With the latest scandal in the Catholic Church arguably reaching all the way to the Vatican, it’s time for the Church to set the record straight. Enough is enough.
The recent expose of the sexual abuse cover-ups in the Irish Church and elsewhere in Europe has become a public relations nightmare for the Church. Irish anger was strong enough to prompt an unprecedented pastoral letter of apology from Pope Benedict XVI to Irish Catholics. But the pope and the Vatican have yet to take the steps necessary to indicate that the Church will not tolerate abuse in the future.
In the short term, the Church needs to combat the growing belief that it is willing to let abuse infractions slide. To begin, the pope should accept the resignations, which have been offered voluntarily, of four Irish bishops who have been criticized for inadequately handling abuse cases. As of yet, the pope has only accepted one.
In the long term, the Church needs to become much stricter in how it deals with allegations of abuse. Rather than deferring to its own internal system of canonical trials – which has been the standard in the past for dealing with abuses among the clergy – the Church needs to supplement its own investigations with more cooperation with civil authorities.
The New York Times has alleged that Church documents indicate that Pope Benedict XVI – then Cardinal Ratzinger – did not respond to concerns about a major sexual abuse case brought before his former office in the early 1990s. Fr. Lawrence C. Murphy – a now-deceased priest who had worked at a Wisconsin school for the deaf from 1950 to 1974 – was accused of abusing about 200 boys. The Times reported that the canonical investigation into the matter was quietly dropped, and Murphy was never defrocked or, it seems, even reprimanded. The case is an example of everything that can go wrong if the Church does not become more transparent about abuse cases.
The Catholic Church has done more in recent years to counteract abuse within its parishes and schools. Most employees at Catholic schools, for instance, now undergo training to learn how to identity potential abusers. Every time a big player in the Church food chain looks the other way, however, such progress is undermined. Abusers implicate only themselves, but cover-ups threaten the entire structure of the Church. If the Vatican wants to save face and protect abuse victims, it needs to admit its mistakes in handling abusers, and adopt stronger and more immediate action against those who strive to protect them.
The bottom line? The top priority of the Church should always be the safety of the congregation, not the public image of the Church. The Church, however, has every right to – and should – work to rehabilitate abusive priests and help to reintegrate them into society. And if they are removed from positions where they can cause harm, there is no reason to overly publicize their transgressions. Forgiveness is, after all, a basic tenet of Catholic teaching. Forgiving, however, does not mean forgetting, and the Church cannot continue to turn a blind eye to priests who have committed abuse and those who have knowingly glossed it over.
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