What can we make of Sandusky/Lynn, Penn State/Catholic Church?

By Bill Casey, former Voice of the Faithful Trustee and member of VOTF Northern Virginia

The highest ranking Roman Catholic Church official to be found guilty of covering up crimes against children in the Church’s decades-old clergy sexual abuse scandal was sentenced today in a Philadelphia court. Msgr. William Lynn, former head of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia office that made priest assignments, was sentenced to up to six years in prison for child endangerment, transferring pedophile priests secretly. Lynn’s trial was a textbook example of how the Church has fought to maintain its reputation and treasure at the expense of innocence and the destructive effects  of child abuse. With Lynn’s conviction and sentencing, concerned Catholics and others could only hope for more accountability.

Contrast how the Church’s scandal has played out against another secular child molestation scandal at Pennsylvania State University. One glaring disparity between the two is that children abused by clergy most often must seek justice through civil trials while the Church maintains perpetrators and abettors in their clerical positions.

The underlying crimes in these contrasting examples–Church and secular–are the same:

  • the sexual abuse of children and cover-up by hierarchical officials;
  • callous disregard for the harm done to vulnerable children in favor of protecting the image, reputation and honors of the institution; and
  • shifting of the story from the lifelong wounds and needs of the actual victims to the “victimhood” of the perpetrators and others who get caught in the consequences.

But when evidence of such horrific wrongdoing at Penn State, a secular institution, seeped out, and was confirmed by a full independent investigation, those responsible were held accountable by appropriate criminal and civil actions brought in the name of the victims. The conviction of former football coach Jerry Sandusky on 45 counts of child sexual abuse, the resignations/firings of the highest university staff by the Board of Trustees, the unprecedented NCAA sanctions levied against Penn State yesterday and the inevitability of civil lawsuits to follow show clearly how secular society generally holds its citizens accountable for gross malfeasance and crimes.

In the Catholic Church, however, the hierarchy has covered up systemic abuse of children in diocese after diocese, religious order after religious order. Church officials claim exemption from the way secular society treats these crimes based on their self-perpetuated views that clergy are separate, above and exempt from the same norms that apply to everyone else. So, when the Church commits crimes:

  • no full independent investigation by qualified investigators outside the hierarchy’s control takes place;
  • statutes of limitations run out, too often precluding criminal or civil reviews of evidence, while the hierarchy fights tenaciously against statute of limitation reform in state after state; and
  • no local boards of trustees, a la Penn State, are available to judge the merits of the revelations on the grounds of ethical behavior, common decency and Gospel values.

The bishop in every Catholic diocese is accountable to no one, under Canon Law, except the pope. In the United States, the Vatican has held not a single bishop accountable for failing to do what decency, ethics and Gospel values alone, not to mention civil law, would expect from leaders of a secular institution,  let alone a religious one.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the closest approximation of an oversight body such as the NCAA, is toothless under Canon Law and, in my opinion, cowardly under any other standard.

If not for the work of survivor advocates, the media and the courts (in those limited cases where courts have jurisdiction), the public would continue to hear only the hierarchy’s spin on reality after allegations of clergy sexual abuse come to light.

In those cases of Church wrongdoing that have gone to trial, however, the evidence of what happened at the time of abuse and thereafter follows the same pattern as at Penn State, and at almost every other organization that thinks the truth can be hidden. Fortunately, unlike the Catholic hierarchy, most secular institutions cannot keep the evidence hidden, and none escapes accountability when the evidence is revealed, evaluated and judged.

The time has come, and long since passed, for the same kind of accountability that is applied to secular institutions like Penn State to be applied to the Church. The time has come, and long since passed, for the full truth, full justice and full accountability that is applied to secular institutions to be applied to the Catholic hierarchy.

Justice and accountability, severe as they are, have been applied at Penn State.

Nothing comparable has occurred within the Catholic Church.

Editor’s Note: For more commentary on this issue see:

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