Letter to the editor: The big picture on clerical sex abuse in the Church

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The following is an unsolicited letter submitted by a reader.

As a father of two and a cradle Roman Catholic, I am disgusted with the abuse of children by clergy of our church. I am equally angry over the weak handling, at best, to an active cover-up of these crimes by our church leadership. Over my lifetime, I have struggled to consider this evil reality. It naturally makes you consider whether the Roman Catholic faith is the one, true faith.

Most priests are wonderful, hardworking, honest and holy men. Very, very few priests have ever hurt a child or committed any crime in their entire lifetime. These are facts that must be acknowledged before further discussion.

The impact of criminal offenders in the Catholic Church is most offensive due to the actual level of betrayal. Men whose hands were consecrated to carry out the holy sacrifice of the Mass went on to hurt the most defenseless in our midst. Even a single priest in a billion committing this sin is horrific. It is a repulsive betrayal of their sacred vows to serve God and man.

Archbishop Aquila is not telling us the whole story, nor should he. It would be inappropriate for Archbishop Aquila to comment on the contributing factors to the evils detailed in the Colorado abuse report. Any real leader in any organization does not look for excuses but takes full responsibility for his or her organization. I find no fault with the Archbishop for his transparency and aggressive work towards protecting our children and our Church.

I feel compelled to speak of some of the contributing factors to this evil. I have not been asked by anyone to write this essay. I don’t know how much any of the following came into play as a catalyst or contributing factor to the evils committed by Colorado Catholic clergy.

My intent is not to forgive or lessen the reality of the evils perpetrated. The criminals named in the report are at fault. What they did was pure evil. I do not want to be misinterpreted in any way as giving any excuse or explanation for the evils described in the report. However, by understanding the bigger picture even beyond the recently issued report, we can better defend our children and the Roman Catholic Church going forward.

Historically, the medical community played a role in not reporting complaints of abuse to law enforcement. The mechanisms today by which doctors report to law enforcement officials did not exist. Some medical professionals feared legal ramifications if they broke doctor/patient confidentiality even with good intent. Many psychiatrists and psychologists once believed they could cure pedophiles or homosexuals (homosexuality was once listed as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). After treatment and counseling, some doctors would advise Church leaders that an offender was now healthy or cured. In some cases, those same doctors would encourage Church leaders to return offenders to the same type of environment involving close and continuing contact with children. Today, this is widely viewed as malpractice. No responsible medical professional would encourage an alcoholic to search for employment as a bartender during or after completing rehabilitation for alcoholism.

Furthermore, laws regarding medical professionals, doctor/patient confidentiality and reporting to law enforcement have come a long way in the last 70 years. Reporting requirements are very strict and well known for medical, childcare and educational professionals. Those who come across any evidence of the possible abuse of children have a legal duty to report these concerns to authorities who will follow up.

Law enforcement in the United States 70 years ago was far different than today. Law enforcement officers did not have the same education and training. Today, most law enforcement agencies require a college degree and some work experience prior to hiring. Psychological screening and thorough background investigations screen out many who are unsuitable for police work due to integrity or emotional deficits. A rigorous course of study and further evaluation in a police academy also works to ensure high-quality law enforcement officers protect the community.

Law enforcement failed in many cases by not having the capability or skill in response to complaints. The public also knew confidentiality could be a real issue if they came forward to police. Many knew the police would allow the church to handle allegations of criminal conduct as an internal church issue. Today, there are very little of these professional and procedural lapses on the part of law enforcement. Law enforcement officers now investigate claims of criminal conduct much more effectively. A religious, educational or medical facility can no longer easily blow off law enforcement by saying a complaint is “an internal matter.”

Journalists seem to have decreased in integrity even further over the last 70 years. How can this deter criminal conduct in the church? Many journalists today have such a visceral hatred for religion that they aggressively look for stories to paint a religious institution in a poor light. This pressure, while being motivated less about protecting children, can be a strong deterrent to anyone thinking of using the priesthood as a cover for their criminal conduct. Many journalists salivate over the idea of writing a negative story about any religion or clergy.

All of this is to say that social media, journalists, law enforcement, doctors and the legal profession are all trip wires to ensure that any allegations of sexual abuse in any institution are handled in a more thorough and responsible manner today. No institution, the Church and parishes included, have the option to handle anything “quietly” today.

The preceding are some contributing factors that Archbishop Aquila will never try to use as an excuse. Some misdeeds were simply evil with no contributing factors. Others were the wrong actions taken for some semblance of a noble intention. Some were taken in some twisted sense of mercy for either the criminal or victim. They were failures but should be considered in some context for the sake of awareness and understanding. This will help us in vigilance going forward.

The Roman Catholic Church is all about forgiveness and the goal of bringing souls to heaven. This can allow dangerous rationalizations in some cases. Many bishops wrongly made the decision to cover up criminal conduct to protect the faith and trust of whole congregations. In hindsight, those same leaders certainly must see that the best response would have been swift, thorough, honest and transparent investigation of any criminal allegations. How could they make such a wrong choice? One must remember the times in which they lived. As mentioned, the politics, societal norms, medical guidance and realities of the legal community were all different. Many times, our clergy may have wanted to believe the doctors. Who wouldn’t want to believe an offender was healed and ready to return to full duty in a parish?

I struggle with how high leadership in the Roman Catholic Church have not done more to punish or report criminals. At times, I fall back upon the understanding that all human organizations have those that will betray and commit horrific crimes. The FBI, CIA, Catholic Church, Boy Scouts, childcare providers, the military, schools and all other human organizations have had evil doers. This is no reason to throw up our hands and declare any of these institutions as inherently evil.

I wish we could say the Roman Catholic Church was absolutely perfect, but we must remember that even one of the twelve went on to betray Jesus directly. My thoughts here should not bring anyone any comfort. My only intention is to discuss the bigger picture to increase understanding and vigilance. Hopefully some will also read this, pray and then acknowledge that the Roman Catholic Church still is the one, true faith.

We need to be careful not to look at all priests as potential criminals. While vigilance among all the faithful is necessary, we must support and pray for our priests daily. They deserve as much for all they do for God and His kingdom on earth.

Matthew Hayes,
Greenwood Village, CO

COMING UP: A last chance for Australian justice

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My late parents loved Cardinal George Pell, whom they knew for decades. So I found it a happy coincidence that, on November 12 (which would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary), a two-judge panel of Australia’s High Court referred to the entire Court the cardinal’s request for “special leave” to appeal his incomprehensible conviction on charges of “historic sexual abuse,” and the even-more-incomprehensible denial of his appeal against that manifestly unsafe verdict.

Thus in 2020 the highest judicial authority in Australia will review the Pell case, which gives the High Court the opportunity to reverse a gross injustice and acquit the cardinal of a hideous crime: a “crime” that Pell insists never happened; a “crime” for which not a shred of corroborating evidence has yet been produced; a “crime” that simply could not have happened in the circumstances and under the conditions it was alleged to have been committed.

Since Cardinal Pell’s original appeal was denied in August by two of three judges on an appellate panel in the State of Victoria, the majority decision to uphold Pell’s conviction has come under withering criticism for relying primarily on the credibility of the alleged victim. As the judge who voted to sustain the cardinal’s appeal pointed out (in a dissent that one distinguished Australian attorney described as the most important legal document in that country’s history), witness credibility – a thoroughly subjective judgment-call – is a very shaky standard by which to find someone guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It has also been noted by fair-minded people that the dissenting judge, Mark Weinberg, is the most respected criminal jurist in Australia, while his two colleagues on the appellate panel had little or no criminal law experience. Weinberg’s lengthy and devastating critique of his two colleagues’ shallow arguments seemed intended to signal the High Court that something was seriously awry here and that the reputation of Australian justice – as well as the fate of an innocent man – was at stake.

Other recent straws in the wind Down Under have given hope to the cardinal’s supporters that justice may yet be done in his case.

Andrew Bolt, a television journalist with a nationwide audience, walked himself through the alleged series of events at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Melbourne, within the timeframe in which they were supposed to have occurred, and concluded that the prosecution’s case, and the decisions by both the convicting jury and the majority of the appeal panel, simply made no sense. What was supposed to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did.

Australians willing to ignore the vicious anti-Pell polemics that have fouled their country’s public life for years also heard from two former workers at the cathedral, who stated categorically that what was alleged to have happened could not have happened how it did and when it did, because they were a few yards away from Cardinal Pell at the precise time he was alleged to have abused two choirboys.

Then there was Anthony Charles Smith, a veteran criminal attorney (and not a Catholic), who wrote in Annals Australasia that the Pell verdict and the denial of his appeal “curdles my stomach.” How, he asked, could a guilty verdict be rendered on “evidence….so weak and bordering on the preposterous?” The only plausible answer, he suggested, was that Pell’s “guilt” was assumed by many, thanks to “an avalanche of adverse publicity” ginned up by “a mob baying for Pell’s blood” and influencing “a media [that] should always be skeptical.”

Even more strikingly, the left-leaning Saturday Paper, no friend of Cardinal Pell or the Catholic Church, published an article in which Russell Marks – a one-time research assistant on an anti-Pell book – argued that the two judges on the appellate panel who voted to uphold the cardinal’s conviction “effectively allowed no possible defense for Pell: there was nothing his lawyers could have said or done, because the judges appeared to argue it was enough to simply believe the complainant on the basis of his performance under cross examination.”

The Australian criminal justice system has stumbled or failed at every stage of this case. The High Court of Australia can break that losing streak, free an innocent man, and restore the reputation of Australian justice in the world. Whatever the subsequent fallout from the rabid Pell-haters, friends of justice must hope that that is what happens when the High Court hears the cardinal’s case – Australia’s Dreyfus Case – next year.

Photo: CON CHRONIS/AFP/Getty Images