The Boston Globe | Abuse in the Catholic Church


Church and state's shared responsibility

By Thomas F. Reilly, 3/16/2002

President John Kennedy reminded us that in Chinese, the word "crisis" is described by two characters. One is the symbol for danger, the other for opportunity. Recent disclosures that hundreds of children may have been victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests have created a crisis of concern among Catholic families about the safety of their children.

The obvious danger is that children have been at risk in settings where there should be every expectation of safety. Other dangers facing the church and its members include the loss of credibility after years of secrecy about past abuses, damage to the reputations of many wonderful priests, and an overshadowing of the church's many good and charitable works.

But there is also the opportunity that the archdiocese can emerge from this crisis with a comprehensive plan to make sure that no child is ever harmed in this way again.

The first step in dealing with this crisis was to acknowledge the severity of the problem and to disclose to law enforcement all information regarding past incidents of abuse.

The archdiocese has agreed to do that. The next step was to ensure future reporting of any incidents of abuse, which the archdiocese also has agreed to do and the Legislature is addressing with bills to mandate reporting of sexual abuse by priests and other church personnel.

But the final step is perhaps the most important.

Everyone involved must now work together to develop a system within the church to make sure that children are safe. That is the mission of the Special Commission appointed by Cardinal Law. And it is the goal of the attorney general's office to do whatever we can to help the commission and the archdiocese succeed.

My office will make available the resources and expertise we have to help the commission and the archdiocese develop policies and procedures to prevent sexual abuse of children by priests and other church personnel. These new policies must address, among other things, how the archdiocese screens out pedophiles from becoming priests and how priests and other church personnel are educated and trained to recognize and prevent sexual abuse.

As part of a zero tolerance policy for the abuse of children, this plan must also feature a full set of guidelines for detecting, investigating, and responding to complaints of sexual abuse.

As a public official sworn to uphold the Constitution, I have a deep and abiding respect for the separation of church and state. This sensitivity to the boundaries between the secular and ecclesiastical worlds will guide every aspect of our involvement in this effort. Of course, government has no business in selecting who becomes a priest. And once there is an effective plan in place to protect children, there should be no need for any state oversight of the ongoing operations of the church.

What I do believe is that both the church and the state have an obligation to protect children. We share the mutual interest of working to ensure that no child is ever at risk of being abused. There is nothing in the Constitution that conflicts with that common goal.

As a prosecutor with almost 20 years of experience fighting against the abuse of children, I have seen first-hand the trauma inflicted on children who have been sexually abused. In Middlesex County, our Child Abuse Unit aggressively investigated allegations of abuse against children, but with special deference for the emotional distress the children were experiencing. In the attorney general's office, our state police patrol Internet chat rooms catching pedophiles trying to lure our children and we have sponsored programs to train local police how to recognize the signs of abuse and respond appropriately.

Then and now, the safety and best interests of the child always have come first.

As prosecutors sift through information on past allegations of abuse, the role for civil authorities to ensure the safety of children is clear. Our task is made more challenging by the fact that the church -- as it should -- enjoys special protections under the Constitution. New policies and procedures for the archdiocese must focus on the basic premise that the safety and best interests of the child come first. That standard would be the same for any institution, whether nonprofit or for-profit, religious or secular.

It is a basic civil right for a child to be free from predators. We will all be judged -- as a church, as a commonwealth, and as a society -- on whether we stay true to that principle and seize the opportunity hidden within this crisis.

Thomas F. Reilly is the attorney general of Massachusetts.

This story ran on page A19 of the Boston Globe on 3/16/2002.
Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.

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