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Open Mic

Priests and Punishment

By Hank Mattimore

Let's be clear where I stand on the subject of priests sexually abusing kids. It's not just "inappropriate" or even "unacceptable." The sexual abuse of children, especially when done by a person in a position of trust, is abhorrent. It is a betrayal of trust of the worst kind. As a parent and now a grandparent, I am appalled that this kind of behavior was allowed to continue in the church I love.

All this has been said more eloquently than I have expressed it. Outrage at the behavior of abusive priests and silent bishops has been shouted from the housetops, and (finally) the cries of victims and parents and the Catholic in the pew are being heard. Bishops are no longer able to protect offending priests from legal sanctions. Structures have been set up in every parish in the country to make sure that this never happens again.

Kathleen McChesney, a former FBI official who in 2002 helped establish the Church's Office of Child and Youth Protection, recently announced that only 22 new cases involving abuse of minors surfaced during 2004. One can argue that even one new case is too many, but given the fact that there are over 50,000 priests in this country serving over 100 million Catholics, it appears that the protections put in place by the bishops and their lay Catholic associates are starting to produce results.

The victims of child abuse who have come forward at great emotional cost to confront their abusers and relive their childhood trauma deserve our gratitude. If parishes and schools are safer places today, it is because these victims of abuse had the courage to tell their stories.

All that being said, let's take a look at the multimillion dollar lawsuits that the child-abuse scandals have spawned. Nationally, the church has paid out approximately $180 million in damages resulting from child-abuse cases. Three dioceses have already declared bankruptcy, with more to follow. Our own Santa Rosa Diocese has expended over $7 million with several more cases pending. Bishop Daniel Walsh has already warned local parishioners that Santa Rosa may be the next diocese in bankruptcy court.

I have a problem with the fairness and effectiveness of punishing parishes for the sins of their priests. Who really suffers when a parish or school must close its doors because of the financial burden laid on it by one of these lawsuits? What kind of justice is served when the wrong people are being punished?

I would like to believe the victims of abuse when they say "it's not about the money." But when the Santa Rosa Diocese will have to cough up an estimated $1 million per each pending case, in addition to the $7 million already expended, what is it about? Do they think that the money will come from the bishop's personal bank account? Hardly. Besides, Bishop Walsh was not even around at the time when the abusive behavior took place. I confess that I would be more inclined to understand the disclaimer "It's not about the money" if the attorneys were working pro bono and the plaintiffs were offering to give the proceeds of their settlement to charity.

I also take exception to these lawsuits when the vast majority of them go back 30 or 40 years and in some cases (including one in Sonoma County) are being tried against priests who have been dead for several years. Doesn't it strike anyone as macabre to be sending out a posse of accusers to string up a dead man? I might add that too often these long-ago cases are being tried on the evidence of a victim's repressed memory, evidence that is of dubious validity in a court of law.

We seem to be so reluctant to let anyone (with the notable exception of Enron and other white-collar miscreants) get away with anything in our society. But this time we are punishing the wrong people. These multimillion dollar lawsuits do nothing to right the wrongs that have been done. They simply take our money and line the wallets of lawyers. The money in the diocesan coffers is our money. In spending it to cover the costs of litigation, we end up hurting the working stiff who puts his $10 in the collection basket, the folks who line up for food at St. Vincent de Paul's kitchen, the woman who needs help with her kids. Who exactly are we punishing?

Harm has been done. Kids have been hurt. Agreed. But public apologies have been given and steps have been taken to make sure it never happens again. I think it's time to move on, time to call off the dogs.

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From the March 9-15, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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