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The word Catholic means universal or worldwide. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church has claimed to be the only true, worldwide church of Christ, and the pope to be Christ's sovereign on the earth.
Are all Catholic priests child molesters or pedophiles? Absolutely not. In fact, the great majority are good men who have dedicated their lives to serving God by helping humanity. That being said, there is good reason for alarm in the Catholic world.
In the past few months, reports of predatory sexual behavior by priests have surfaced around the world, first from Germany, then from Ireland and Australia, then from the United States, then from the island of Malta, and most recently from Brazil, Chile and other Latin American countries.
We're hearing more and more accusations of the mishandling of these cases from the victims who have carried mental, spiritual and emotional scars inside themselves for years, and often decades, as we now learn that one case after another has been dismissed as "past the statute of limitations," or "irrelevant because the priest involved is dead," or "is old and weak and retired now," or "he's been rehabilitated," or "he has repented."
Many people have questioned a report that the highest authorities of the Catholic Church (i.e. members of the College of Cardinals, Vatican officials and the pope himself) issued a document ordering priests around the world to observe a strict code of silence in regard to allegations of sexual misconduct by Catholic priests.
The answer to this question is no farther than your computer. Google: Vatican document, 16 March 1962, Cardinal Ottaviani, Pope John XXIII. Excerpts of the official document, reproduced courtesy of BBC News, include the instructions: "Those same matters be pursued in a most secretive way," and "they are to be restrained by a perpetual silence."
The document prescribes that priests accused of sexual misconduct cannot be utilized to administer the sacrament of penance (confession) once they have been transferred to another district.
I found no mention of accountability to secular authorities. In fact, the document admonishes that the strictest secrecy must be maintained to protect the reputation of the Church.
Even sadder and more damning are instructions that the "penitent" himself (the victim of molestation) must personally report the abuse to another priest in confession within 30 days of the solicitation, and may be subject to excommunication from the Church if he does not do so.
It is hard to imagine a 12- or 14-year-old boy coming forward with such allegations in a Catholic culture, where denial of such wrongdoing was standard procedure and punishment for "lying" was often meted out without mercy. It is only in recent years, when victims from all over the world have come forward en masse with stories too similar to be dismissed, that the horrific abuses of so many, many years have been uncovered.
This kind of spiritual intimidation was especially severe in Ireland, where children and adolescents with behavioral problems were routinely sent to reform schools run by Catholic nuns and priests. An extensive investigation recently completed by the Irish government found that predatory sexual behavior, verbal and emotional abuse and severe beatings were common in these schools.
For many years, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, once known as the Inquisition. Interestingly, all complaints of suspected or reported sexual misconduct by priests were directed to this investigative and disciplinary arm of the Vatican.
In spite of the fact that the pope personally spoke to victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests on the island of Malta recently, and even shed tears with them, many readers will recall a similar sexual misconduct scandal in the early months of 2002 involving, among others, Cardinal Bernard Law and Father John Geoghan of Boston. And the first large-scale scandal in the United States, involving a Louisiana priest, the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, broke way back in 1985.
In the years since these tragic stories have come to light, in spite of damning evidence, huge monetary settlements and the most withering publicity imaginable, the strategy of the Catholic hierarchy has been heartbreakingly consistent: send the offending priests for therapy and transfer them to other parishes, pay the families of the children involved a large sum of money in return for a documented promise of silence, report the incident to Rome and go on as if nothing had happened.
While it is true that the number of sexual predators in the Catholic Church is statistically no greater than in other churches (about 5 percent), the problem has been much more grievous in Catholicism because other denominations have a board of elders or directors who are family men themselves and therefore far more likely to dismiss offending ministers early on.
In the Catholic Church, the unmarried male hierarchy has positioned itself as its own judge and jury of "internal affairs" so to speak, which includes sexual misconduct. Instead of dismissing sexual offenders and reporting them to the authorities, they have shielded all but the most heinous offenders, thereby making it possible for serious offenders to be transferred to different parishes for years and accumulate far many more victims in the process.
For those of us who are or have been Catholic, these revelations have scourged our hearts as no other accusations can. We long for the armor of grace and holiness that was promised to us as children in a world where we knew God's address was somewhere in the vicinity of the Vatican.
As adults, it is now our duty to be an active part of making that longing a reality by holding accountable those whose abuse of sacred privilege has damaged the lives of so many innocents.