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Church, hemorrhaging cash, can't afford this type of healing

By: Thomas G. Plante

San Jose Mercury News

March 27, 2005


In recent weeks, the clergy sexual-abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic Church again has made national headlines. This time it focused on the newly released second annual report by U.S. bishops stating that 1,092 new accusations of sexual abuse by priests have surfaced during the past year, with 22 new accusations made by children during 2004.

The report further stated that the church has now spent more than $800 million on lawsuits and settlements, with costs of about $140 million in 2004 alone.

Going bankrupt

Just a few weeks earlier, the Diocese of Orange County settled a lawsuit for $100 million, and recent news has reported that the dioceses of Tucson, Spokane, Wash., and Portland, Ore., have all filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, with more to come. Perhaps the next big news story will involve the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, with a lawsuit including more than 500 victims. Based on the recent settlements figures, one wonders whether the Los Angeles lawsuit settlement might exceed a half-billion dollars.

Both the victims and the church are in a remarkable and impossible bind. The church has done an excellent job of developing national and local review boards of talented lay people to consult on these matters. It also has developed national policies, procedures and training to hopefully eliminate the possibility of sexual abuse of children. But the church finds itself in a no-win situation with past victims. Tragically, all of the money and legal settlements in the world can't erase the memories, trauma and experience of past abuse for victims.

In addition to money from lawsuits, sincere apologies, more accountability and policy changes, victims and their representatives often also want to influence the policies and structure of the church as well as be treated with compassion, concern, cooperation and love from the very people they are suing. Let's face it, although Jesus is well-known for saying we should turn the other cheek, it is hard to imagine anyone being loving and compassionate to folks who are infuriated with you, telling you how to do your job and suing you for huge sums of money.

Everyone suffers

Victims also are in a bind. No amount of money or apology can erase (although it may ease) the pain and associated feelings of anger, depression, damaged self-esteem and the spiritual void that many clergy-abuse victims report. Furthermore, recent church bankruptcies, church closings -- including local parishes -- now potentially victimize rank-and-file Catholics and those receiving Catholic social, educational and medical services. The American Catholic Church just can't pay out almost a billion dollars and perhaps more in settlements and legal fees and not have to significantly cut back or eliminate church services and operations.

Rank-and-file Catholics are in a bind, too. They are repeatedly exposed to news accounts of the crisis and put up with tasteless jokes about the church, bishops and priests, as well as see their fellow Catholics, abuse victims, and the 96 percent of priests who have not harmed anyone, in much distress. Their hearts may certainly go out to the victims of abuse but they also often want to defend their faith, the many good and faithful priests out there who have harmed no one, and don't want their churches and associated services to close. And they sure don't want their church donations to go to trial lawyers.

Although I am hopeful that the crisis ultimately will make for a better Catholic Church, where children and families will be safe from abuse, I'm worried that the only people to benefit will be lawyers. As we enter into another Holy Week before the Easter celebration, perhaps we can hope and pray that my worry will not become true.

THOMAS G. PLANTE is a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and editor of ``Sin Against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church.'' He wrote this article for the Mercury News.

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