Scott Tibbs
Published in Hoosier Review, 05-18-2002

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Catholic Church must root out child molesters

Even as a non-Catholic, it is difficult to avoid the crisis the Catholic Church finds itself in due to allegations of rape and child molestation by Catholic priests. Pressure for answers and action is building from the media, abuse victims and their families, and Christians both inside and outside of the Church. The crisis necessitated the intervention of Pope John Paul II, the world's highest-ranking Catholic official. The future of the church rests on how this situation is handled.

So far, some in the Catholic leadership have handled it in a negligent and criminal manner. Cardinal Bernard Law of Massachusetts shuffled pedophiles from parish to parish, where they continued to victimize children. When challenged on his actions, he passed the buck to subordinates and said there was probably a medical professional that could vouch for the "safety" of the priests, but couldn't actually produce documentation of it. Many churches also settled quietly with families, promising money for silence about the situation as the abusers were transferred around to other parishes, cities or states. Many victims and their families had no idea that this was part of a pattern until media attention shed light on the scandal.

At an emergency conference in the Vatican, a proposal was put forth to cleanse the Church of "serial" or notorious molesters, but leaving other "less serious" abusers in their position. But statistics show that pedophiles don't just molest one child; they molest multiple children. The danger of continued sexual molestation is too great to allow pedophiles to have access to children, and adopting this policy would essentially be an endorsement of child molestation and rape.

Cardinal Law's reaction to lawsuits and criticisms has not been encouraging. A current lawsuit alleges the Rev. Paul R. Shanley repeatedly molested a boy over a half-dozen years beginning when the boy was six years old. According to the Boston Globe, Law through his attorneys claimed that "negligence" by both the boy and his parents may have contributed to the abuse.

Putting aside the attack on the boy's parents, alleging "negligence" by the boy is inexcusable and evil. The complete moral bankruptcy of this claim should shock and anger people of all faiths. How could a terrified and tortured six-year-old child be "negligent" with regard to sexual abuse inflicted upon him by someone he thought he could trust? One wonders about the state of Law's spiritual life when he allows (or instructs) his attorneys to make arguments like this on his behalf. Whatever twisted legal arguments Law's attorneys may come up with to justify this outrage, a man of true Christian faith would never blame the victim in this manner.

While forgiveness of sin is central to Christian theology, there are also earthly consequences to one's actions. Jesus may forgive someone for murder or rape, but a prison sentence must still be served on earth. Once someone has proven that they cannot be trusted around children, it is fundamentally immoral to place children in danger by continuing to allow a known pedophile access to them. It is far more important to protect the fundamental human rights of potential victims than to protect the "rights" of those who have molested children, even once. Christians should have no sympathy for those whose choices have led them to victimize society's most vulnerable.

The only reasonable solution to this crisis is a "zero tolerance" policy toward child molesters. Priests (or other Church officials) known to have sexually abused any child must be immediately and irrevocably stripped of their position. The issue here isn't a "witch hunt" as some priests have alleged, but a necessary move to protect children. Catholic officials must also fully and without reservation cooperate with law-enforcement agencies to make sure that abusers are swiftly and surely brought to justice.

A zero-tolerance policy would allow the Catholic Church to show it is serious about protecting children from those who would harm them and that it will not cover up abuse to protect its own. Finally, all this must be done in a public, honest and forthright manner, as Catholics, protestant denominations and people of other faiths deserve to know the whole truth about what went on and to what extent church leaders covered up for child rapists. The scope of the problem demands no less.