Friday, November 21, 2003

It took too long

David Wells

There is much good to be said about the unprecedented plea agreement entered in court Thursday by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati.

It provides a fund for the victims of abusive priests that won't be shut off by the statute of limitations. It acknowledges accountability for the victims' pain, and the sight of Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk standing before the judge may actually provide victims with some measure of satisfaction.

But the plea stopped short of admitting guilt, and it certainly did not come soon enough.

Guilt is something the Church knows a lot about. Confession is good for the soul. It is supposed to cleanse the spirit and open the way to forgiveness.

The words exchanged at confession are not to be confused with a plea bargain. Nobody ever said, "Forgive me father. I have no-contested."

But that is what the archdiocese did in court Thursday. After 21 months of fighting with the Hamilton County Prosecutor about what it knew and when it knew it, it copped a plea. Five "no contests" to five charges that it failed to report cases of felony sexual abuse of children to the police. The no contest pleas mean the archdiocese acknowledges its actions but doesn't admit to its sins.

The reasons for the way this plea was handled are legal, not moral. That is a disappointment to those who continued to look to the Church to provide a moral standard.

By pleading no contest, instead of guilty, the verdict cannot be used against the archdiocese in civil suits that have been filed by victims of the abuse. The five charges all relate to events that happened in 1982 or earlier, before Pilarczyk became archbishop, meaning he can argue they didn't occur when he had ultimate responsibility.

Daniel Pilarczyk is a good man. I don't question his personal sense of remorse for all the abuse that has happened. Although his public persona is more businesslike than pastoral, I've talked to him often enough to believe his regret is real and his revulsion for the acts committed by some of his priests is deep.

Legally, he didn't have to be in court Thursday. The charges were against the archdiocese as an organization, not the archbishop personally. But he did walk into court and stand up between his lawyers at the brass rail just like the lowliest crook in the county jail has to do. When Common Pleas Judge Richard Niehaus said guilty and scolded the archdiocese for having "lost its way," Pilarczyk was the one he was glaring at. That is the humbling scene that will be broadcast and re-broadcast for as long as this story lingers. People who think there can be no justice without pain should remember that.

The hardest thing to accept about this plea bargain is that it happened now. If the archdiocese was willing to acknowledge this set of facts on Thursday, why not 21 months ago when the investigation started. Why have the archbishop and the church's lawyers been fighting to keep files away from the prosecutor that they turned over as part of the deal? For that matter, why didn't the archdiocese acknowledge years ago that it knew things that should have been investigated by the police? If they had done that, they might have prevented additional abuse and the prosecutor would not have been barred by the statute of limitations from going after many of the abusers.

The archdiocese said Thursday that it hopes the settlement provides closure and allows the victims and the Church to move on.

But the problem with delaying the truth for so long is that we can never be sure that we are now hearing all of it.

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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Wells: It took too long