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Absence of Moral Authority

By Dennis Byrne

For many Roman Catholics, the latest round of disclosures about pedophile priests in the Chicago archdiocese is the end of their patience with an institution that is incapable of or unwilling to change.

For other Catholics, it is further confirmation of a sad reality that has frustrated their attempts to wake up a hierarchy that is too deaf, smug or self-serving.

For non-Catholics, the failure to move against men who still victimize children, years after allegations against the clergy became widely known, is as much of a mystery as an outrage.

For Catholics who have tried to deny these sins of their fathers, it's time for them to examine their own consciences.

Here we are, years after church leaders promised reforms, and a new report surfaces accusing the archdiocese of, as the Chicago Tribune put it, "botching" the job of protecting children from clerical pedophiles. The independent and expert report, commissioned by the church (at least give it credit for that, as well as hanging its dirty linen out in public), enumerated shocking failure after failure:

Not watching suspected priests closely enough, not requiring them to report their activities daily, not imposing consequences on priests who fail to report, not adequately training monitors, not being alert to misconduct of seminarians before ordination, insufficiently following up on allegations of misconduct, and so on. Just one incredible example: One accused priest last year took three minors on a Labor Day weekend trip in the absence of another priest assigned to monitor him.

And this: failure to properly inform civil authorities, as the law requires, when the evidence is sufficient to believe a crime may have been committed. Normally, the practices of a religion are beyond fair game for secular columnists. But pedophilia is a criminal offense, and all of us are entitled to wonder why more of these perverts aren't behind bars.

For Catholics, these sins are a direct assault on the community of the faithful called the "mystical body of Christ." This violates Christ's injunction: Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.

Cardinal Francis George is showing proper remorse and seems now to be doing what is necessary. But why should he be believed? How many times does an institution get to say it is sorry before its words have no meaning? The clergy knows what I'm talking about, from administering the sacrament of reconciliation: How many times can a penitent ask for forgiveness for a constantly repeated sin before his sincerity becomes suspect and absolution is withheld?

The recommended reforms are precise, so there can be no more excuses. But they are procedural only; the abuses have been so persistent, it's reasonable to ask if they are the result of something systemic about the church. Here the church must be willing to look at fundamental questions that are empirical, not necessarily theological, in nature: Are clergy more prone to child abuse? Are they more prone to same-sex abuse? Do other denominations have this problem and to what extent? If they don't, is there something specific about the Roman Catholic priesthood that leads to greater incidence of child sexual abuse? Is the something related to the vow of celibacy? Does it have something to do with the priesthood's male-dominated environment? Is it an institutional problem, flowing from the authoritative, hierarchical structure of the church?

The church hierarchy has steadfastly refused to acknowledge that issues of celibacy and female priests have anything to do with these questions. (We're told that "church tradition," not theological certainty, already has provided answers.)

Maybe so, but the lay members of the mystical body of Christ--in the face of such resistance--have a moral obligation of their own to pursue these questions to their logical conclusions.

For the many of us who were born, raised and educated Roman Catholic, the failures of the clergy are beyond the shame they bring down on the church; beyond even the horrible damage they have inflicted on children.

For many of us, it is reminiscent of a church that may have ignored the evils of the Holocaust. This has gone far beyond whether the church effectively adopts some procedural changes recommended by a consultant. It is whether the church still has the moral authority to speak for Christ.

Dennis Byrne is a Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist and freelance writer. Email:

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