Catholic hierarchy remains in denial by Steven Greenhut
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Tue Dec 10 02:23:44 EST 2002
Catholic hierarchy remains in denial
By Steven Greenhut
Senior editorial writer and columnist for the Register
Teachings of the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer probably
don't figure prominently in the Roman Catholic Church, but I was
nonetheless reminded of them last month when I read about a planned day
of penance by some Orange County Roman Catholic priests.
Reviving a centuries-old practice, the priests want to commit
public acts of contrition, such as working at a homeless shelter or
soup kitchen, to show their remorse for the sexual abuse scandal that
has ravaged the diocese of Orange, the archdiocese of Los Angeles, and
the Roman Catholic Church throughout the United States.
Who could object? Bishop of Orange Tod Brown and the leader of an
organization representing people who have been abused by priests have
endorsed the plan.
But I doubt the idea would have impressed Bonhoeffer, who was
hanged by the Nazi government in 1945. A longtime opponent of the
Nazis, Bonhoeffer had fled to the United States, only to return to
Germany a few weeks later. In his view, he needed to suffer with the
German people through the Hitler era, not simply criticize the
government from afar. That decision ultimately led to his capture and
This was a simple living out of his best-known writing, which
centered on the idea of "cheap grace." As he wrote in "The Cost of
Discipleship": "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without
requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion
without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace
is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without
Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."
In my view, cheap grace is making public apologies about the
sexual-abuse scandal, and passing so-called zero-tolerance policies, or
having public displays of contrition at soup kitchens. These are cheap,
or cost-free, symbols that do nothing to right grievous wrongs, or to
heal the pain of those who have suffered so horribly. The current
system remains in place, those who covered up felonies escape
punishment, and those who are victimized continue to be treated as
The kind of grace Bonhoeffer embodied was the most costly kind.
It was the kind Christ embodied when he gave his life on the cross. It
is the sacrificial, painful, penitential act of doing the right thing,
without regard to personal cost. It is that form of penitence the
current Catholic hierarchy, in Orange County and elsewhere, refuses to
Catholic leaders refuse to face up to the horrendous nature of
the crimes - the hierarchy will never use that word, crime, even when
referring to child rapes and molestations - committed by many priests,
and covered up by many church leaders.
All the talk in the passive voice about sins, failures and
mistakes overlooks the obvious point that those in the most trusted
positions acted like predators and committed crimes that deserve long
prison sentences. Supporters of the day of penance are asking for
suggestions on what to do. Here's mine: Church leaders should work with
the authorities to put every predator in prison, and those leaders who
moved abusers around to avoid scrutiny should resign in disgrace. The
church should release the name of every priest who has been treated for
abusing children, so that parishioners can do what the church has not
done - protect their children.
"Roughly two-thirds of top U.S. Catholic leaders have allowed
priests accused of sexual abuse to keep working, a systematic practice
that spans decades and continues today," according to a three-month
study by the Dallas Morning News this year.
According to allegations in lawsuits involving the diocese of
Orange, church officials moved defendants among parishes, dioceses and
states to make their detection less likely. Furthermore, the lawsuits
said the diocese concealed and misrepresented to the community the
reasons priests were moved around, and failed to disclose the abuse
allegations to the community or law enforcement.
How will a day at a soup kitchen make that better?
Currently, prosecutors and civil attorneys must fight tooth and
nail to get the church to release information relevant to abuse cases.
In the case of Msgr. Michael Harris, the former Mater Dei and Santa
Margarita Catholic High School principal accused of molesting at least
five students, the diocese of Orange fought to the state Supreme Court
the release of a treatment report from St. Luke Institute in Maryland.
(On the day of penance, church leaders could release the
depositions from the Harris case so the public can learn how much
church officials knew about a possible sexual predator among them, and
what they didn't do to stop him.)
Similar intransigence is occurring nationwide. "In a pointed
rebuke to Catholic Church officials ... a judge [Nov. 25] ordered the
Boston archdiocese to release 11,000 previously classified documents
pertaining to 65 priests charged with molesting children over a 30-year
period," according to the Associated Press.
Here's what church officials were hiding: "Roman Catholic Church
officials ... overlooked for decades a range of abuses that included
the molestation of girls preparing to become nuns, homosexual rape and
drug use by priests with parish youth ...." reported The Los Angeles
Times on Wednesday. "The records show that as recently as last year,
bishops and archbishops in Boston consistently ignored parishioners'
complaints while protecting priests and striving to minimize financial
damage. ... Almost as appalling ... was the absence of compassion for
victims on the part of church leaders."
This calls for more than symbolic acts of contrition.
Furthermore, church leaders need to follow the law rather than
try to evade or change it. Today, Catholic priests throughout
California are asked to read a letter from the state's bishops to
parishioners, attacking a new state law that takes effect Jan. 1. It
waives current restrictions on filing sex-abuse lawsuits for a year so
that victims of sexual abuse aren't frozen out of proper redress.
Currently, childhood sex abuse victims have until their 26th birthday,
or within three years of discovering emotional problems related to the
abuse, to file civil litigation, according to the Register.
Church officials, who are challenging the new state law in court,
claim the law will result in unjustified lawsuits and hamper the
church's ability to fulfill its mission. But the only reason the law
was necessary was because the church has been so unwilling to deal
fairly with its victims of abuse and protected those who committed
John Manly of Costa Mesa, a Catholic attorney who represents
victims of church sexual abuse, said in published reports that the
church's policy has been to take advantage of people's faith by
stringing them along in counseling sessions until the statute of
limitations runs out.
No wonder the Legislature found it necessary to act.
Meanwhile, the archdiocese of Boston is threatening to declare
bankruptcy in what many critics say is a ruse designed to intimidate
victims of abuse into seeking less money. And dioceses throughout the
country - including the archdiocese of Los Angeles, which just spent
hundreds of millions of dollars building a modernist monstrosity of a
cathedral - are blaming the victims of abuse for the church's financial
"The whole system is designed to prevent litigation and conceal
the truth from the victims," Manly told me. "It's ironic that they're
blaming attorneys and victims when this is a problem they've known
about and done nothing about for 40 years."
The system, according to Patrick Wall, who used to be a "fixer"
for the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis after abuse allegations
came to light, has as its ultimate goal the protection of the church
from scandal, not the protection of parishioners or the community.
Wall, an expert in canon law who now helps Manly in abuse cases,
said that during depositions Manly asks clerics whether they believe in
the Doctrine of Mental Reservation, which is the doctrine that clerics
can avoid telling the truth in certain circumstances, such as to avoid
scandal in the church. Catholic hierarchs have misused that doctrine to
cover up for sexually abusive priests, he said, and that needs to stop.
It's time for Roman Catholic Church leaders to come clean, and
change a corrupt system that puts the protection of wayward priests and
church officials' careers above the well-being of parishioners and the
safety of children.
It's time for church officials to follow the costly example of
Bonhoeffer (who was following the example of Jesus Christ) rather than
the cheap advice of their high-priced lawyers. It's time for them to
open the records, take responsibility for what they did and didn't do,
and pay the consequences - i.e., to act like the Christian men they are
supposed to be, rather than like consiglieres protecting a mob family.
Now that's something to consider for a day of contrition.
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