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Our Church Our Scandal


It’s Easter week and Catholic priests are hoping for an institutional resurrection. Priests took to their pulpits on Palm Sunday to try to calm their congregation in face of the latest scandal to hit their church.

Forgiveness is not going to come easy. The scandal’s just too big, too expensive, and lay Catholics are too fed up with being told that there is one moral code for all of them and another for their priests. But there’s another shoe about to drop too, in the political world, as politicians and taxpayers awaken to their own piece in this ugly picture. If the Pope thinks all his problems are sitting in pews, he’s in for a revelation.

It started in January, when documents revealed that Boston Church officials had known about child abuse allegations against one priest for years but had done little more than move him about from parish to parish. The now-defrocked John Geoghan, has been convicted of groping a 10-year-old boy and stands accused of molesting more than 130 others over thirty years. Across the country, dozens of priests and one Florida bishop have since been suspended or forced to resign based on allegations of sexual abuse.

San Francisco’s Bishop Walsh chose to bash the media this Sunday. “The media charges of cover-up and intimations of complicity by the bishops have created an atmosphere that erodes trust and faith,” Walsh told a congregation in Santa Rosa. (www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/c/a/2002/03/25/MN195718.DTL&type=printable.)

But Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice has no doubt about what erodes her trust – it’s abuse, and a history of cover-ups. Is she surprised by this year’s scandal, “I’m horrified,” she said this week. “Am I surprised? No.”

A year ago this month, the National Catholic Reporter revealed that priests had been sexually abusing and even raping nuns in 23 countries. Sisters in five religious orders had been sending detailed documentation to the Vatican authorities for years to no avail. (http://www.workingforchange.com/article.cfm?ItemID=11620)

A Call to Accountability Campaign led by Catholics for a Free Choice brought together over 140 religious, human rights and women’s rights organizations to demand an independent investigation and punishments for the perpetrators. What did the Vatican do then? The same thing the Vatican is doing now. “It put its own survival over every other value,” says Kissling.

Nuns who became pregnant were forced out of their orders. The abuse was treated as “sin” not “crime” and priests were routinely transferred. The Pope blamed abuse on misguided brothers in a geographically restricted area (then it was Africa, now it is the United States.) The institution was working internally to put all wrongs to right, we were told. (www.calltoaccountability.org/071401Advisory.htm.)

“What many of us have known for years, is now impossible for society at large to ignore,” says Kissling of scandal 2002. This is a potential moment of change, she says. She believes that lay councils should evaluate priests annually. “Priests have got to be answerable to people, not only the other way around,” she says.

“At the heart of this crisis isn’t homosexuality or heterosexuality it’s power. The power priests have over everybody else,” she says. And that’s what’s got to change. The Catholic Church can choose to do what it’s done before and fire just enough priests to stop the lawsuits, but unless it makes real structural changes, it will become “another ENRON – just another corporation known to be hopelessly corrupt,” Kissling sighs.

Across town from Kissling’s office in DC, the folks at Americans United For the Separation of Church and State are waiting. The latest scandal is not simply a church affair, they say. By rights it should have powerful political legs.

If the Catholic Church thinks it can tell non-Catholic Americans to butt out of its business, it’s out of luck, says AU. The church and US taxpayers have been business partners for way too long.

US tax dollars have gone to Catholic charities for years now; to church-run hospitals through Medicaid, and thanks to the ’96 welfare reform law, to Catholic groups that provide welfare-related services of all kinds. George W. Bush came into office promising to funnel even more public money to religious outfits through his “Faith Based Initiative,” a signature policy he’s been pushing relentlessly, most recently in his State of the Union speech. The Supreme Court heard oral arguments last month in a case testing the constitutionality of sending public school money to church schools.

In all of these areas, AU says government funding of religious institutions is likely to get sharper scrutiny in light of recent events. Americans who were dubious about state-funded religion before January are downright spooked about it now.

Back in ’96, few legislators paid much attention to the so-called “charitable choice” provision in the welfare law which gave churches a chance to compete for social-service funds. None other than then Senator John Ashcroft pushed the initiative hard. Now welfare reform is up for reauthorization.

“People know now that funding religious groups can carry consequences, and some of those consequences are not pretty,” says AU spokesperson Steve Benen. There’s nothing to stop a victim suing the government for abuse in a church program run with public money he points out.

What about the Archdiocese of Boston running a childcare center with tax dollars? So far, no one’s asking if people have concerns, but it’s only a matter of time.

*** Working Assets Radio with Laura Flanders — Listen Live On-LIne ***

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