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Church in Crisis: Catholics grappling with taint of pedophilia

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Stephen McKinley

It was a week in which the Catholic church seemed to reel.

Barely had Cardinal Edward Egan finished his march up Fifth Avenue for St Patrick’s Day than the New York diocese was beset by allegations and rumors of sexual misconduct, some dating back more than 20 years, compounded by a feeling among many of the faithful that the church’s response has been less than adequate.

In Boston, it was a similar story. Fr. John Geoghan had been convicted of molesting a young boy and was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment, amid claims that he had molested many others and had raped one. The archdiocese of Boston agreed to pay between $15 million and $30 million to scores of people to settle claims that a priest sexually abused them when they were children. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston offered profound apologies.

Meanwhile, a Florida bishop resigned over allegations of having molested a teenager. Dozens of other priests were suspended or forced to resign. A staggering 80 cases of sexual misconduct involving priests existed in Boston alone, some newspapers reported.

“I just don’t know what to believe, but I’m suspicious,” said one parishioner outside New York City’s St Patrick’s Cathedral on Palm Sunday.

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For the faithful, it has been a tough time. While some, such as former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn, currently president of the Catholic Alliance, said that the media had seized on an easy opportunity to attack the church, there seemed to be a consensus that the response of the church itself was out of touch, ineffective or, at worst, arrogant.

“There really is a serious problem and the church administrators have handled it poorly,” Flynn said. “They have treated pedophilia as a sin and a sickness, when it is also a crime. Priests who are pedophiles have no place in the church. They need to be in a hospital or a jail.”

“I think it’s awful,” said Bridget, a Woodside resident from Ireland who asked that her last name not be used. “I think some bishops knew what was going on and should have taken priests out and gotten them help, but they didn’t. And it’s out of our hands. The Catholic church is not going to change.”

In its response, the church went further than ever before in apologizing and admitting its negligence. Cardinal Egan issued a pastoral letter that was distributed in Catholic churches around New York City on Sunday. But Egan denied that he mishandled allegations of sexual abuse against priests when he was head of the Bridgeport, Conn., diocese and outlined the archdiocese’s new policy of reporting such accusations.

“Any priest who sexually abuses a child will be removed from the pastoral ministry,” the head of the New York archdiocese said in the letter. “Should the archdiocese . . . be approached with an allegation, we will make the appropriate report to the proper authorities, if there is reasonable cause to suspect abuse and the victim does not oppose the reporting.”

“I would strongly encourage . . . anyone who has an allegation of sexual abuse to bring it to the proper civil authorities directly and immediately.”

In Brooklyn, a contrite Bishop Thomas V. Daily also issued a statement. He profoundly regretted sexual misconduct cases that he said he may have mishandled, when he was the church’s second highest official in Boston, in the 1980s, cases that included John Geoghan. Pope John Paul II admitted on Thursday in an annual letter to all priests that some had succumbed to “the most grievous form of evil in the world,” in a reference to the pedophilia scandal.

The current wave of scandals came in the wake of a Boston Globe story on Jan. 6 that claimed that Geoghan had been moved from parish to parish over a 30-year period, even though Church officials such as Bishop Daily knew he was a pedophile.

While many parishioners welcomed the church hierarchy’s response, Egan said that the church would only contact the civil authorities if it thought there was “reasonable cause” to believe that abuse had taken place, and then only if the victim consented to going public.

“A crime is a crime,” said one man outside St Patrick’s Cathedral on Sunday. “They should report it to the police.” Another parishioner said that she was angry, thinking that the church would continue using money to keep people quiet, alluding to the cash settlements that the church has made, on which a condition of silence about the case is required from the victim. “It seems like buying people to keep quiet,” she said.

This anger and the church’s response illuminates a deeper issue: that the heinous incidence of pedophilia generally is seen by some as sin, by others as sickness, and still others as simply crime. In a weekend New York Daily News survey, 89 percent of Catholics surveyed said that pedophilic incidents were crimes.

In Boston, Cardinal Law wrote to Geoghan in 1996 when the priest was retiring, saying, “yours has been an effective life of ministry, sadly impaired by illness.”

This has indicated to many that the church has yet to grasp the seriousness of the problem, treating it as a sickness and as sin, which can be treated from within. How it is perceived by the laity has been at worst ignored.

Sin, sickness or crime?

“It really puts you off. It’s sickening,” said a man leaving St. Mary’s Church in Woodside who declined to be identified. “I really don’t want my 8-year-old son to be going to be an altar boy, and it hurts me to say it. It hasn’t changed my views on God, but it has made me sick to think about it.”

Asked if he thought pedophilia was sin, sickness or crime, he thought momentarily, then said, “It’s all three. but it’s a criminal offense first and foremost.”

Paul Surlis, a priest and retired professor of Theology at St John’s University, wrote in a recent article: “up to this point the sin and crime elements have predominated in the news media. I believe it is now time to give more public consideration to the sickness element. This is not in any way to evade taking responsibility for victims, their families and communities or to avoid responsibility for mistakes made.”

Perhaps what is most significant about the scandal is that it has opened up new areas of debate that traditionally the Church has considered unassailable doctrinal truths: those of celibacy and who can be ordained to the priesthood — especially as the scandal has broken in an era when the number of those seeking ordination to the priesthood has fallen sharply.

“When I was getting married,” said Bridget from Woodside, “I had to go to the priest to talk about marriage. Of course I thought it was kind of funny, that you would talk to someone who had never been married, about marriage. But the priest said, ‘Well, if you had an illness, you would go to the doctor, even if the doctor hadn’t had the illness that you had.’ At the time I thought that was a good enough answer.” She added that she now felt that celibate priests were clearly not the best authorities on matters moral or sexual.

Another Woodside resident, Patrick Hurley, while still defending the church, said, “It is up to the church at the end of the day, but I wouldn’t have a problem with married priests, if they chose to reform the celibacy issue. The laity have become more and more involved in the church anyway, and I wouldn’t have a problem with it at all.”

More conservative voices in the church have taken a different line of argument over celibacy. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, president of the Institute on Religious and Public Life in New York, stuck firmly with the view that pedophilic scandals were the result of sin.

He wrote: “It’s strange that people are saying the problem is with celibacy. The fact is that if all these priests had lived according to the church’s teachings, and had been faithful to their vows of celibacy, there wouldn’t be any scandal.”

More liberal Catholic voices have argued that the church must now look at celibacy; indeed, that the Church’s teachings on human sexuality have to be taken apart and rethought. Fr. Richard McBrien, theology professor from the University of Notre Dame, said that the church has to look at who is seeking ordination, why he is seeking it, how he is trained in relation to issues of human sexuality.

Editorializing on the issue, the National Catholic Reporter said: “This preoccupation with celibacy is an indicator . . . that the Catholic teaching on sexual morality is too frequently held hostage by teachers whose own sexual identity is based on a partial and unfulfilled understanding of what sexual intimacy actually is and actually means in life.

“The needs of the Catholic people for an enlightened, grown-up, mature approach to sexuality, based on the lived experience of the faithful, requires a fresh approach to the teaching.”

Strains on faith

Many are the voices raised in the debate as the Catholic church heads toward Easter week, and the differences of opinion indicate the strains being placed on faith during this holiest time of the Christian year. “I think the church is enlightened enough to change,” Hurley said.

Others differ: Tom Fox of the National Catholic Reporter, told reporters, “I think that Catholic lay communities are pressing for greater accountability and openness. But we don’t operate in an institution in which these pressures have mattered traditionally.”

Some commentators sought to turn hearts and minds in the direction of a different perspective, reminding the faithful that last week the remains of Moira Smith, the only female police officer killed on Sept. 11, were finally recovered and laid to rest after a Catholic funeral Mass in Queens.

“In her example, the true church prevails,” wrote one commentator.

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