2 Feb 2011

Milwaukee archbishop blames bankruptcy on individual pedophile priests, ignores systemic coverup by church leaders

Journal Sentinel - Milwaukee, Wisconsin January 8, 2011

Grim truth: Abuse was the cause

by Patrick McIlheran | Journal Sentinel editorial columnist


The Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese is in bankruptcy court because, said Archbishop Jerome Listecki in a message to be played at churches Sunday, "priest-perpetrators sexually abused minors."

Listecki spent the past week saying that repeatedly, in speeches, to reporters, all over the archdiocese's website. It is an admission of a grim truth many bishops for years were loath to speak, though they seem over that now, with repeated apologies from the pope, from other bishops and from Listecki for what abusing priests did. "I am ashamed because of these actions," Listecki said in that message.

But it is more than admission. Listecki points out a key truth, perhaps the key truth of the sex-abuse scandal: Terrible things happened because people - priests, no less - did wrong, "going against everything the church and the priesthood represents."

Saying sexually abusive priests are the bankruptcy's cause is not uncontroversial. One might suggest the archdiocese wouldn't be on its knees financially were it not under ongoing legal attack that's already made it lay off about 40% of its staff. But there'd be no cases if there hadn't been abuse.

Another view holds that the real cause wasn't the abuse but the coverup when former archbishops didn't properly deal with abusers. Politely: No. As with lawsuits, there'd be no coverup without the abuse first, and it's the nature of what was covered up that made the scandal so terrible. No one is horrified, after all, that bishops in decades past also quietly moved around alcoholic priests.

The sex abuse was unequivocally wrong. What bishops did, points out Father Michael Orsi, a research fellow in religion and law at Ave Maria School of Law, had varying motives. Some truly covered for evil, others were appallingly callous - one thinks of Milwaukee's Rembert Weakland, threatening lawsuits against victims - and others bungled by believing that a quiet dose of psychiatry would fix abusers.

"They weren't all acting in bad faith," said Orsi of bishops. "It wasn't all a coverup."

This is not to say they were blameless. When stories of abuse erupted in the 1980s, bishops - not all, but many - reacted with venality and cowardice. This is no small thing. These failings squandered a great treasure, the moral authority by which the church performs its mission. In the end, thinking first of protecting assets and reputation cost the church both, with plaintiffs' lawyers in some of the previous seven diocesan bankruptcies in America looking to seize schools and parishes.

That probably won't happen here, since parishes and schools are separately incorporated in Wisconsin. This should be little relief to Catholics. The buildings, by church teaching, aren't ours but are tools given by God to do his work, work that's been impaired by the crisis. "For a long period," said Listecki to reporters, "the archdiocese has been in a status quo," unable to expand ministries as it should. Even if Chapter 11 puts a lid on liability, it will cost the church resources, said Orsi. That's what happened in other bankrupt dioceses: "The church can't keep doing what it was doing in charitable areas."

By saying the root of the crisis was men doing wrong, Listecki is arguing against the claim, sometimes said opportunistically by advocates of this or that cause, sometimes flung by those who dislike church teaching, that the problem is the church itself.

But if that were so, then the crisis would be over. The American church already fixed its procedures. It reports accusations swiftly and now has safeguards that outside experts laud. The archdiocese posts perpetrators' names and its audited finances on its website. By independent reports, the rate of abuse has plummeted.

The scandal, however, isn't over. "Stuff like this doesn't go away," said Orsi, no matter how many times the pope apologizes. In the end, the crisis stems from people who did wrong, clergy who betrayed what they were supposed to teach. The cure, then, is far more radical than organizational change. It is for individual people to stop doing wrong and to do what they must to fix it. It is for individual Catholics to truly listen to what their church says about morality, repentance and, now that the plaintiffs' lawyers are at bay, generosity toward victims of the abuse.

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