived degrees of child abuse. The proposal would keep these offenders in the priesthood but banish them to homes and clerical exile. Allowing sex offenders to celebrate Mass diminishes the moral authority of every priest administering the sacraments.
Several prominent American cardinals and bishops, including Miami Archbishop John C. Favalora, and his successor in St. Petersburg, Robert N. Lynch, oppose the distinction and favor instead a zero-tolerance policy for all past and future abusers. Catholics should accept nothing less. Such a clear and reasonable policy would most quickly and clearly restore public confidence in the church. Conservative bishops who oppose going further might claim the Vatican would never support such an aggressive measure. But the issue before the bishops is how to protect the people they serve, not the people they answer to.
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