It’s difficult not to take a pope at his word.
But given the Catholic Church’s recalcitrant moves toward transparency and reform regarding priest sex abuse, it’s easy to be skeptical about Pope Francis’ latest apologies to victims and his pledge to hold bishops accountable for the priests in their charge.
In the Albany Diocese that includes our area, 300,000 Catholics are waiting to see if he’s sincere or if he’s just like his predecessor who paid lip service to the problem in hopes that it would fade away.
This is not just a Catholic problem or a religion problem. It’s society’s problem. And we should all be watchful of how the church responds to this latest initiative from Rome.
Unfortunately, despite it all but disappearing from the headlines in the last few years, sex abuse by priests is still a problem that the church, and the Albany Diocese’s new bishop, Edward Scharfenberger, need to address.
Just in April, James Michael Taylor, a local priest who served in Niskayuna and Clifton Park, was charged by police in Saratoga County with having inappropriate sexual contact with a 15-year-old girl at the Corpus Christi Parish.
In that case, the bishop acted quickly in removing Taylor from the parish and vowed to cooperate with police in the investigation. That was a positive sign.
At least 20 priests from within the Albany diocese were removed after credible accusations of abuse were made against them under the former bishop, Howard Hubbard. And the diocese was not immune to allegations that it moved priests to other parishes to hide them and to cover up allegations.
We don’t know how much sex abuse by its priests that the church is still covering up, how many unreported cases are lingering from the past, and whether abuses are still going on that haven’t yet been disclosed.
What we do know is that the bishops have a new directive from the new pope to be more aggressive and proactive in rooting out abuses and bringing them to authorities.
“There is no place in the Church’s ministry for those who commit these abuses,” the pope said after meeting with six church sex abuse victims last week. “I commit myself not to tolerate harm done to a minor by any individual, whether a cleric or not.”
One victim of abuse from Ireland said Pope Francis’ meeting with victims and his chastising of bishops was nothing more than a public relations stunt designed to make people think the church was finally getting serious about the abuses.
The international community also has not been convinced of the Catholic Church’s sincerity to solve this problem.
In May, more than a year into Pope Francis’ tenure, a United Nations panel ripped the Holy See for failing to take adequate measures to address the child-abuse situation and issued eight pages of recommendations for how it should move forward.
New York state can certainly do more to help the bishops with their new directive. We recently editorialized in favor of the Child Victims Act, legislation that would extend the statute of limitations on child sex crimes and open a one-year window for older cases. New York has among the shortest time frames in the country for bringing charges in child sex abuse cases.
The state has in recent years increased penalties for abusers and in 2012 extended the “look-back time” that authorities can apply to old convictions in order to boost the criminal charges for newer allegations.
But New York also should continue to move forward in ways similar to the Office of Court Administration’s Human Trafficking initiative, which is designed to make New York courts more efficient and conducive to helping victims.
The church has a lot at stake by doing more to curb sex abuse. Since 1950, it has paid out about $2.5 billion to abuse victims in the U.S. alone, according to a Vatican spokesman. If the church recognizes more victims and ferrets out more abuses, that expense could skyrocket. Money is not the only reason to cover up abuses, but it’s a big one. Still, for an organization that by a 2012 estimation by The Economist spends $170 billion a year and has an untold net worth, even many more successful lawsuits wouldn’t break the Vatican bank.
A tangible, proactive movement could help restore faith in the church by its own membership, which has fallen off precipitously in the last four decades. The sex abuse scandals share a lot of the blame for that drop-off.
We hope Pope Francis is sincere and that Bishop Scharfenberger takes this directive to heart. For them to be anything less than 100 percent committed to resolving this problem would be — using Pope Francis’ own word to describe the scandal — “despicable.”