17 Feb 2009

Missing the lesson of priest trials

Burlington Free Press - February 17, 2009

by Hal Cochran | Opinion

Bernard Roque's "Catholic Church 101 lesson" -- his words -- (Jan. 18) requires correction. Roque argues that the statewide Roman Catholic diocese should not be punished for the sins of "one priest." This would be Edward Paquette, whose serial sexual molestation of altar boys has led to jury verdicts against the diocese totaling $12.3 million to date.

Sadly, it wasn't just one priest. As this newspaper reported, a clerical psychotherapist testified "that celibacy was not strictly enforced among priests and his research of diocesan records found that 109 Vermont priests had engaged in child abuse over the past 50 years." But the courts have punished not only the pedophile priests, but the diocese itself. Why? The answer is in the church's own personnel files put in evidence in recent trials involving two priests. Here are the facts.

As the Rutland Herald reported, "church records showed the diocese had transferred Paquette to the plaintiff's Burlington parish without telling anyone it knew the priest had molested boys first in Massachusetts, then in Indiana and the Vermont cities of Rutland and Montpelier."

When Alfred Willis was caught molesting boys during postings in Burlington and Montpelier, the bishop transferred him to a Milton church without telling anyone, even the pastor, that he was sending them a pedophile. Secrecy was the rule. As Wendell Searles, the diocese's former "point person" in sexual abuse inquiries, admitted, "Yes, we wanted to protect the priests' privacy."

The church administrators did not report accusations of child abuse to civil authorities -- police, prosecutors, or child welfare agencies -- and pressured parents not to go to such authorities. They mollified irate parents by sending offending priests to other parishes, but failed to tell the new parishes what they were getting. "The most disquieting element of all," concluded the Rutland Herald, "was the lack of concern evidenced by the church hierarchy with the welfare of the children who were abused."

The Vermont diocese is being called to account not for the behavior of its priests but that of its leaders who tolerated, covered up and facilitated the continuing sexual abuse of their parishioners' children. These leaders knowingly exposed vulnerable, trusting children to an unreasonable risk of severe harm which inevitably materialized again and again. Juries are entirely justified in punishing the diocese for its reckless negligence in hiring and sheltering known pedophiles. No church is above the law.

Mr. Roque worries that the lawsuits -- 25 pending cases involving eight priests -- will bankrupt the diocese: "When a teacher. . . is convicted of sexual crimes, do we sue the whole school district?" Yes, we could. Legislatures waive sovereign immunity, which the church cannot claim in any event, and require governmental subdivisions including school districts to insure themselves against liability. "What will happen to ... Catholic Charities?" Does Mr. Roque not know that the diocese has put Catholic Charities and every parish in Vermont into charitable trusts to shield their assets?

Mr. Roque devotes most of his "little Catholic Church 101 lesson" to the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. Such emphasis is unwittingly appropriate. The sacraments are the key to the scandal. Any historian of religion knows that the sacraments were not, as Mr. Roque claims, "instituted by Jesus himself." They were imposed by the church over many centuries to justify the distinction between priest and layperson, to entrench the priestly class as divinely ordained, indispensable intermediaries between the laity and God.

Today's church would look depressingly familiar to Jesus, a radical egalitarian who rebelled against the systemic corruption of the priesthood of his time, who admonished his followers to "call no one on earth your father, for you have one Father -- the one in heaven."

The New Testament church had no priests. Two thousand years later, the priestly class is a bureaucracy like any other, concerned first and foremost to protect its power, prestige, and perquisites. As G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic, said, Christianity has not failed; it has just never been tried.

Hal Cochran lives in Burlington.

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