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Catholic Church descends into shame

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The biggest dirty secret of the Catholic Church has of late become its most pervasive and potentially destructive scandal. Priest-as-child-molester now dominates the news and slowly but surely grows as primary image of the two-thousand-year old institution.

The pain of child sexual abuse is horrendous; certainly, there is no worse crime. Not a few American Indians have experienced it. It leaves a pain in the heart that lasts for life. When it happens at the hands of adults who are role models ? particularly of a spiritual nature ? it can be completely devastating. Make no mistake; the power of a priest is awesome. In many parishes, his word is law. He is revered as a representative of God.

The sex abuse scandals rocking the Catholic Church grow by the week. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of cases. The widespread sordid behavior on the part of scores of priests is undeniable and absolutely reprehensible. The surfacing reality that many bishops, at some point or another, have shuffled a molester priest and transferred him through the Church system, to hide away, in many cases to molest again ? this is troubling to the core. It means that perhaps much of the leadership of the Catholic Church has broken the law, has aided and abetted a criminal act of the most reprehensible type, in nearly all cases knowingly choosing not to report to the police that a crime against a minor had been committed.

To be fair, the Catholic Church is only the latest in a string of religious organizations targeted in recent years by prosecutors and other agencies for allowing its officers and personnel severely to mistreat and abuse young children. In Canada, the scandal of several generations of Native children who literally had been taken from their families and institutionalized in harsh and often victimized conditions in Church-run orphanages and boarding schools broke as a major national story in the mid-1990s. A rash of individual and class-action lawsuits resulted in major reparations expenses for several large congregations, most significantly the Anglican Church, which has suffered near bankruptcy as a result.

In Canada, the tremendous suffering inflicted by the negligence or design of these guardian churches was largely inflicted on Native children ? once again, Native peoples becoming a sort of miners' canary within an explosive issue that will have growing international impact.

Nevertheless, this year, in the United States, it is the Catholic Church's turn to be scrutinized. The situation is serious. The damage done to a whole class of children by a rapacious class of pederast priests is significant. Of $15 billion in assets, the Catholic Church has already paid out $1 billion in settlements to victims of sexual abuse by priests and other Church personnel. The magnitude of the cost reflects the magnitude of the damage.

But perhaps the biggest disappointment is the approach, or attitude, now projected by the Church during its time of crisis. The Catholic Church ? suffering a stain of the deepest hue ? rather than lead with a strategy of self-inspection and self-cleansing, is now aggressively "attacking the victim" in its legal strategy. As reported in national media, significantly in the Washington Post, with the goal of minimizing responsibility for settlements to victims, high-powered law firms are increasingly pursuing an aggressive litigation strategy on behalf of the Catholic Church. Private detectives are hired to scour the personal lives of victims who have filed charges and suits, and crucial documents useful to prosecutions of perpetrators are forcefully guarded as secret by Church legal teams.

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oConsider the case of the mother from Hawaii whose son, an altar boy, was abused by a parish sacristan. The same diocese whose sacristan abused her son has now charged this mother with "negligence" in a countersuit. They fault her for allowing her seven- and ten-year-old boys to sleep over at the sacristan's apartment, even though it was a part of a program of training by the sacristan for the boys' service to the church as altar boys.

oConsider too the Boston archdiocese, which recently broke a multi-million dollar settlement agreement with 86 alleged victims of former priest John Geoghan, now convicted of child molestation. Boston has problems all its own. There, lawyers for the archdiocese countersued a six-year-old boy and his parents, accusing them of negligence for trusting the Rev. Paul R. Shanley, a Catholic priest who allegedly molested him.

oIn Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other places, church lawyers have forced victims to reveal their names, badgered victims with harsh questions and driven them emotionally to drop lawsuits. According to the Washington Post, "church lawyers grilled a victim about the details of his alleged abuse by a priest and asked whether he enjoyed it."

There is case after case. The Church is coming out swinging, hitting back (or again) at people who do not deserve the wrath of a powerful institution that by its own belated admission allowed serious harm to be inflicted directly by its own spiritual and educational officers upon children. The aggressive legal strategy will initially defend the Church against loss of settlement money, but what makes sense to lawyers given to judicial combat can create a devastating public perception for this long-standing institution. In the public mind, a dismissive and harsh attitude by the church can be expected to aggravate the scandal from the status of penknife-in-the side to dagger-in-the-heart. Needless to say, this twisted approach does not appear worthy of the foundational Christian organization in the World.

The current strategy of the Catholic Church as it faces such horrendous scandal represents a descent into shame for the leadership of the American Hemisphere's most widespread religion. "Children be damned," the Church hierarchy appears to continue to say, not quietly either, but loudly and clearly. The focus on protecting the institution's coffers might be unsavory, but understandable. But the lack of vigorous policy action on protecting children from pedophile priests is increasingly unforgivable.

The Catholic Church looks bad. It needs serious cleansing. To repeat, it is not alone. Many religious orders, it would appear, have serious malaise of spiritual service. But, it is the Church of St. Peter that is in the cross hairs right now, as the pattern of cover-up of perpetrators of heinous crimes emerges and the attitude of the Church's own supreme leaders is forced into the public light. The rock that St. Peter stood on to build the Catholic Church now hangs around the necks of dozens of bishops who could not do the right thing. They will carry these rocks for decades to come if they do not face the issue head on.

American Indians know all too well the devastating impacts of such institutional perversion, and as a result, express both empathy and sympathy for the victims of these heinous crimes. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops ? representing the largest Christian denomination in the world, with 63 million members in the United States ? meets in Dallas next month. We urge the Conference to own up to its responsibility: Leave no stone unturned; identify to authorities every molester, rapist and aiding-and-abetting criminal in your midst; clean house.