Editorial in the New York Times, April 1, 2011
A meeting of the nation’s Roman Catholic bishops is scheduled for June. It needs to repair the gaping holes uncovered in their “zero tolerance” mandate for priests suspected of sexually abusing children.
A grand jury report in February found that the Philadelphia archdiocese, for all its announced safeguards, allowed 37 suspect priests to remain in parish work. The indictment of a layman and four church figures — including a monsignor accused of covering up abuse — is proof that the bishops’ system of local and national review boards isn’t strong enough.
Board appointees are supposedly equipped to scrutinize each diocese’s adherence to zero tolerance. But the grand jury in Philadelphia found that the hierarchy there continued to protect accused priests despite repeated scandals and vows for reform.
The leader of the Philadelphia review board pointed to one major weakness: currently, any allegations about rogue priests are first vetted by chancery officials working for the archdiocese. They rightly should go directly to the review boards. This should be a universal no-brainer, along with stronger outside auditing of safeguard programs. Both were initially required, but the bishops subsequently eased that to a policy of “self-reporting” with audits every three years.
The haunting question is how many other Philadelphias may be out there.
A church review panel of laypeople formed in 2002 looked beyond zero tolerance for priests and warned that “there must be consequences” for bishops who engineered cover-ups. More than 700 priests had to be dismissed in a three-year period. But there has been nothing close to an accounting of bishops’ culpability in protecting predatory priests and paying hush money to contain complaints. This is a fact for the bishops to ponder at their June meeting alongside the shocking grand jury report.