Zero tolerance of abuse offenders

  • April 23, 2010
abuseCatholics are angry about recent revelations of clerical sexual abuse for two reasons: crimes were committed against children by men ordained as priests and, in many cases over many years, bishops refused to protect children from known predators by removing abuser priests from ministry and calling in the police

The Vatican apparently understands why sexual abuse of children ignites such intense anger. But it seemingly struggles to comprehend why Catholics are so angry about crimes committed and covered up 20, 30 years ago. In recent years, after all, under then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and now Pope Benedict XVI, the Church has enacted tougher protocols to empower bishops and involve police when crimes are suspected. Yet anger persists.

Part of the problem is that the new measures are routinely downplayed or ignored in media reports. So there is a need for bishops to speak out on the issue and address past failures. Equally important, though, bishops also must take decisive steps to reform and repair what  Benedict has called a church “wounded by sins.”

That two-pronged approach was evident in the recent pastoral message by Archbishop Thomas Collins. Although scandal has not stained his Toronto diocese, Collins addressed the issue because, he said, the relentless criticism can leave all Catholics “discouraged, angry, confused and ashamed.” He acknowledged that, to the Church’s shame, some priests and bishops have failed. But he also stressed that under Benedict reform is happening and, even if abuse may never disappear, the Church is determined to keep trying.

To that end, Collins will assemble a committee to review and update archdiocese procedures to deal with priestly misconduct. Drafted in 1989 and last revised in 2003, current procedures already demand any credible allegation be addressed immediately, thoroughly and, if there are reasonable grounds, promptly reported to civil authorities. The committee will examine how the procedures can be even more effective. Bravo.

Catholics expect Church leaders to deal with abuser priests in a way that is urgent, uncompromising and tough. Of course, tread carefully to ensure fairness and justice for the accused. But a finding of guilt, in addition to any criminal charges, should result not only in immediate and permanent removal of an abuser priest from ministry but also their expulsion from priesthood.

It is time for the Church to clearly, loudly and unequivocally proclaim zero-tolerance for sexual abuse. That applies equally for abusers and those who may cover up their crimes. To its credit, the Vatican seems to have moved in that direction over the past decade. But it needs to remove all ambiguity,  communicate the zero-tolerance message in plain language and apply it ferociously.Victims and those who suffer with them deserve nothing less.

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