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For the week of May 1 - 7, 2002

  Opinion Columns

Time to go back 
to first principles

Commentary by ADAM TANOUS

… it seems (the Pope) and other leaders of the Church still do not appreciate the gravity of what has allegedly transpired.

Take the case of John Oeday: a married man, a gifted middle school science teacher. He pays taxes, raises his kids—a regular American.

It turns out John is attracted to younger women. In fact, not just younger women, but teenagers. One day he decided to force himself on a 13-year-old girl down the street named Mary. In other words, he raped her. And he was caught.

What do you think happened to Mr. Oeday? Scenario one is he was convicted of rape and sent to prison. End of story.

Scenario two is the jury told him what he did was wrong but sent him back to his suburban home to see if he could behave better next time? Or perhaps the judge told him he had to move across town to a different suburb.

What if Mary Lou were 9 years old instead of 13? Was John acting as a pedophile, or as sexual abuser of minors, or as a rapist? Does it matter? (John Oeday is fictional.)

Last week the Pope summoned the American cardinals and bishops to Vatican City. It was an unusual meeting called to address the subject of the sexual abuse of minors. In the statement that came out of the two-day meeting, the Pope, bishops and cardinals affirmed, among other things, that "The sexual abuse of minors is rightly considered a crime by society and is an appalling sin in the eyes of God …" The statement went on to say "Even if the cases of true pedophilia on the part of priests and religious are few, all the participants recognized the gravity of the problem … Attention was drawn to the fact that almost all the cases involved adolescents and therefore were not cases of true pedophilia."

"Together with the fact that a link between celibacy and pedophilia cannot be scientifically maintained, the meeting reaffirmed the value of priestly celibacy as a gift of God to the Church."

In response to the problem, the church leaders proposed "Pastors of the Church need clearly to promote the correct moral teaching of the Church and publicly to reprimand individuals who spread dissent … (emphasize) fidelity to the Church’s teaching, especially in the area of morality … (observe) a national day of prayer and penance, in reparation for the offenses perpetrated and in prayer to God for the conversion of sinners and the reconciliation of victims."

They also proposed a process for the removal of a priest "who has become notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory, sexual abuse of minors."

I suppose what I am most confounded by is why we, the public, were waiting on the edge of our seats for the Pope and the cardinals to speak. Why were we waiting for the Pope to reveal to us that these abuses were rightly considered a crime?

Why are we not hearing from district attorneys, prosecutors, police chiefs? If the victims are coming forward—and they are by the dozens, perhaps hundreds—why aren’t these cases considered criminal? Forget the debate about dismissing priests or not. It seems the relevant debate is why aren’t people going to jail?

What’s more, there are reportedly hundreds of documents that allegedly detail the ways in which deviant priests were moved around by bishops to cover up the scandal. If bishops and cardinals did, in fact, know about sexual abuse cases, even enabled abusers to continue, why aren’t they being prosecuted? From a layman’s perspective, it would seem they were aiding and abetting the commission of felonies.

It seems we are confusing church and state—the very first subject addressed by the Bill of Rights.

It is all well and good for the Church’s appointed leaders to speak to issues of conversion and morality within the Church. But these alleged cases of sexual abuse—hundreds of them—did not happen only within the confines of the Church. They were—if true—perpetrated against members of the Church who are also members of society at large. And once the people have been violated, it becomes a problem not just within the Church, but for all of us, for the state. It is incumbent upon the law enforcement and judicial branches of government to step in and decide what happens to the alleged perpetrators. While Catholics may believe God is acting through the words of the Pope and so will guide us out of this morass of depravity, not all the nation believes that. It is through our laws—in theory the voice of the people—that that we arrive at some aggregate measure of the people’s sense of right and wrong. These should be our guiding principles.

And while it was dramatic and appropriate for the Pope to summons the leaders to Rome, it seems he and other leaders of the Church still do not appreciate the gravity of what has allegedly transpired. Their statement is riddled with ambivalence and lacks leadership.

For one, to draw distinctions in their statement between pedophilia—which involves prepubescent children—and sexual abuse of adolescents, the church leaders are drawing a fine bead on the issue and missing the colossal point.

Second, they dismissed the notion that celibacy played any part in this problem, saying the link cannot be "scientifically maintained." It is a curious approach for the Church to selectively invoke science to argue a point. I cannot remember a time when the Church has deferred to science.

Third, what is not in the statement is what may be the most telling. If the problem is not celibacy then the implication is that the problem is rooted in homosexuality. This last proposition, that pedophilia is linked to homosexuality has been almost uniformly debunked by the scientists who study sexual disorders.

The statement very pointedly addressed those priests "notorious and … guilty of the serial, predatory, sexual abuse of minors." They would be dismissed. But what of the others—those that aren’t "notorious"? (Do they mean those more discreet?) What about the sporadic abusers? Apparently those who molested or raped just a few kids here and there would be left to "conversion."

It’s all well and good for church leaders to have faith in the power of conversion for priests who have strayed, but tell that to the children who were raped and molested.

Forgiveness is a luxury victims may or may not choose to partake in. It is not something that comes about as a by-product of conversion.


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.