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New Sex Abuse Scandals Plague Catholic Institutions -- Will the Church Ever Change?

Why do these abuses keep popping up even after earnest vows of reform from the church?
 
 
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It’s been years since the massive wave of Catholic clergy-abuse stories began to break, with victims speaking out and horrors uncovered. It’s true that instances of traumatizing sexual and physical abuse from clergy in many other religions and denominations have surfaced in the ensuing years, proving that the problem is hardly endemic to one religion or group of people. But in Catholic strongholds where abuse was widespread, the problem has been systemic, and the coverup attempts by the church are egregious and often premeditated and coordinated. Centralized hierarchies have led to centralized denial--until recent years, when there has been a centralized attempt to clean house.

Nowadays, the subject of child abuse by the clergy is often one broached by standup comedians and cynics. A disconnect is growing between the American Catholic church and its followers, and not just on this issue: study after study shows that Catholic laypeople are aligned with the rest of the American population--and against the church--when it comes to “social issues” abortion, especially birth control (which a vast majority use, directly countering church doctrine) and now even gay marriage.

Yet the clergy abuse stories continue to unfold in the arenas of church politics, law enforcement and the religious landscape. The last big scandal was in Wisconsin, when abuse at a school for the deaf was revealed, and more have surfaced since.

Just this week a record financial settlement was reached with abuse victims in the Northwest, while the Philadelphia abuse scandal continued. Last Friday alone, the New York Times published three separate stories about Catholic clergy abuse cases; a Google news search for “Catholic priest abuse” revealed ongoing or recently concluded cases in Connecticut, California, Tennessee and the Midwest--and these are just domestic cases. In Ireland, the entire nation remains up in arms about a “smoking gun” document which revealed, essentially, that the coverup of abuses there was sanctioned by the Vatican.

And that culture of denial and collusion that has been so slow to change may explain why these stories keep popping up even after earnest vows of reform from the church. A system that worked for decades one way may not be able to transform overnight--particularly when many of the power dynamics remain the same.

The Philly 21

Two Times stories were related to the unfolding case in Philadelphia, in which a grand jury found that “ the archdiocese allowed 37 priests accused of abuse or inappropriate behavior to remain in ministry.” As a result, a few weeks ago the church suspended 21 clergy or teachers now being referred to by some as “the Philly 21” or “the Philadelphia 21.”

This was after a new system of “review” boards had been implemented by the church (in the wake of other scandals) to root out exactly this kind of problem. But the review boards, staffed by outsiders with experience in law enforcement and accountable to church authorities, found no problem in Philadelphia even where the legal system found many.

A criminal proceeding is beginning against several church officials, including a monsignor, two priests, one former priest, and a former school teacher under the parochial purview:

“The priests and the schoolteacher are already accused of rape; the monsignor, William Lynn, the highest-ranking official to be accused of a crime in the three-decade-long abuse scandal in the United States, is suspected of covering up rape by the priests and is charged with child endangerment.”

One of the stories in the Times described a “blistering courtroom session” at a preliminary hearings for the case, at which the monsignor was repeatedly told by the judge that it could jeopardize his own interest to have a defense team sponsored by the archdiocese itself--which would have a vested interest not in him, but in the church. Nonetheless, he insisted on retaining that defense.

A second article about the Philadelphia case on Friday examined whether this spreading scandal proved that the work many American ecclesiastical authorities had put in establishing their own review protocols was in vain, if such internal reviews simply couldn’t pick up on the abuse. Supposedly, a new “zero tolerance” era had been launched after the Boston Diocese debacle at the beginning of this decade. But the fact that these review boards have no legal subpoena power and can only use documents and evidence that is voluntarily handed to them of course, is a huge part of the problem.

Northwest Nightmare

On Friday another case came to a close. This time it was a less recent one--a Jesuit order in the Northwest settled a longstanding case for $166 million against a group of nearly 500 abuse victims, mostly from the disadvantaged and vulnerable group of Alaskan and American natives, many of whom were orphans. The abuse took place decades ago. It has been strongly implied by victim’s advocate groups, the Times reported, that the remoteness of some of the parishes and schools and the socially isolated position of the students and families there meant that “problem priests” were shipped to the area to be out of people’s way, with little regard to the potential victims awaiting them there.

Attorney Blaine Tamaki gave a sharp statement to reporters, pointing out that the financial payout and the number of victims makes this a record-setting settlement--hardly a memorable milestone for the church.

"The $166.1 million is the largest settlement by a religious order in the history of the world. Over 450 Native American children ... were sexually abused repeatedly, from rape to sodomy, for decades throughout the Northwest,” Tamaki told the press, according to CNN. “Instead of teaching these children how to read and write, Jesuit priests were teaching them distrust and shame. Instead of teaching the Native American children the love of God, these Jesuit pedophile priests were molesting these young children.”

Why?

In the last decade, many have speculated that the Catholic attitude toward sex (only for procreation, not for pleasure), sin and repentance and the celibacy requirement for clergy are a source of the problem. But it’s impossible to generalize or to pinpoint the cause. Instead what can be said is that in order for abuses of power to end, conceptions and distribution of power needs to change--particularly in a system which is hierarchical and authority-based and the ultimate authority is theoretically derived from a divine source. It's no coincidence that many of the abuse victims were poor or alone or unable in some way to fight back, and that their abusers had a vast network of resources behind them.

This heartfelt search for answers from Maureen Martinez, a Catholic woman in Philadelphia goes over all the doctrinal possibilities, the issue of celibacy, of mentally ill men hoping to find shelter in the church as priests, and settles at last on the core problem of power:

And this is the heart of the issue with the church: Offenders feel they are invincible. And their higher-ups who covered up the crimes also feel they are invincible. In fact, one could argue that the bishops and cardinals who knowingly shuffled sex offenders from one parish to another are even more at fault. They are not mentally ill.”

Sarah Seltzer is an associate editor at AlterNet, a staff writer at RH Reality Check and a freelance writer based in New York City. Her work has been published in Jezebel.com and on the websites of the Nation, the Christian Science Monitor and the Wall Street Journal. Find her at sarahmseltzer.com.
 
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