A scandal in the deepest sense

As an institution that preaches God's love and care for others, the U.S. Catholic Church stands glaringly exposed in the spotlight once again.

It is yet again a painful day for victims of clergy sex abuse and a horrifying time for American Catholics, whose bishops have said for nearly 20 years that they were addressing the problem and ending a dark underlayer of scandal and moral turpitude.

That was not the whole truth. On Tuesday the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury report detailed cases going back as far as the 1940s and named names — not only accused priests but bishops identified as having protected the accused over their victims. The report claims at least 1,000 child victims, with the conclusion there are probably many more.

Some cases go so far back that the abused chidlren are now far into a scarred adulthood. Tragically, other cases are fresh.

With the naming of bishops whose actions kept sexual predators on the job, and with the recent accusations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, it is clear why the noxious problem persists, and what must be done about it.

McCarrick is accused not of abusing young children but of using his power to command sexual compliance from young priests and seminarians, including some minors. He was the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and a top leader in the National Catholic Conference of Bishops. His status exemplifies why the church never completely rid itself of abuse. If the man at the top was himself vulnerable to accusation, how could it? An ecclesiatical celebrity could not risk a clean sweep lest somebody, as the blunt saying goes, might have the goods on him.

McCarrick's successor in Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, a former bishop of Pittsburgh, is named in the grand jury report as one who covered up accusations, which he denied.

While there are American bishops who have acted in good faith, as a group they are too close to the failures of colleagues to act effectively. The statutes of limitations in effect at the time of an alleged act of abuse will keep many cases out of civil or criminal court. Bishops' failure to enforce standards and investigate claims in their own dioceses leaves no recourse for victims.

At least one bishop has recognized that and provided a credible suggestion a week before the public release of the report. Albany Archbishop Edward Scharfenberger said, and we agree, that the church needs an investigatory panel of lay people known to be of good character and familiar with the Catholic Church.

"I think we have reached a point where bishops alone investigating bishops is not the answer," he said.

Scharfenberger made the suggestion in response to a statement by Wuerl that the bishops need a policy to discipline fellow bishops. Rather, they need to confront ecclesiastical complicity in crimes so heinous that most of society can't comprehend how they could be allowed to continue. And yet, it's no surprise that powerful people will protect their institutions first. We have seen the reluctance of universities, TV networks and sports to respond to repeated reports of abuse until forced or shamed into facing them.

But because this perfidy is happening in a church, it is worse. It is a scandal in the deepest sense of the term. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, the universal guidebook for faith and morals for all Catholics, has this to say, under a section entitled "Respect for the Dignity of Persons":

"Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. ...Scandal takes on particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized...Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal...." The teaching could not be clearer.

The report's naming of Cardinal Wuerl, a close advisor to Pope Francis, takes this scandal right to the door of the Vatican. These sins started generations before Francis' papacy, but trust is now in tatters. To root out this persistent evil, the church needs lay Catholics  — parents and grandparents, married and single, straight and gay — to take up the internal investigation and follow it wherever it may lead.

Eastern Connecticut is home to thousands of Catholics, active and inactive, the descendants of French, Polish, Irish, Italian, Latino, Haitian and other immigrants who brought their faith with them generations ago. With Catholics all over the country they share the shock, sorrow, anger and embarrassment of these scandals. We agree with Bishop Scharfenberger that the American Church needs its people, all its people, to bring this sorry chapter to a close.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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