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Uncommon Candor

Can those who once led a flawed system now help direct the church's reform effort?

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Father Tom Stahel saw the shock waves coming. Stahel, a Jesuit priest and pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, late last month prepared worshippers for the latest revelations in the sex abuse scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church. He did so with a candor that has been all too uncommon since the crisis exploded in Boston two years ago.

"[Feb. 27] will not be a happy day for the Catholic Church in the U.S. and I expect there will be a lot of media coverage," Stahel wrote in the weekly church bulletin, referring to the study released by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops on sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clerics. "First, resist the temptation to think that this is just media hype. Really bad things happened to a lot of children at the hands of priests, and there is no getting around that. ... Second, resist the temptation to think that the stories you see are just the ravings of a hostile press or merely an attempt to discredit the Church. ... Ask yourself these questions: When was the devil more at work ... when such abuse was going unchecked and was covered up? [O]r, when it was brought to light and rooted out no matter how sad or troubling the stories?"

Those questions resonate following the release of the national two-part study on the Church molestation problem from 1950-2002. The first study, by the prestigious John Jay College of Criminal Justice, found 4,392 priests had been accused of abusing 10,667 minors. University of New Orleans criminologist Peter Scharf warns the first part should be read with "absolute caution." Among other concerns, he notes that the report states 56 percent of the priests were alleged to have abused one victim each-- a statistic that defies criminal behavioral research. "The typical pedophile has dozens of victims," Scharf says.

In Part II, the National Review Board examines how the crisis occurred. The Catholic lay panel puts much of the blame on "some bishops and Church officials" who inadequately responded to victims and gave "unwarranted" benefits of the doubt to accused priests, while engaging in legalistic "adversarial defense tactics ... at the expense of concerns for victims of abuse."

The report hits home in New Orleans. Cardinal Bernard Law, who was archbishop of Boston when the crisis erupted there, is the only church leader to resign since the scandals broke. Robert Bennett, a prominent lay Catholic and Washington attorney who oversaw the review board, says other bishops who failed to protect children should resign. Among those bishops, says Lyn Hayward, coordinator of the local chapter of Survivor Networks of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), is New Orleans' Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes, because of his former role as Law's right-hand man. In Boston, Hughes' duties included handling abusive priests.

Mitchell Garibedian, a Boston lawyer who has litigated numerous abuse-related civil suits against the Church, says that Hughes has been named as a defendant in at least 13 civil cases alleging negligent supervision of priests, and may face more lawsuits. Archdiocesan spokesperson Father William Maestri declined specific comment on those claims but notes that Hughes removed 14 priests in Boston. In a July 30, 2003, statement published in the local archdiocesan newspaper The Clarion Herald, Hughes said he implemented a number of reforms to address the abuse issue in Boston, but conceded, "There were a few cases wherein I may not have acted quickly enough."

Locally, Hughes has met or exceeded new church guidelines to protect children. Last September, an audit team composed of a retired FBI agent and a retired U.S. marshal declared the Archdiocese in "full compliance" with church rules for protecting youths from abuse. Overall, the Archdiocese has reported 41 cases of clerical abuse during a 54-year period dating to 1950. All 41 cases have been turned over to civil authorities. Of the 41 cases, the Archdiocese found "credible allegations" against eight priests and two deacons. The Archdiocese also says it tells victims they are free to go to the police at any time and will inform civil authorities on behalf of those who are reluctant to do so.

Victims' groups are now calling for the names of the offending priests.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, says that decision is left to individual bishops. Says Maestri:"If [abusive priests] are in public ministry we do indicate who they are and we remove them. If they are no longer in ministry, or they are retired or deceased, we do not name them." Maestri also says a number of victims have insisted that their priestly abusers not be identified.

With the release of the bishops' report, attention now focuses on church officials, including Hughes. Can those who once led an admittedly flawed system now help direct the church's reform effort? As each case, including those involving Hughes, is judged on its own merits, Catholics and non-Catholics alike can find wisdom and guidance in the words of clergy like Stahel of Immaculate Conception -- and all others who are addressing this ongoing crisis with uncommon candor.

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