Thursday, April 22, 2010

Bishop Wester Responds to Maureen Dowd Regarding Abuses in the Church

From the Salt Lake Tribune:

I was dismayed to read in The Salt Lake Tribune Maureen Dowd's column regarding, among other things, what she perceives to be the cause of Catholic clergy sexual abuse of minors ("Catholics need to be able to trust their leaders," Opinion, April 9).

This is a very serious issue that demands careful analysis and thoughtful commentary as part of an overall effort to eradicate this terrible scourge from the Roman Catholic Church and indeed, from all of society. Sadly, I do not believe that Dowd has helped this cause.

My main concern with the article is that she misses the point. The terrible tragedy of the sexual abuse of children and young people by the clergy cannot be pinned on the discipline of celibacy as Dowd would have it. Would that it were that simple. She seems to want to go back to the "disciplines that the church was founded on" and yet excludes the discipline of celibacy.

If celibacy were the culprit in this matter, then how does one explain that, according to studies, only 2.5 percent to 3 percent of the clergy have engaged in this criminal behavior? That means that 97 percent of the celibate priests are not involved in this behavior. Moreover, according to best estimates, 10 percent of all children in the United States are sexually abused at some point in their childhood. Clearly, the vast majority of these perpetrators are not celibate.

In fact, contrary to the simplistic notion that Dowd portrays, celibacy is a revered tradition in the church, with many spiritual and pastoral benefits. I agree with Dowd's intention to find the causes of the horrible reality of child sexual abuse, a reality that plagues our country, indeed, our entire world, not just the Catholic Church. However, I find her attempt lacking.

I am also troubled that Dowd writes as if we were back in 2002. She seems ignorant of all that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has done these past eight years to provide for the protection of children and young people in the church. The USCCB has paid millions of dollars to the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to study the nature and scope as well as the causes and context of the problem. The conference has also implemented a thorough policy for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse and received from Rome the establishment of particular law for the United States, making these policies canonically enforceable.

As of March 23, more than 6 million children in Catholic schools and religious education programs have undergone safe-environment training, which provides children with the information and skills they need to help them in a threatening situation. In fact, here in the Diocese of Salt Lake City, church authorities were well ahead of the curve. In the early 1990s they incorporated into the diocesan handbooks strong policies to follow in dealing with the sexual abuse of minors.

During that same time frame, a Utah state social worker gave a workshop to priests that emphasized the new reporting rules issued by the government. In my opinion, the Catholic Church in the United States has done more than any other institution to study this intractable issue and to provide for the safety of our children. Arguably, today the church is the safest institution in our country for children and young people.

Certainly, the sexual abuse of minors is a tragic crime that has devastated the lives of many people. As a leader in the Catholic Church, I reiterate my profound sorrow for and apology to those who have been abused by clergy. I admit that the church has made mistakes in the past in dealing with that abuse.

We have learned much in the past eight years and have come a long way in providing safe environments for our children and young people. We remain committed and vigilant.

However, such an effort cannot be limited to the Catholic Church. Sadly, sexual abuse takes place in every corner of society throughout the world. It is a terrible, dark secret that needs to be shattered by the light of day as we discover its causes and look to that day when it will no longer haunt our world.

Such an endeavor does not admit to facile answers. Rather, it demands that we all work together to protect our most precious, God-given gifts: our children. This is the only right thing to do.

The Most Rev. John C. Wester is bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.

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