In the wake of the sex abuse scandal that has unmoored the Catholic Church around the world, the Vatican has announced a symposium entitled “Toward Healing and Renewal” at Rome’s Jesuit University in February of next year to address the ongoing problem of abuse by priests. According to the New York Times, psychologists, theologians and child abuse specialists are among those invited to attend, to provide their “expertise to bishops.” The Vatican has given the bishops a deadline of May to devise guidelines about handling the abuse and high time and has told them that “they should cooperate with the law enforcement authorities” rather than handling cases of abuse internally, within the Church.
The priest sex abuse scandal has bankrupted dioceses who have been ordered to pay settlements to victims of priest sex abuse in Milwaukee, Delaware, Spokane and throughout the US. Documents continue to emerge revealing how bishops protected abusive priests by, among other “procedures,” moving them to dioceses in different parts of the country. Indeed, a the National Catholic Reporter says, advocates for victims of sexual abuse by priests have recently called for a local grand jury inquiry into Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese’s sex abuse procedures, to investigate not only cases of abuse but of “cover-ups.”
A recent bishops’ report conducted by a team of researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the priest sex abuse scandal invoked the Woodstock defense, pointing the finger at the sexual revolution and societal turmoil of the 1960s and 1970s as the culprit for the horrific crimes committed by clergy against children. Victims advocates have hailed this report as very much an example of way too little, too late. Commenting on the bishops’ report, one historian of American Catholicism, Jim Fisher — yes, my husband, who’s a professor in the Department of Theology at Fordham University in New York city — wrote:
Readers of the John Jay study tempted to lament the loss of this golden age of manly clerics —and the riotous age of unreason that succeeded it–might do well to reflect on a single paragraph found in Joseph E. Califano’s 2004 memoir. Califano, who went on to become, along perhaps with Sargent Shriver, the most prominent Catholic public servant of the past half-century, revealed in his memoir that a Woodstock-trained New York Jesuit sexually molested him at the order’s Staten Island retreat house when Califano was a Jesuit high school student in the late 1940s.
Joe Califano later acknowledged he spent more time dwelling on this episode in composing the memoir than any other from his long and varied career, but finally decided to include the story because, as he insisted at the time, he believed the number of clergy sex abuse survivors was far greater than the grossly understated figure of 11,000 being casually tossed around at the time he was writing. It was quite clear that Califano would never have disclosed his abuse had it not been for the wave of revelations that followed the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposes.
Anybody who thinks there was something anomalous about the 60s and 70s, where sex abuse in the church is concerned, needs to learn about the code of silence and the code of violence that sustained it for over a century, and counting. The second most powerful Catholic in the Philadelphia Archdiocese is not currently under indictment for misdeeds committed back in the glory days of Country Joe and the Fish.
According to the New York Times, one measure the the Vatican is planning to take to prevent further cases of sexual abuse by priests is to create a multilingual internet database and learning center that will “involve cooperation with medical schools and universities and will be accessible, in part, to the public.” The New York Times does not specify what information the database will contain; one hopes that it would at least document any history of sexual abuses by clergy. Further, will the database and learning center also required the “cooperation” of dioceses and parishes, to provide information about clergy members whose past is less than pristine?
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