Sex-abuse crisis is a watershed in the Roman Catholic Church's history in America

Msgr. William J. Lynn is the first high-ranking church official convicted for failing to protect children from the possibility of abuse.
Msgr. William J. Lynn is the first high-ranking church official convicted for failing to protect children from the possibility of abuse. (MATT ROURKE / Associated Press)
Posted: June 25, 2012

The last decade has been a season of agony for the Catholic Church in the United States, a pilgrimage through purgatory made all the more painful by being self-inflicted.

Thousands of children have accused Catholic priests, seminarians, nuns, and brothers of molesting them. Victims have told stories of suffering intensified by official church neglect. The church has paid out billions of dollars in settlements. Most controversial of all, Catholic bishops have been accused of trying to hush it all up, shuffling offenders from one unsuspecting parish to another.

Now, Msgr. William J. Lynn, former secretary for clergy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, has become the first high-ranking church official convicted for failing to protect children from the possibility of abuse.

It's a pivotal moment in the worst crisis the Catholic church in the United States has ever faced.

"Everybody working for a bishop is put on notice that they can go to jail if they don't do the right thing, even if they're doing what the bishop was telling them," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center.

"This is sending a very strong message to every priest personnel director, bishop's secretary, and chancellor in the country that it won't be a legitimate excuse to say, 'The bishop told me to do it,' " said Reese, formerly editor of the Jesuit magazine America and author of books on the Vatican and the American hierarchy.

"It's hugely significant and long overdue," said Philip F. Lawler, editor of the online Catholic World News. "If bishops and their assistants in the chanceries had been accountable, they wouldn't have to be held accountable by the courts."

"It's a major, major move forward for those of us trying to help victims," said the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a canon lawyer formerly on the staff of the Vatican's diplomatic mission in Washington.

An even higher-ranking church official than Lynn - Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., - has been charged criminally with failure to report abuse. Finn was indicted on the misdemeanor charge in October. His trial is scheduled for September.

Lynn's conviction comes three decades after the first news of priest predators came out of Louisiana in the mid-1980s and a decade after the crisis took on monumental proportions with revelations in the Boston Globe that hundreds of people claimed to be victims of sexual abuse by priests of the Archdiocese of Boston and that church officials had knowingly transferred the predators to new assignments where they abused other children.

Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop, resigned under pressure in December 2002, the only bishop to lose his job for his handling of sex-abuse allegations.

The crisis engulfed Philadelphia with a grand jury report, unsealed in 2005, that concluded "dozens of priests sexually abused hundreds of children" and accused the archdiocese of an "immoral" cover-up.

"If you isolate what has transpired in Philadelphia, in a way it's almost like a mirror on the larger crisis," said Jason Berry, an investigative journalist who covered the early phases of the scandal in Louisiana and described it in the book Lead Us Not Into Temptation.

The crisis has touched almost every Catholic diocese in the country and awakened an awareness among Catholics abroad that has led to allegations of sex abuse in Australia, New Zealand, and Western Europe, especially Ireland.

U.S. bishops received complaints of sexual abuse by more than 6,000 priests, or 5.6 percent of the priests in the United States, between 1950 and 2011 - a figure culled from public reports of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops by BishopAccountability, an online archive established by lay Catholics.

The number of cases has declined sharply in recent decades, according to a report prepared for the U.S. bishops released last year by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. "The count of incidents per year increased steadily from the mid-1960s through the late 1970s, then declined in the 1980s and continues to remain low," the researchers found.

BishopAccountability counters that it's too soon to say the numbers have dropped because today's victims may take decades to come forward.

Of 3,700 clerics publicly accused of sex abuse, 525 have been arrested, and almost all were criminally charged, according to BishopAccountability. The majority were convicted and have served time in prison.

More than 3,000 civil lawsuits have been filed against the church in the United States, which has paid out more than $3 billion in settlements, BishopAccountability reports.

The abuse scandal is likely to cost the Archdiocese of Philadelphia more than $11 million, according to a recent estimate by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput.

The financial strain has pushed some dioceses to the breaking point - the Diocese of Wilmington filed for bankruptcy in 2009.

Some dioceses closed parishes and sold the property in order to raise money, Berry alleged in his latest book , Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church, published last year.

On Thursday, Chaput said the diocese would shut its youth office, fold its monthly newspaper, and lay off 45 employees to close a $17 million deficit.

How did it all happen? The 2011 John Jay report found no single cause for the abuse but said that it paralleled a rise in sex abuse of minors in society at large.

Others have seen the coverup as the fruit of institutional arrogance, a princely paradigm of governing by bishops and a culture of clericalism that divides the church into a dominant clergy and a subservient laity.

"Nobody can stand up and say to a bishop, 'You're wrong,' say to the pope, 'You're wrong,' " Reese said.

That authoritarian attitude is reinforced by the bishops' own view of their place in the church, according to Doyle, the canon lawyer, who describes the bishops as "obsessed with themselves based on their theology of themselves" as successors to Jesus' apostles.

The crisis has cast a pall over Catholic life.

" Embarrassment is about the mildest word I can think of, for me and just about every Catholic in the United States," said writer and journalist Russell B. Shaw, who from 1969 to 1987 was spokesman for the U.S. bishops. "It's been an agonizing experience as the whole abuse scandal has been unraveling."

The revelations have compelled Catholics "to clarify the nature of our religious commitment," Shaw said. "Faith is faith in Christ, not faith in the hierarchy or the clergy. . . . We respect [the bishops and clergy] when they deserve respect. That's a healthy development. . . . I wish [the abuse] didn't happen, but it did happen. The revelations were necessary."

The church is more careful now about how it reacts to sex-abuse allegations and has implemented training programs designed to prevent child abuse.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002.

The charter requires Catholic dioceses in the United States to report allegations of sexual abuse of minors to public authorities and comply with all applicable laws on reporting.

"From what I've been able to see, the majority of bishops have really made a commitment in working to fulfill the charter's promise to heal," said Bernard V. Nojadera, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Child Care and Youth Protection. "The work will continue. There is no end date or expiration date."

Jason Berry said he thought the bishops had certainly gotten the message that they can't keep shuffling abusers from one job to another.

"I think the days of a bishop knowingly recycling a pedophile are gone," he said.

Independent watchdog and advocacy groups have sprung up to keep an eye on a hierarchy not accustomed to such close attention, and law enforcement officials have begun to show a greater willingness to prosecute wayward clerics.

Until the prosecution of Lynn, "no other prosecutors were either organized enough or courageous enough to go after the enablers," said Anne Barrett Doyle, co-director of BishopAccountability.

The sexual-abuse crisis in the church may even have affected the way secular institutions such as Pennsylvania State University respond to accusations of sexual abuse by their employees.

"We think that the way [football coach Joe] Paterno and the university president [Graham Spanier] were held accountable would not have happened without what happened in Philadelphia," Doyle said. Paterno and Spanier were fired after sex-abuse charges were brought against Paterno's former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who was convicted Friday night on 45 of 48 counts by a Centre County jury.

But even as the church has striven to improve its response to sexual abuse by clergy, some observers see a continuing problem in the church's structure, with the bishop as absolute authority in any diocese, answerable only to the pope.

"I think we have a system of ministry that needs renewal or restructuring," including a reevaluation of mandatory celibacy for diocesan priests, said the Rev. Donald Cozzens, writer in residence at John Carroll University in Cleveland and a former secretary for clergy and seminary rector in the Diocese of Cleveland.

"Policies have been put into place that more directly and honestly respond to allegations of clergy abuse," he said. "On the negative side, what we're doing is addressing symptoms, which are very serious, but we're not addressing the system, the structures of the church, which I think need to be looked at very carefully."


Contact Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or mschaffer@phillynews.com.

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