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Roman Catholic Church ~ “U.S. Catholic Bishops Cover-Up Clerical Sex Abuse” ~ Easy Essay


 U.S. Catholic Bishops Cover-Up Clerical Sex Abuse

By LeRoy Chatfield

Full Disclosure

From 1941 to 1957, I attended Catholic schools and was taught by religious nuns and brothers, and occasionally by priests. During this educational period with seven years spent living in religious community devoted to monastic training and practice, and an additional eight years of serving as a religious teaching brother,  I was never sexually abused by a religious person, nor did I know or talk with anyone who had been. Whether this fact disqualifies me from writing about the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse of children, or discounts what I write, I leave to the judgment of others. (Good Friday 2010)

 “Nobody nowhere, has confronted this crisis that belongs to all of society,

in all cultures, in every religion and organization around.

Nobody has confronted it better than the Catholic Church”

– Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Easter 2010

I don’t know what’s worse for me: reading these delusional and self-serving  words of the New York Archbishop at his Easter press conference, or watching him deliver them on YouTube while dressed in exquisite gold-threaded religious medieval robes, wearing a gold and white mitre, a headdress reminiscent of the nobility of the 4th Century,  and grasping with his left hand a golden crozier, a 13th Century religious symbol of a shepherd’s crook used in caring for his flock.

However, the archbishop is right about the magnitude of child sex abuse in our country. Consider these recent U.S. statistics:  “an estimated 39 million survivors of childhood sexual abuse exist in America today. 30-40% of victims are abused by a family member.  Another 50% are abused by someone outside of the family whom they know and trust. Approximately 40% are abused by older or larger children whom they know. The median age for reported abuse is 9 years old.  More than 20% of children are sexually abused before the age of 8.  Nearly 50% of all victims of forcible sodomy, sexual assault with an object, and forcible fondling are children under 12”.

 Sexual child abuse happens, it is commonplace, it is a fact of life  – past, present, and future. Some parents, teachers, counselors, relatives, doctors, priests and countless other professionals who interact with, and have responsibility for children, will sometimes sexually abuse them. Call it sinful or criminal, report it or be silent, prosecute it or not –  the net effect of sexual abuse upon children is traumatic and devastating and will be felt for a lifetime.

The Catholic priests of the United States are well represented in the statistics of sexual child abuse. More than 5,000 priests – 4 percent of the clergy – were responsible for 13,000 accusations over a 50-year period.   I don’t fault the U.S. Catholic Church for the existence of child molesters in their ranks, we are talking about human beings after all, how could it be otherwise? What I do fault is the organized institutional cover-up – this is the crime and shame of it! – orchestrated by U.S. Catholic bishops and their legal advisors. Why, in God’s name, would Catholic bishops seek to cover-up the existence of clerical sexual abuse of children, and how did they expect to get away with it?  The “how” is easier to explain.

 No-fault insurance settlements, a corporate business model of long standing, was used in the Catholic dioceses of California – and other dioceses as well.   The preferred response to clerical child sex abuse was the payment of insurance money on condition of secrecy, without any admission of wrong doing, and the priest-abuser would be transferred to another parish and/or assigned to therapeutic rehabilitation. Case closed.

Ultimately, this financial cover-up – payment of money to victims in exchange for silence –  turned out to be a failed policy because over time these no-fault insurance payoffs became so frequent and increased in such dollar amounts that insurance companies were no longer willing to provide coverage, or at such a premium level to make it financially unfeasible for local dioceses to afford. A new self-insurance system was developed to allow dioceses in California and other states to fund the church’s own defense and settlement costs. While this approach paid for another decade of cover-up, it was not enough to prevent the scandal from erupting wholesale in the national media because clerical sex abuse had become so widespread and been left unchecked for so many decades, the cover-up could no longer be contained.  To date, the financial cost to the United States Catholic Church has been estimated to be more than $2 billion dollars – and it isn’t over yet!

But why were Catholic bishops committed to such a cover-up in the first place?

Two reasons, I think. The first is because of a centuries-old canon law principle known as: “lest the faithful be scandalized”. In other words, bishops could devise secret methods to protect the Catholic hierarchy and priests from suspicion or allegations of wrong doing or corruption – and all this done for the sake of protecting church members from thinking ill of bishops and the clergy.  This canon law rationale has been characterized by sociologist Father Andrew Greeley as “self-serving and self-protecting dishonesty.” And so it is.

Here are two examples of how the “lest the faithful be scandalized” works. In his history of the Inquisition, Dr. William Rule quotes 16th Century canon law: “A blaspheming clergyman may pay a deduction from the fruits of his benefice; but whatsoever is done or left undone, he must not be seen to do penance openly, lest the faithful be scandalized at the sight; but if he proves incorrigible, he may be deprived of his living.” Inquisition History  (page 63) “He (the clergyman) must not be seen” is the necessary secrecy required to avoid giving the scandal.

And as professor Mark Silk notes in his book “Unsecular Media” (1998), this bankrupt church policy is not ancient history but remains in full force: “To this day, not only does Canon law specify ecclesiastical punishment for clerics who cause scandal by their misbehavior, but also in certain cases, canonical penalties are to be suspended if these cannot be observed ‘without danger of serious scandal or infamy.’ Better to let the punishment go by the board than to scandalize the faithful by publicizing clerical misdeeds.”  This church regulation is somewhat akin to our country’s Great Recession policy of suspending law enforcement against banks because they were “too big to fail.”

The second reason why Catholic bishops felt obligated to cover-up clerical sexual child abuse can be traced to Hebrews 7 and Melchizedek. “Jesus, a priest like Melchizedek, not by genealogical descent but by the sheer force of resurrection life – he lives! – a ‘priest forever in the royal order of Melchizedek.’ ”

St. Ambrose, one of the four doctors of the Church in the 4th Century, taught: “Thou art a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek.”  In my years of Catholic life, St. Ambrose’s teaching had been reduced to the slogan: “once a priest, always a priest” –  I must have heard it expressed a thousand times during  my Catholic training and education.

In the mid-1500s, the Council of Trent ruled the sacrament of ordination conferred an indelible priestly character and that a return to the lay state was impossible. Laicization may strip a priest from the right to perform authorized priestly functions, but it does not undo the “priestly character”.  In Catholic practice, once a male has been ordained into the priestly caste, a binding contract results: in exchange for a life of service and obedience to church authorities, the priest will be financially supported for life and accorded all privileges and protections associated with the authorized status of “priesthood”.

For most of the 20th Century, at least by extension, this teaching about the permanence of the priesthood was applied generally to religious brothers and nuns even though it was understood that in exceptional circumstances, and with great reluctance, the Vatican could dissolve permanently-sworn religious vows and return a nun or brother to the lay state. After the great exodus of nuns and brothers – and many priests – from the Church during the decades after the close of Vatican Council II (1965) and even with the newly-found realization that dispensations from final religious vows were more readily available than had been believed previously, this had no effect whatsoever on church teaching: “once a priest, always a priest”.

Another reason for the cover-up is the historical issue of “church and state”. The Church has never considered itself subject to the state.  For centuries – long before the American revolution – the Catholic Church was the state, controlled the state, or was a separate but equal partner with the state. In the United States, the Catholic church tolerates and respects the state but vows no allegiance and brooks no interference from the state about church affairs.

Even the thought of turning over a child-abusing priest to district attorneys for prosecution was unthinkable – not even possible! Such action would have undermined hundreds of years of carefully crafted organizational independence from states and would serve only to undermine  its authority and the priestly caste system. After all, the Catholic church is about salvation: sinners repenting, sinners being forgiven, sinners restored to the state of grace to be eligible for eternal salvation; the church does not exist for the sake of this world except to teach its members how to live in order to prepare them for the next.

For all these reasons, the United States bishops worked assiduously to keep secret the wrongdoing of clerics, and they felt justified in doing so, and were it not for the public outrage and private suffering of the victims – and the skill of their attorneys – it would still be secret.

Father Thomas Reese writes: “American bishops excused themselves by saying they made mistakes but were not culpable because of their ignorance. Sorry, this won’t wash. American Catholics wanted some bishops to stand up and say: ‘I made a mistake, I moved this priest to another parish, I did not think he would abuse again, I got bad advice, but I take full responsibility. I am sorry and I resign.’ ”

Sad to report, no bishop has taken full responsibility, and no bishop has resigned, and  they are institutionally incapable of doing so because they are members of the priestly caste.

How estranged they must find themselves from the Jesus of Nazareth when he preached to them about the dangers of church authorities: “Be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer. . . . Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend’ . . . Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.” (Matthew 23)    




Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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