Catholic Church Will Now Teach Us How to Handle Sex Abuse

Is the pope taking cover behind Penn State scandal?

With all due respect, Pope Benedict XVI either lives in an alternate reality or needs better PR handlers. His comments over the weekend to U.S. bishops about the sex abuse of children showed a continued disconnect with the church’s mishandling of this ongoing scandal. The pope referenced the church’s “conscientious effort” to confront sex abuse by priests.

Uh? Perhaps the pope meant to say conscientious cover-up.

No institution has done more to deny and downplay the sexual abuse of young boys than the Catholic Church. No institution has done more to discredit victims and protect pedophile priests than the Catholic Church. And no institution has done more to avoid accountability for decisions made at the highest levels to cover up decades of sexual abuse of boys by scores of priests.

After decades of denial, it is really stunning for the pope to talk about the church’s “conscientious effort” to confront this scandal. At best, there have been some half steps brought on mainly by legal actions. If anything, the church has orchestrated a conscientious effort to minimize the scandal and hide behind any legal statute of limitations. But most everyone—including many Catholics like myself—is still waiting for church leaders to root out all the problem priests and hold others accountable for the cover-up.

The pope is right that all of society’s institutions—not just the Catholic Church—must be held to “exacting” standards in their response to sex abuse of children. He correctly called pedophilia a “scourge.” But then the pope had the gall to hold up the church as an example for how to confront the problem.

“It is my hope that the Church’s conscientious efforts to confront this reality will help the broader community to recognize the causes, true extent and devastating consequences of sexual abuse, and to respond effectively to this scourge which affects every level of society,” he said.

If other institutions follow the church’s lead regarding the handling of sex abuse by priests, well, then heaven help us all. David Clohessy, head of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said: “No public figure talks more about child safety but does little to actually make children safer than Pope Benedict.”

Of course, one can’t help but feel the pope’s recent comments were timed to coincide with the sex-abuse scandal at Penn State. In a sense he was saying: “See, the church isn’t the only institution with a pedophile problem.” At Penn State, former defensive football coordinator Jerry Sandusky has been charged with sexually abusing eight boys over a number of years. Some have said the two scandals are similar because of the cover-up that reached the top echelon of two esteemed institutions.

But that is also where the similarities end. Unlike the Catholic Church, Penn State has taken swift and decisive action, with more likely to come. Days after Sandusky’s indictment, university president Graham Spanier was forced out and legendary coach Joe Paterno was fired. Granted the university, like the church, initially did its best to cover up the abuse. But unlike the church, once the allegations came to light there were no excuses or denials or efforts to blame the media by the university trustees. Instead there has been real accountability. Those not charged with crimes were removed from power because they failed to alert law enforcement. Including JoePa, the proverbial pope of Penn State.

“The church to this day, while waving a moral flag, hasn’t even come close to the Penn State Board of Trustees response,” said Kristine Ward, chair of the National Survivor Advocates Coalition. She pointed out that no bishops have been fired. “Issuing self-satisfied pats on the back while children remain in danger only further diminishes the church’s credibility and deepens the laryngitis in its moral voice.”

The pope is correct that child sex abuse isn’t limited to the church. But no one has said as much. The reason so much attention has been paid to the church is because of the Vatican’s supposed moral authority; the abuse stretched around the world; and the cover-up was extensive. “While child sex crimes happen in every institution, in no institution are they ignored or concealed as consistently as in the Catholic Church,” Clohessy said.

Not even at Penn State.