Friday, May 10, 2002

Sex abuse

This isn't about numbers

        Why does the hierarchy of the Catholic Church keeps dealing in numbers instead of people when referring to the sex abuse scandal?

        In Boston last week, Cardinal Bernard Law said he was forced to back out of a settlement with 86 victims of John Geoghan, the predatory priest who was moved from parish to parish as he molested children over two decades. The church lawyers had agreed to payout up to $29 million to those victims — a number that gave the cardinal pause when he realized there were scores more victims of his policy of blind neglect.

        If the church paid $29 million to 86 victims, how much more would it have to pay to, what was at last count, another 150? He said his advisers told him the Boston Archdiocese could go broke, or at least “put a strain on its resources.”

        A spokesman said the Boston church wants to use the $29 million as a finite fund for all abuse victims. Anyone who wants to challenge the arrangement can sue, but the church will then mount as strong a legal defense as possible. That means alleged victims better be prepared to hear how, as six year olds, they contributed to their rape by a trusted priest.

        In Greater Cincinnati, a local priest, the Rev. Thomas Bokenkotter, wrote in to say the number of cases of reported abuse represents less than half of 1 percent of all the Catholic priests in the country. He urged that we use that number to put the problem in perspective.

        And my favorite number — the one that the Archdiocese of Cincinnati continues to use in its official pronouncements on the subject — is that “fewer than five” confirmed sex abusers are still in the local priesthood. None of these “fewer than five” were turned in to the cops, but all are being watched over by the church, so don't worry.

        Using numbers to talk about this problem is just another way to shield ourselves from the reality of what has been going on. It's like talking about nuclear war in terms of megatonnage or throw weights. After a while you stop thinking of it in terms of annihilated human beings.

        But destroyed lives is what the sex abuse scandal is all about. These victims may function in society. If they get enough counseling, they may be able to have marriages and children and the outward facades of normal lives. But they will never completely get over the hurt that was done to them. The number Cardinal Law ought to be wrestling with is the cost of a damaged soul.

        To Father Bokenkotter, who has a well-deserved reputation for service in this community, I can only say get your head out of the statistics. Maybe only half of 1 percent of the priesthood is abusive. But 100 percent of their victims were damaged in ways that will be hard to ever restore. The next time you want to take comfort in percentages, think about that one.

        As for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, it must discard its “fewer than five” rhetoric, which is outdated in any case. The new math ought to be “fewer than seven,” according to my count. The original statement did not include two recently suspended priests, the Rev. James Kiffmeyer, formerly of Elder High School, and the Rev. Thomas Hopp, from a parish near Dayton. Complaints had been raised against both men years ago, but officials in the Archdiocese never reported them.

        Archdiocese Spokesman Dan Andriacco said the two were not included in the “fewer than five” tally because the allegations had never been “substantiated.” They had never been investigated by anyone outside the church hierarchy either.

        Right now prosecutors in the 19-county Cincinnati Archdiocese are trying to sort out these cases and others. Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen has subpoenaed all records having to do with any sex abuse allegation going back to 1978, the year Ohio law made it mandatory to report such allegations to the police.

        The church didn't report unsubstantiated allegations because it was worried about the reputations of the priests. But that's where the church is getting it wrong again. This scandal is not about numbers and it is not about priests. It is about victims.

        Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: Cincinnati.Com keyword: Wells.


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