Shepherds, stop preying on the flock

August 19, 2018

The just-released report from a Pennsylvania grand jury detailing a Roman Catholic Church that resembles a sex ring more than a spiritual haven is difficult reading — but for Catholics in New Mexico, the story is all too familiar.

Priests abusing children. A church hierarchy that protected the institution and its priests, not the people, focused on avoiding “scandal” rather than safeguarding children. Priests transferred to abuse again, over and over. And so on, all establishing a culture of silence lasting decades until an explosion of truth occured.

For New Mexico, that accounting took place in the early 1990s, leading to the resignation of Archbishop Robert Sanchez for his own sexual misconduct with women; the appointment of a new leader, Archbishop Michael Sheehan (25 years ago on Aug. 18, 1993); the beginnings of restitution to victims and their families; the establishment of a somewhat more open church; and perhaps most importantly, creating policies to ensure that children would be safe from then on out.

Yet here we are again, watching a scandal overtake the Catholic Church. To be sure, the grand jury report from six dioceses in Pennsylvania is mostly focused on the past — taking into account events over some 70 years until about 2000, a harsh detailing of a culture of abuse and cover-up that is sickening.

All told, grand jurors estimate that more than 1,000 children were molested by 300 priests. These are the credible allegations that could be uncovered in the two years the grand jurors did their work. Yet, they write in the report, “We believe that the real number — of children whose records were lost, or who were afraid ever to come forward — is in the thousands.”

Despite these crimes occurring across the country, New Mexico has a link to what happened in Pennsylvania beyond a common religion. The case of the Rev. Edward R. Graff, detailed in the report, shows the connection. He spent 35 years in the Diocese of Allentown and then 10 in the dioceses of Santa Fe and Amarillo. According to the report, “During his years of ministry, Graff raped scores of children.”

The priests in question were not called rapists, molesters or child abusers. No, they had problems with boundaries or inappropriate conduct. They were not dismissed from parishes; they took sick leave because of nervous exhaustion or perhaps problems with alcohol; parishioners were not told the truth. Those priests still were supported with living expenses and housing. Victims were ignored. Priests continued to be transferred even as their offenses multiplied. And seldom, if ever, were the authorities notified so that criminals could be prosecuted. When priests did get treatment, it was at church-run centers — we had one in New Mexico, the Servants of the Paraclete in Jemez Springs.

Now, of course, it is almost too late for justice. The statute of limitations for most of the crimes of abuse has run out. The same is true on the civil side, where victims can collect damages only if they sue within a certain time frame.

Again, in New Mexico, because our church scandal emerged almost 30 years ago, many victims did receive financial settlements, and priests and their misdeeds were exposed. Much work has been done to prevent future abuse, too.

The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has put in place a strong policy about how to report any potential crimes against children — the authorities are called right away, or are supposed to be. Any volunteers or staffers of the diocese who work with children receive mandatory abuse awareness training. The idea is that such grave offenses can never happen again.

But, as this report argues strongly about Pennsylvania, more can — and should — be done. Individual leaders still must be held accountable publicly. We are still watching as influential church leaders remain in power despite past actions protecting pedophiles. That is wrong. The Vatican did issue a statement, expressing “shame and sorrow” over the report, but Pope Francis must seize the opportunity to do more to stand with children against predators.

Recommendations from grand jurors, who humbly call themselves “just regular people,” are a good place to begin putting things right. They ask that laws be changed so that sexual predators cannot hide behind statutes of limitation. By allowing victims to come forward, even years after the abuse, these men who preyed on children can be tried and put in jail.

The window of opportunity should be extended on the civil side of the law as well, jurors say. That way, children who are abused can sue even in old age — some of the victims in Pennsylvania are in their 70s. This scandal stains many decades and many lives.

Laws can be improved, too, when it comes to the mandated reporting of potential sex abuse crimes — grand jurors want no “wiggle room.” Finally, they call for limits to confidentiality agreements, which protect institutions rather than victims. By securing silence with payouts, the Catholic Church once again places its own interests over the people.

None of this, jurors conclude, is enough. And it is in this stirring statement that the report is so powerful: “We don’t just want this abuse punished by criminal and civil penalties. We want it not to happen at all. We think it’s reasonable to expect one of the world’s great religions, dedicated to the spiritual well-being of over a billion people, to find ways to organize itself so that the shepherds stop preying upon the flock.”

No, that is not too much to ask.

It is reasonable, just, and most of all, it is right.

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