NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Catholic church must make protecting children a priority

A grand jury report in Pennsylvania has revealed that something very wrong has been going on within the Catholic Church in that state for a very long time that must be stopped. Priests who are sexual predators have violated the trust and vulnerability of children and devastated their lives.

Such scandal is not confined to Pennsylvania. U.S. bishops have acknowledged that since 1950 more than 17,000 people nationwide have reported being molested by priests and others in the church, according to The Associated Press.

When child abuse by clergy within the church made headlines as a national crisis in 2002 in Boston, U.S. bishops responded by supposedly enforcing stricter requirements for reporting accusations to law enforcement and streamlining the process for removing clerics.

But the lurid, 900-page grand jury report released Tuesday accused senior church officials of covering up complaints about some 300 Roman Catholic priests in Pennsylvania who molested more than 1,000 children (the grand jury suspects thousands) since the 1940s.

The grand jury report also included information about Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, who previously served as bishop of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa. During his tenure in Pennsylvania from 2004-2009, Rhoades confronted at least two instances of alleged sexual abuse by priests, according to the report. He notified his superiors as well as law enforcement of the accusations in both cases.

In a statement released Tuesday, Rhoades said, “During my time in Harrisburg and now here in Fort Wayne-South Bend, I have upheld an unwavering commitment to child safety, closely following all policies and procedures put in place.”

But the grand jury report included comments from Rhoades that also cautioned church leaders against publicly releasing information on the cases for fear of creating a public scandal.

One of the priests in Rhoades’ diocese was William Presley, who was accused of abusing at least five people between 1963 and 1986. One of his alleged victims was 13. In 2006, Rhoades recommended that Presley, who had already retired, be defrocked.

But according to the grand jury report, Rhoades also warned that if information about the “violent behavior” of Presley was “to become known … great public scandal would arise within this diocese.”

The South Bend Tribune reports that in a response to the grand jury report, Rhoades’ lawyers claim the “scandal” quote was taken out of context.

In another case in 2007, another retired Harrisburg diocese priest, Francis Bach, admitted to abusing at least 14 minors between the ages of 14 and 16, according to the report. Once again, Rhoades notified his superiors and authorities of the allegations.

But the report says he also wrote in a letter that Bach was spending the remainder of his life “in prayer and penance, trying to make reparation for the harm he has caused others through his acts of sexual abuse that occurred early in his priesthood. If his case is now brought to trial or given any kind of publicity, I fear it will cause scandal to many, as he is still a priest who is beloved by many in our diocese.”

We hope Bishop Rhoades was more concerned about reporting the atrocities and seeing justice prevail than about the scandal that did, indeed, follow.

But it seems clear that too many church leaders through the years have been more concerned about covering up these crimes than seeing justice done for the benefit of the victims. Of the nearly 200 dioceses in the U.S., only about 40 have released lists of priests accused of abusing children, according to BishopAccountability.org. And there have been only nine U.S. investigations by a prosecutor or grand jury of a Catholic diocese or archdiocese.

It is long past time that all church leaders put the laws of God and man and the safety and protection of children as their preeminent concerns in dealing with future reports of sexual abuse.

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