Failing to deal with ‘problem priests,’ the church brings problems on itself

Just as the Catholic Church in America gave promise of closure over child abuse by its priests, the scandal gained new life internationally, first across Ireland, then in Germany.

Just as the Catholic Church in America gave promise of closure over child abuse by its priests, the scandal gained new life internationally, first across Ireland, then in Germany.

The American church was not spared. A new case came to light involving a priest accused of molesting as many as 200 boys at a Wisconsin school for the deaf more than half a century ago.

Benedict XVI himself, while still a German archbishop, is alleged to have returned a pedophile priest to active ministry.

More than 300 new child-abuse cases have come to light in Germany. To his credit, the pope personally begged forgiveness and expressed shame for the priests and compassion for those they harmed.

Victims, their families and the news media demand much more of the pontiff: that he remand the perpetrators to the civil authorities for punishment instead of suppressing evidence of child abuse.

Unfortunately, the church has preferred to withhold evidence, quietly compensating victims out of court, and shielding the abusive priests from police and publicity. Bishops would dearly love to return to the Ages of Faith, when the church had its own courts.

As it is, the church has been forced to compensate many victims of abuse financially. Dioceses with many cases of child abuse have come close to bankruptcy. Others have had to put property on the market in an attempt to restore their budgets.

The church arguably overprotects its priests. It shields them so they can repent and regain their reputations as good shepherds.

The typical routine is to reassign a priest accused of molesting children to positions where he is not in contact with potential victims.

In some cases the priest’s superiors send him for professional counseling as well.

Decades ago, child abuse was widely considered to be a mental illness that could be cured by therapy. Subsequent experience has cast doubt on the effectiveness of therapy to rid a pedophile of his compulsions.

The church acknowledges pedophilia to be a crime, but it views its priests first and foremost as sinners capable of reforming and rededicating their lives. In any case, the church is not in the business of crime and punishment, but rather that of sin, grace and forgiveness.

In addition to pedophiles, there are other “problem priests” — eccentric loners who do not mix easily with fellow priests in parish settings. Their bishops are inclined to shuffle them off to serve as chaplains to hospitals, convents and nursing homes, where they serve in lonely isolation. For a troubled priest, being permanently alone is not therapeutic.

“Out of sight, out of mind” is not a wise personnel policy when practiced by bishops. The church may have brought its problems on itself by the way it handles its priests.

David Yount’s latest book is Making a Success of Marriage (Rowman and Littlefield).

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