By TOM SMITH
When a child or adult is a victim of a priest sexual offender, what recourse does the victim (or the parents of a child) have to seek justice for the alleged crime?
They can report the action to a local law enforcement agency immediately, as they would in other presumed criminal behavior.
But what if the offending act took place years ago and the statute of limitations has expired? Or, what do they do if they want to take the complaint to church authorities in any case?
Many times in recent history, that church appeal didn’t go very far. That’s because the Catholic church does not have a transparent due process procedure, and the Catholic culture does not provide a clear path to resolution of these cases for the laity. This virtual lack of due process is another facet of Catholic life that protects clerical sex abusers and the bishops who cover up their crimes. Diocesan review boards, established about 15 years ago, were an improvement but they needed regular updating with an aggressive “best practices” formula and even greater independence from episcopal interference.
As the Pennsylvania report graphically portrayed, credible allegations of sexual abuse were routinely ignored, minimized, or secretly silenced through monetary payments, threats of public exposure, or shaming parents and critics for damaging the image of the church. For the most part, those people who withstood this barrage of cover-up tactics got nowhere moving up the hierarchical ladder with their complaints. Even the Vatican stonewalled a thorough, in-house investigation of these allegations. When some of the abuse and cover-up trickled out into the public, the response was to express some sorrow and the need for an apology and to seek forgiveness. But little or nothing addressed the systemic, inbred, structural deficiencies that contributed to the prevailing culture that fostered these atrocities. The lack of effective due process procedures within the Catholic church was one of those structural deficiencies.
For most of my life, I worked in the Church in various parish and diocesan positions, but for 10 years I was an employee of American Airlines. The policy and procedures manual at AA was a full three-inch binder of small print. It covered almost every conceivable personnel and administrative situation with clear, and just, directions. Similar manuals, if they existed, in the three dioceses I worked in are not even close to the thoroughness and fairness of the AA manual. The church preached justice to employees, and even promoted unions, but in practice, church employees worked at the whim of the pastor or bishop. There was no due process. It’s no wonder that priest pedophiles and cover-up bishops felt immune from consequences.
Another deficiency of this due process fiasco concerned false allegations of clerical sexual misconduct. Contrary to normal, accepted principles, an accused priest is presumed guilty until proven innocent. There must be a better procedure than that. Here’s a suggestion: perhaps a private notification of an accusation with a covert, temporary monitoring until credible guilt is established. If that guilt is not determined, there would be no public announcement of the allegation. Some norm must be created that protects priests and bishops from false allegations. Due process is due to all parties involved.
Within the murky waters of a vague, clerically dominated, and porous due process procedure, a de facto pedophile priest and cover-up bishop can still find refuge and protection from accountability and discovery. The spotlight now shining on this corner of the Catholic culture is revealing centuries of dark secrets, extensive sexual abuse, and hierarchical smokescreens. The time is right to face these issues squarely and honestly. It is not the time to minimize the public damage, wait it out, make some surface adjustments, pledge to do better, and still maintain the structural, institutional and cultural factors that contributed to the damaging presence of clerical sex abusers and cover-up bishops.
The greatest threat to any religion is not people of a different faith, or of no professed faith. The greatest threat are the people within that religion who use it for their own personal pleasure or needs. This time of exposure is a time for genuine structural reform. Due process restructuring is a crucial piece to that reform.