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Spotlight Report

  Joan Vennochi  

Shifting the blame


THE SEARCH for scapegoats is turning up the usual suspects: the media, liberals, feminists, and even the '60s.

With the clergy sexual abuse scandal now playing out before Pope John Paul II, some American Catholic leaders are eager to blame anyone but themselves for the problem. How pathetic. It leaves these men of God sounding like schoolboys caught red-handed by their principal. Like children, they follow the first rule of the playground: deny, deny, deny.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington told The Washington Post, ''Elements in our society who are very opposed to the church's stand on life, the church's stand on family, the church's stand on education ... see in this an opportunity to destroy the credibility of the church.''

Cardinal William H. Keeler of Baltimore said, ''It's really the media of the United States that has made this an American problem.''

Others, such as Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the prefect of the Vatican's Congregation of the Clergy, who will chair the meetings in Rome, are trying to rationalize the problem away by arguing that it is statistically minor. Earlier this year, the cardinal told a news conference that only 0.3 percent of priests are pedophiles.

Cardinal Bernard F. Law is not blaming the messenger, as he did 10 years ago when he called down ''the power of God'' on the news media. Perhaps that is because, back then, God didn't respond in the way Law would have liked. But Law's response is strange in another way. Emerging Sunday from a self-imposed, two-week-long exile, punctuated by a secret trip to Rome, Law called the clergy sexual abuse crisis ''a wake-up call for the church.'' He also likened the scandal to the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, calling it ''a crisis which shocks the heart and soul and which must spark immediate and decisive changes in order to prevent possible recurrence in the future.''

Hello? Besides the fact that it took far too long to shock his own heart and soul, Law is overlooking a key piece of information: He, not some outside force of evil, allowed the wrongdoing to occur and reoccur.

Law and other Catholic leaders transferred priests with known sexual abuse histories from parish to parish, allowing the priests to continue their sexual abuse of children. The scandal is really as simple as that. It has nothing to do with a feminist, pro-gay, or otherwise socially permissive agenda. It has nothing to do with liberal or conservative politics. There is no witch hunt. How can there be when the instances of sexual abuse involve complaints, treatments, and relapses documented by church leaders?

Priests preyed sexually on children. The priests, not the children, were protected by church leaders.

Those undisputed facts provide the basis for the public's genuine outrage. And the outrage is fueled, not by liberals, feminists, or a media determined to bring shame down upon the Catholic Church, but by the ongoing refusal of church leaders to take full and personal responsibility for actions that caused children great harm.

In a letter to parishioners, Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York is just now making a conditional apology for mistakes ''that may have been made.''

Law started apologizing in January, when the story first started being told in Boston. He is now telling parishioners he and others ''have been late to recognize the inadequacy of past policies and the dimensions of the crisis and the changes required to restore a sense of trust.''

Statements like that put a neat, clinical distance between Law and the sordid details of what those ''past policies'' allowed to flourish - priests touching and fondling young boys and literally climbing into bed with them.

For sure, those words conjure up shocking images. Now, imagine if they were being applied to an ongoing scandal involving teachers or camp counselors. Would it matter if the teachers or counselors represented only a small percentage of their peer group? Would anyone blame the news coverage on feminists or liberals? OK, somebody would. But most reasonable people would put the blame exactly where it belonged, on the superiors who kept known sexual predators in positions where they could continue to harm children.

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times, quoting an unidentified cardinal, reported that several US cardinals will push the Vatican to ask Law to resign. Hopefully, that means some Catholic leaders do understand that liberals, feminists, and the media are not responsible for what happened in the Archdiocese of Boston. Cardinal Law is.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 4/23/2002.
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