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The Historic Responsibility of the Catholic Church

I grew up with an agnostic father and a Catholic mother. In my family we followed many Catholic rites and holidays. That explains why the recent revelations of children’s molestation by hundreds of Roman Catholic priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses dismay and horrify me. My distress is compounded by realizing that this is only the last in several similar revelations that span several countries, all with a similar pattern of abuse and deceit.

According to a landmark grand jury report released on August 14, the real number of abused children could very well be in the thousands, since many records have been lost and many victims refused to come forward. More than 300 clergymen carried out the abuse over several decades, beginning in the 1950s. That brutal history of abuse could have only been conducted with the criminal complicity of church officials in Pennsylvania and at the Vatican, says Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro.

What makes these revelations more startling is that they are based on the dioceses’ own records. As Josh Shapiro stated at a news conference in Harrisburg, “The cover-up was sophisticated. And all the while, shockingly, church leadership kept records of the abuse and cover-up. These documents, from the dioceses’ own ‘Secret Archives,’ formed the backbone of this investigation.”

The grand jury investigated abuse allegations in dioceses that serve more than half of Pennsylvania’s 3.2 million Catholics. Among the victims were boys and girls, who were subjected to groping, masturbation, and anal, oral and vaginal rape, all charges that were repeatedly denied by Church officials.

The two-year-long grand jury investigation found that some 300 priests had abused over 1,000 children over a period of 70 years. Bishops and other church officials not only covered up those crimes but they even moved the accused priest to other churches and, in some cases, even promoted them.

One of the most sinister cases of abuse was one boy who was so brutally raped by a priest that he suffered serious back injuries. To overcome the pain the boy started a treatment with opioid painkillers, got hooked on them and died from this addiction. In another case, a priest raped and assaulted five sisters in the same family.

What makes these events even more serious is that several cases of abuse by the predator priests were reported by bishops to the Vatican, and the Vatican chose to take no action at all. In Chile, however, where also there were nearly 80 priests accused of abuse of children, Pope Francis demanded the resignation of all the bishops that were involved in cases of cover-up.

What is possible to do to stop these abuses from taking place? It seems obvious that the Catholic Church has to have a different approach from what it has had up to now. In an interview with Judy Woodruff, from PBS NewsHour, Father Thomas Reese, of Religious News Service, outlines some necessary measures.

According to Father Reese, anybody from the Catholic Church involved with children has to go through a police background check. Secondly, any instance of abuse has to be reported to the police. And thirdly, all those priests against whom there are credible accusations of abuse have to be removed from the ministry until a full investigation takes place. If the accusations are proven true, they should be removed forever from the ministry.

These important measures should be complemented, however, by more substantial actions. Perhaps, and it is a big perhaps, the Church should revisit its decision to prohibit priests from having a normal sexual and family life, as happens in other religions. It is possible that the policy of abstinence that priests should follow intends to nullify a normal biological drive, with disastrous consequences.

More than anything, however, the Catholic Church should purge its cadres of abusing priests, and have all them go through profound psychological testing. Those widespread instances of abuse taint the image of the Church, and threaten its existence as a source of religious beliefs and comfort for hundreds of millions of people from all over the world.

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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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