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Friday, November 21, 2003

Archdiocese's plea deal


A cleansing act

Cincinnati Archdiocese's no contest plea Thursday in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court not only produced an unprecedented criminal conviction against a diocese in sexual abuse cases, but also committed it to a $3 million victims compensation fund and felony reporting requirements stricter than current Ohio law. Though it will not satisfy some victims of pedophile priests, the church's plea to five counts of "knowingly" failing to report a felony puts it on record that the victims were dealt a double injustice: first, by the sexual abuse, and later by church officials failing to report the crimes.

The admission of criminal conduct is clear, even though no church officials were obliged to personally admit guilt. The settlement resolves all pending criminal cases against the archdiocese. The criminal plea is believed to be the first such one in the country, and offers a creative way forward for other dioceses to begin to exorcize the disgrace of pedophile priests from their ranks.

It ends a nearly two-year struggle between Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk and Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen over documents that church attorneys argued were protected by attorney-client privilege. As a new grand jury was about to be impaneled to consider if church supervisors covered up sexual abuse crimes against minors, archdiocese officials this week agreed to hand over all requested documents and plead no contest in court.

Allen deserves credit for pushing the investigations. The court penalties totaled $10,000, the maximum allowable by law. Allen insists this was no plea bargain, and the penalties were the most that could have been obtained had it gone to the grand jury. One great frustration for prosecutors and victims has been that many cases date back decades and can't be prosecuted because of the statute of limitations. The victims' fund will be open all victims of sexual abuse by archdiocesan clergy, and the Prosecutor's Office will select one of the three members of the panel that will distribute the $3 million.

The chief objective of any plea deal had to be insuring that crimes of sexual abuse by clergy never are ignored again. Allen insisted that trained law enforcement officers, not the church, are the proper authorities to investigate allegations. "Whereas Ohio law requires law enforcement to be notified any time one has knowledge of a felony being committed," he said, "the Archdiocese has agreed to notify this office any time they receive any allegation of sexual abuse."

Church officials also are to be commended for instituting policies to reduce the chance of abuse occurring. Since 1993, the archdiocese under its Child Protection Decree requires more background checks and fingerprinting than any other organization in Ohio for anyone working with young people.

Yet this archdiocese and others continue to be torn between seeking victims' forgiveness and yet trying to avoid full public confessions for fear of consequences in civil court. Such ambivalence erodes the church's moral authority.

The plea to criminal charges reasserts the truth that sexual abuse of minors is a sin and a crime, and so is failure to report such felonies. Thursday evening, in the name of the archdiocese, Archbishop Pilarczyk apologized to the victims and to the civic community. He also denied knowing of the abuse at the time.

But there should be no doubt about duty to report: Church supervisors were obligated to report such felonies to civil authorities then, and they are obligated now. Sexual abuse of minors is unquestionably answerable to both God's law and man's. Common Pleas Judge Richard Niehaus, a Catholic, warned that any religious organization will lose its way if it puts its own self-preservation ahead of ministering to such victims.

Church secrecy and cover-up are what allowed a tiny minority of pedophile priests to victimize so many. Settlements such as those in Boston's archdiocese and now Cincinnati's help start the process of opening up the church so such crimes are less likely to stay hidden in the future. The settlements are clarifying and cleansing acts. They need to be risked, no matter the cost.



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