The following editorial was published in the Times Herald-Record (Middletown, New York), a fellow GateHouse Media publication. Guest editorials do not necessarily reflect the views of Messenger Post Media.
The scope of the child sexual abuse scandal in the Roman Catholic Church, which was exposed early in this century, grew dramatically last year when U.S. dioceses began releasing names of clergy considered to be credibly accused. More than 5,000 names have now been disclosed. But that’s not the end of it.
As an exhaustive report by the Associated Press reveals, of the approximately 2,000 men still alive, nearly 1,700 are living with virtually no oversight from church or law enforcement agencies. Many are in positions of trust which afford access to children. And, AP reports, dozens have committed crimes, including sexual assault and possessing child pornography,
It’s the result of the decision by many dioceses to ignore recommendations made when the scandal became public to reveal names of priests credibly accused of sex abuse and to create programs to counsel and oversee the activities of the men. While the church grudgingly began reporting some abusers to police — which placed the offenders in the oversight of official authorities — most dioceses chose to simply defrock the priest and return them to private life.
As AP reports, this often meant working as teachers, counselors, nurses, volunteers in community groups and living near playgrounds and daycare centers.
Only 85 of the 2,000 men AP tracked are listed on sex offender registries because church officials typically lobbied civil authorities to downgrade charges in exchange for guilty pleas to charges below the level required for inclusion on registries.
The church say it has no authority to track these men once they leave the priesthood. But that’s simply a convenient way of trying to wipe one’s hands of a problem one has created, denied and hidden for who knows how long. We got rid of him. Not our problem.
Before the scandal broke, the typical procedure for dealing with a priest accused of sexual assault was to quietly transfer him to another parish. When that was revealed and the church finally agreed, under pressure, to report abusers to police, many bishops opted for the less public route of defrocking.
In 2002, U.S. bishops created the Dallas Charter, a plan to report sexual abuse and prevent child abuse. That resulted in a wave of laicization — removing the abusers from the church and, as far as the church was concerned, any further responsibility for his actions. AP found that about 40 percent of all the living credibly accused clergy members had either been laicized or had voluntarily left the church.
This is unacceptable. At the very least, church officials can be honest with potential employers who call about hiring a former priest. Preferably, the church can create its own registry.
A few dioceses, like Chicago, have extensive programs. In that city, priests who are removed from ministry can join a program in which they receive treatment, benefits and help, and get to "die a priest." But they must sign over their right to privacy and agree to obey rules such as not living near a school.
As the head of the program says, "If we let them walk away ... no one is watching them."