An Easter Plagued by Scandal

It's Easter week and Catholic priests are hoping for an institutional resurrection. Priests took to their pulpits on Palm Sunday to try to calm their congregation in face of the latest scandal to hit their church.

Forgiveness is not going to come easy. The scandal's just too big, too expensive, and lay Catholics are too fed up with being told that there is one moral code for all of them and another for their priests. But there's another shoe about to drop too, in the political world, as politicians and taxpayers awaken to their own piece in this ugly picture. If the Pope thinks all his problems are sitting in pews, he's in for a revelation.

It started in January, when documents revealed that Boston Church officials had known about child abuse allegations against one priest for years but had done little more than move him about from parish to parish. The now-defrocked John Geoghan has been convicted of groping a 10-year-old boy and stands accused of molesting more than 130 others over thirty years. Across the country, dozens of priests and one Florida bishop have since been suspended or forced to resign based on allegations of sexual abuse.

Bishop Daniel Walsh of Santa Rosa, California, chose to bash the media this past Sunday. "The media charges of cover-up and intimations of complicity by the bishops have created an atmosphere that erodes trust and faith," Walsh told a congregation. These were troubling sentiments for many, considering Walsh's predecessor had just testified that he had waited three years after a pastor admitted to him he had molested underage girls before taking any action.

Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice has no doubt about what erodes her trust -- it's abuse, and a history of cover-ups. Is she surprised by this year's scandal? "I'm horrified," she said this week. "Am I surprised? No."

A year ago this month, the National Catholic Reporter revealed that priests had been sexually abusing and even raping nuns in 23 countries. Sisters in five religious orders had been sending detailed documentation to the Vatican authorities for years, to no avail.

A "Call to Accountability" campaign led by Catholics for a Free Choice brought together over 140 religious, human rights and women's rights organizations to demand an independent investigation and punishments for the perpetrators. What did the Vatican do then? The same thing the Vatican is doing now. "It put its own survival over every other value," says Kissling.

Nuns who became pregnant were forced out of their orders. The abuse was treated as "sin" rather than "crime," and priests were routinely transferred. The Pope blamed abuse on misguided brothers in a geographically restricted area (most of the 23 countries were in Africa). The institution was working internally to put all wrongs to right, the Vatican assured.

"What many of us have known for years, is now impossible for society at large to ignore," says Kissling, who believes that lay councils should evaluate priests annually. "Priests have got to be answerable to people, not only the other way around," she says.

"At the heart of this crisis isn't homosexuality or heterosexuality -- it's power, the power priests have over everybody else," she says. And that's what's got to change. The Catholic Church can choose to do what it's done before and fire just enough priests to stop the lawsuits, but unless it makes real structural changes, Kissling says, it will become "another Enron -- just another corporation known to be hopelessly corrupt."

Meanwhile, across town from Kissling's office in Washington, the folks at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State are waiting. The latest scandal is not simply a church affair, they say, because the Roman Catholic Church and U.S. taxpayers have been business partners for way too long.

Tax dollars have gone to Catholic charities for years, supporting church-run hospitals through Medicaid, for example, and to Catholic groups that provide welfare-related services. George W. Bush came into office promising to funnel even more public money to religious outfits through his "faith-based initiative," a signature policy he's been pushing relentlessly, most recently in his State of the Union speech. Last month, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case testing the constitutionality of sending public school money to church schools.

All of these arrangements, say Americans United, are now likely to receive sharper scrutiny. Americans who were dubious about state-funded religious work before January are downright spooked about it now.

The next battleground is likely the harsh welfare reform law passed in 1996 which is now up for reauthorization. Back then, few legislators paid much attention to the law's so-called "charitable choice" provision, which gave churches a chance to compete for social-service funds.

"People know now that funding religious groups can carry consequences, and some of those consequences are not pretty," says Americans United spokesperson Steve Benen. He points out, for example, that there's nothing to stop a victim suing the government for abuse in a church program supported with public moneys.

Would Americans be comfortable giving tax dollars to the Archdiocese of Boston to run childcare centers? To Bishop Walsh for his diocese's K-6 after-school programs? To fund church-run health programs in Africa? So far, no one's asking, but it's only a matter of time.

Laura Flanders (laura@lauraflanders.com) is the host of Working Assets Radio and author of "Real Majority, Media Minority: The Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting."

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