US Catholic Faith in Real Life

One step forward, two steps back in addressing sexual abuse

By Scott Alessi | Print this pagePrint |

At first glance, the headline proclaiming that a priest in Ireland who failed to report cases of sexual abuse admitted that he "should have resigned" seemed like a big step in the right direction. Yet just as quickly, the explanation that followed sent any potential for repairing the church's badly damaged reputation over its handling of abuse cases swirling down the drain.

On the heels of the Cloyne Report that noted his failure to report abuse allegations, Msgr. Denis O'Callaghan wrote in a letter to the newspaper The Irish Catholic that he should in fact have resigned from his post as the Diocese of Cloyne's delegate for child protection. Not because of his failures, however, but on principle because he disagreed with the 1996 document outlining a framework for the church's handling of abuse cases.

O'Callaghan says that he didn't agree with the document's requirement of mandatory reporting of abuse allegations. Since some of the reported cases date back "30 or 40 years" and thus many accused priests were deceased, elderly or very ill, O'Callaghan felt that it should have been left up to his discretion to determine which ones were or were not worth reporting. In other words, the church can police itself, and if we feel there's someone who needs to be reported to authorities, we'll let you know.

That attitude is one of the primary reasons why the abuse of minors was able to become such an insidious problem, and why so many lost their faith in church leaders. For anyone guilty of concealing abuse allegations to attempt to defend themselves at this point should come as an affront to not just the victims but to all Catholics, especially those who have worked to restore the church's reputation and to ensure transparency on these issues.

Thankfully, someone in the church hierarchy at least recognizes that point. Archbishop Dermot Clifford, who currently heads the Cloyne diocese, responded to O'Callaghan's remarks by saying that yes, he should have resigned, but that his take on dealing with abuse allegations “is not a sufficient response" and does “not provide for a proper investigation of the complaints whether by state or church authorities."

Clifford also made it clear that he wasn't happy with O'Callaghan speaking out on this, warning him to "refrain from any further public comment on this controversy." I'm assuming he's ruled out the possibility that O'Callaghan will come to his senses and offer a public apology, like former Cloyne bishop John Magee did earlier this week.

It is disheartening to hear that, after all that's happened and all the horrible stories of abuse that have come to light, there are still some in church leadership who cling to the idea of protecting their fellow priests. But there is hope--here in the U.S., Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley announced that the archdiocese would release a list of all archdiocesan priests accused of sexual abuse.

That's the kind of transparency the church needs if it ever hopes to convince doubters that it is truly serious about eradicating the scourge of sexual abuse.