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GUEST COMMENTARY: Five Years Later, a Scandal That Remains Unresolved

c. 2007 Religion News Service (UNDATED) Five years ago, the Boston Globe published a series of articles that exposed the Catholic sex abuse and cover-up scandal, which soon burst onto the national stage. Eventually, church authorities admitted that more than 5,000 priests were exposed as molesters, and hundreds of bishops were exposed as complicit. But […]

c. 2007 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Five years ago, the Boston Globe published a series of articles that exposed the Catholic sex abuse and cover-up scandal, which soon burst onto the national stage. Eventually, church authorities admitted that more than 5,000 priests were exposed as molesters, and hundreds of bishops were exposed as complicit.

But a new day has dawned, Catholic officials claim. “We’ve learned our lessons,” they tell us. The safety of children now comes first, we’re told.

Sadly, the evidence suggests these claims are far from true.

Last month, a California civil jury, splitting 9-3, determined that a Fresno-area priest, the Rev. Eric Swearingen, was guilty of molesting a boy. In spite of this legal finding, Bishop John Steinbock stubbornly insists on keeping that priest in active parish ministry, as pastor of Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Woodward Park.

Such recklessness, unfortunately, is not an aberration:

_ In November, a Florida pastor, the Rev. Carlos Bedoya, quietly stepped down from his post. Orlando’s bishop told parishioners it was due to “personal issues.” Weeks later, the diocese’s second-in-command told the media there was no “inappropriate behavior.” Recently, however, police disclosed that the priest is under criminal investigation for allegedly holding a man down while another man raped him last October. Thus, for months, the two highest-ranking Orlando Catholic leaders deliberately deceived parishioners and the public, giving an alleged rapists ample time to destroy evidence, intimidate victims, and threaten witnesses.

_ Twice in less than a year, sexually troubled out-of-state priests were sent to work at a St. Louis, Mo., parish with an elementary school. Both times, no one was warned about the clerics’ past. One priest was accused of repeatedly assaulting an adult parishioner. She sought and secured a restraining order against him, his bishop removed him from active ministry and sent him to St. Louis for “treatment.” The other priest was found with photos of nude boys on his computer and faces other allegations of “grooming” boys with trips to Europe, late-night rectory parties and overnight stays. No one disputes this: not the priest, not his bishop.

Both cases raise a nagging, familiar question: Why transfer accused sexually troubled priests from elsewhere into St. Louis, put them in a parish with a school, and warn no one?

_ In Los Angeles, church and school officials were questioned last year by police about current child sex abuse allegations against John Malburg, a Catholic high school principal from a politically prominent family. The archdiocese didn’t suspend him. They told no one about the investigation. Six months later, Malburg was arrested and criminally charged. Parents asked church officials “Why didn’t you tell us? Why didn’t you suspend him?” Cardinal Roger Mahony’s spokesman, Tod Tamberg, told the Los Angeles Times that law enforcement asked the church to keep quiet. The next day, in the same newspaper, prosecutors said they never made any such request.

Of these troubling cases, the Fresno case is perhaps the most disturbing. Even now, bishops often side with the accused over the accuser, keeping a suspected molester in active ministry, saying that abuse allegations aren’t “credible” or can’t be “substantiated.”

But what can be more credible than a formal, legal determination by a jury under the careful eyes of a judge? What can be more “substantiated” than a charge that’s been thoroughly dissected in two weeks of evidence and testimony in an open courtroom? If Bishop Steinbock won’t remove an accused pedophile after all this, what chance does any child sex abuse victim have of persuading him that they were molested by a priest or seminarian or nun in the Fresno diocese?

Much of the controversy surrounding abusive priests is complex. But one aspect of this tragic situation is crystal clear: Sometimes we must choose between protecting the reputation of a well-educated and well-liked adult and protecting the physical, emotional and spiritual safety of perhaps dozens of kids. We must always err on the side of safeguarding the innocent. This is especially crucial when the time-tested judicial system has heard all the evidence and rendered a guilty verdict.

Despite all their much-touted promises to the contrary, that is the simple lesson that Bishop Steinbock and so many of his brother bishops have yet to learn.

(Mary Grant of Long Beach, Calif., and David Clohessy of St. Louis, Mo., are leaders of SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, thenation’s oldest and largest support group for clergy abuse victims.)

KRE END CLOHESSY

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