Public Remains Skeptical Of Church’s Vow To Reform
Catholic bishops across Pennsylvania vowed to increase transparency and accountability in the wake of the scathing grand jury report on child sexual abuse, but the public remains skeptical.
Each of the six dioceses targeted in the report voluntarily identified predator priests in addition to those named in the report. Church officials say it reflects their sincere effort to protect the public and atone for the cover-ups that allowed the abuse to continue for decades.
Critics question why it took until now for the dioceses to release the names. They contend the church is more interested in damage control than reforming its ways.
“This is something we’ve been asking for for years,” said Becky Ianni, president of the Virginia chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. “I don’t take it as them being proactive as much as they are trying to look better after this horrible report.”
The sentiment exemplifies the immense challenge the church faces in restoring the faith and trust of the more than 3 million parishioners in Pennsylvania, religious experts say.
“The church is the one that brings us healing and peace,” said Sandra Yocum, Ph.D., a professor of faith and culture at the University of Dayton, Ohio. “How is the church going to be able to fulfill that mission given all these allegations and the leadership’s seeming inability, at least in the past, to take this seriously.”
The church has taken steps over the years to ensure the safety of children. In 2002, it implemented reforms that dictate how dioceses must handle cases, including mandates that the accused priest be removed from duties and the cases be referred to law enforcement.
“I think they had hoped that once they started fixing the problem and got good procedures in place to ensure there are no abusive priests that they could say we solved the problem, let’s move on,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who has studied the Catholic Church for decades. “That does not seem to satisfy people.”
Yocum and Reese said the real test will come in the ensuing months and years as the public watches how the church handles the crisis, particularly any new allegations that surface against a clergy member.
“When there is an incident in a local community, someone should come and speak to the community directly,” Yocum said. “Here is what we know, here is what we’ve done and here is what happens next.”
The Allentown diocese already has taken steps to address new abuse allegations proactively, said spokesman Matt Kerr. Its list of predator priests, published on the diocese website, includes information on Francis Nave, a priest from Bath who recently was accused in a lawsuit of masturbating while chatting online with a youth. The lawsuit, filed in June, says the incident occurred in 2012. The diocese notes Nave was removed from ministry pending an investigation and the case was referred to law enforcement.
“We felt it was important to put him on there,” Kerr said. “He was already publicly named, so we thought it was the proper thing to do.”
While he strongly advocates for transparency, Reese said he has some concerns about publicly naming clergy members before any investigation is done to determine the credibility of the allegations.
“People have a right to their reputations in any profession,” Reese said.
He likened the situation to a newspaper receiving a letter accusing a reporter of violating journalistic ethics.
“Does the newspaper have to report that the next day in the paper, or would it do an examination to see if the allegation was credible?” he said. “The church faces exactly the same problem.”
However the church opts to handle cases, it’s crucial that they be consistent, Reese and Yocum said.
“There will be a lot of suspicion around priests and church leadership,” Yocum said. “People are going to be watching if there is real change. ... If there is consistency in the response to credible allegations, that will be critical in the next decade to help restore trust in the church.”
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