Friday, September 26, 2003

Mea culpa

Time to be pastoral

David Wells

The letter to the Catholics of the Cincinnati Archdiocese reads like a church bulletin:

"The purpose of this letter is to bring our local church of Cincinnati up to date on the matter of child abuse by priests of the archdiocese. . ."

The Most Rev. Daniel E. Pilarczyk might have been updating the flock on the number of raffle tickets sold off at the last church fair.

"You may remember that in March of 2002, when the question of sexual abuse by clerics began to be an urgent issue, I said in a public forum that, in accord with our stated and published policies . . ."


Sexual abuse in the church didn't just become an urgent issue in March 2002. That's just when it became a glaring, public issue. The ensuing scandal was caused by the church not showing any urgency the first time it learned a priest had molested a child.

Last year the archbishop announced that he had returned five abusive Cincinnati area priests to the ministry because that was the church's rule at the time.

"This was in accord with the best psychological thinking of the time. . ."

Now the thinking has changed. The Pope has approved a new policy by the National Council of Catholic Bishops that says abusive priests must be removed from the ministry. The purpose of Pilarczyk's letter, released Monday (see full text), is to explain that he has complied with the new rules and that the five wolves he had sent back into the flock now have been removed.

The Catholic Church was a slow learner on this issue. Twenty-five years ago - when the child welfare profession was beginning to realize that child sexual abuse was a vastly under-reported crime and that its young, terrified and conflicted victims likely would suffer years of emotional damage from the abuse - the Catholic bishops were shuffling the abusers they knew about from parish to parish. When social workers, psychologists and physicians were steering victims into therapy, priests were still telling people to keep quiet.

For almost 20 years the state of Ohio has said that teachers, medical professionals and childcare workers are mandated to report suspected cases of abuse to the child welfare authorities and the police. In an interview earlier this week, the archbishop was quick to correct me when I said I thought members of the clergy had also been mandated reporters during that period. The clergy, even if not bound by the seal of confession, didn't have to report any suspicions.

Those were the rules, and Archbishop Pilarczyk, while clearly an honest and decent man, is also very much a stickler on the rules. He was following the rules 25 years ago when he didn't root out the abusive priests he heard about and make sure they stopped. It is that legalistic approach that fuels the continuing criticism against him, even as he tries to bring closure to a terrible chapter in the Archdiocese's history.

People say he isn't "pastoral." I asked him what that meant.

"I'm not the kind of person who exudes warmth and goodwill," he said, in a remarkable admission for a priest. "At 69 years old, I'm not about to change."

That's too bad. Because just changing the rules doesn't change enough.

David Wells is editor of the Enquirer editorial page. Contact him at (513) 768-8310; fax: (513) 768-8610; e-mail: dwells@enquirer.com. Cincinnati.Com keyword: Wells.

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