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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Clergy Sex Abuse Cases in Philadelphia (from my weekly STAR column)

It’s disheartening to see what is happening to the Catholic Church in Philadelphia and throughout the world.

Last week I visited the basement chapel of St. John the Evangelist parish in Center City. Between 4 and 5 pm on any weekday the chapel is usually packed. It’s a time when the Capuchin-Franciscan monks have Benediction (with Latin hymns). People on their way home from work usually stop in for a quick visit, and then head out for home. Last week, however, I found that I was only one of three people in the pews.
So where were the people?

Call it coincidence, but only days before DA Seth Williams and a grand jury charged 2 priests, a former priest and a Catholic school teacher with molesting young boys. It was the first time in the United States that a high ranking Church official had been charged with failing to protect children from abusive priests.
It was not a good week to be Catholic.

The Philadelphia blogosphere exploded with people railing against the abuser priests. Many people also boasted that they were former Catholics and that they left the Church because of the sex abuse scandals. Others encouraged church-going Catholics to stop going to Mass or curtail their weekly financial offerings. The numbers of posters who admitted to being ex-Catholics was astonishing.

On the Sunday following the news of the scandal, a parishioner at Saint John’s told me that Sunday Mass attendance in the upper church was also noticeably scant, despite the fact that Saint John’s is not run by the Archdiocese but by the Franciscans.

Are Philadelphians really deserting their parish churches because of the scandal? Time will tell.

While priests who abuse minors or young people should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, I draw the line at people who use the scandal as a means to enflame anti-Catholic bias or hatred.

While the public outrage expressed over the Philadelphia area abuse cases is justified, lines get crossed when people castigate the Church for its beliefs on a wide range of subjects, say women priests or abortion,. “These people believe they are eating the body and blood of Jesus Christ at Mass for God’s sake!” one message board commentator wrote. This is just one example of crossing the line.

Of course, Catholics who choose to renounce their faith because of the sex abuse issues have every right to do so, but I would then ask them: Where are you going to go? If that answer is “To some Protestant denomination,” I would remind them that, at least according to an AP report in 2008, sexual abuse among Protestant clergy may be higher than among Catholic clergy.

The 2008 report, published by ethicsdaily.com, states that Protestant abuse statistics “are harder to come by because the hundreds of denominations are less centralized than the Catholic Church.”

Similarly, should an ex-Catholic hope to find refuge in [a sex abuse free] Orthodox Church, he or she would be sadly mistaken. The problem of sexual abuse has no denominational boundaries. Several years ago, the Hellenic Communication Service stated that not only has the Orthodox Church been affected by such scandals, but “in America, individuals have already contacted the archdiocese asking for monetary compensation in [the] millions of dollars.”

The clergy sex abuse crises in the Catholic Church doesn’t mean that there’s something inherent in Catholicism that drives one towards it, as if there was something in the wine at Mass that changed good priests into pedophiles or ephebophiles. Unfortunately, anything less than an outright condemnation of Catholicism these days is seen as being lenient or soft on abusers.

I experienced this first hand last week when, while leaving St. John’s, a passerby on the street gave me a disapproving look, as if just entering a Catholic Church in some way made me a sinister co-conspirator.

Give me a break.

The clergy sex abuse scandal refers to sexual abuse alone, not the Church’s doctrinal belief system.

As for the Church, it needs to get serious and practice what it preaches. After all, it was Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua himself who said in 2002 that, “All of the Cardinals are agreed on Zero tolerance, and…that no priest guilty of even one act of sexual abuse of a minor will function in any ministry or any capacity in our dioceses.”

Okay, now go ahead and do it.

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