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Thomas Reese speaks to an audience

Thomas Reese speaks to an audience

Parishioners Deserve Clarity on Clergy Abuse

Thomas Reese, visiting scholar at Markkula Center, discussed the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse during an on-campus talk.

Thomas Reese, visiting scholar at Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, discussed the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse during an on-campus talk. 

A prominent national religion columnist and Jesuit urged Catholics seeking information on local clergy implicated in sexual abuse to use the power of numbers: Form a group of fellow concerned parishioners and demand transparency from their local bishop.

“It is hard to do it by yourself,” said Thomas J. Reese, S.J., a distinguished visiting scholar at Markkula Center for Applied Ethics and a prolific commentator on the topic of clerical abuse and Vatican history.

“But if you get a dozen people who want to go in, and tell the bishop ... and then another dozen from another parish, and another dozen from another parish. Do that,” he advised the 100-plus audience members at a talk he gave on campus Aug. 23. “I think (it) would work.”

Now a senior analyst for Religion News Service, Reese has been interviewed by numerous national media outlets in the wake of a scathing Pennsylvania grand jury report this month that chronicled decades of sexual abuse by hundreds of priests against more than 1,000 children.

Church Must Confess Its Sins 

A former editor of the Jesuit magazine America, Reese also has written several columns recently calling for the Church to confess its sins—and detailing what it must do to respond to sex abuse.

In his campus lecture, “Catholicism and the Moral Catastrophe of Sexual Abuse,” Reese—who advocates zero tolerance for abusive priests—fielded plenty of questions from frustrated audience members.

“How can we, as the Church, demand that transparency?’’ one man asked Reese about abusive Catholic clergy. Should parishioners “demand that list of priests who have been found guilty of abuse? Who have either been convicted in our local courts, or convicted within the hierarchy of the Church?’’

Reese advised that man to “start first with your parish.”

“Go see your pastor and ask him, ‘Has everyone who is anywhere near a child gone through a police background check?’” Reese said. “Is he doing what he is supposed to be doing in your own parish? That’s first.”

Church Fails at Self-Policing

SCU sociology Professor Alma Garcia asked what is being done in terms of priesthood training “to say this is simply not acceptable, and to police priests?”

Reese said seminarians are screened by experts, including SCU psychology Professor Thomas Plante, who was in the audience. The problem, he noted, is that psychologists can detect many things, “but there’s no test to determine that this person is going to abuse children.”

Yet another audience member insisted that the Catholic Church cannot be trusted to investigate these incidents of monstrous behavior, not only by priests, but bishops, archbishops, and cardinals who also were abusers, or knew about it and refused to hold their brethren accountable.

Many seemed to agree, including one man who asked Reese about the controversial decision by Pope Francis to canonize Pope John Paul II, long criticized for turning a blind eye to the problem of sexual abuse during his papacy.

Pope Benedict XVI Made Strides

Reese said the late pontiff’s childhood and early adulthood in Poland under the Nazis and the Communists might help explain—though by no means excuse—John Paul II’s slowness to act.

During the Nazi era, “A very common accusation that the police and the governments would make against priests was sexual impropriety,” Reese explained. Coming out of that experience, and hearing those kinds of accusations, he believes, led to John Paul II’s denial of sexual abuse in the Church. “That’s what made it so impossible for him to get it through his head,” Reese said.

He contends it was Joseph Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict XVI, who was the first to aggressively confront the issue. Benedict, he said, read the files related to abusive priests, and while canon law decreed they should be allowed trials, Benedict overruled them, knowing it would take years.

“He basically imposed martial law and said, ‘They’re out,’” said Reese.

Sunshine, not secrecy, is the best antidote for preventing these crimes.

“It has to be clear that we get it,” Reese said, “and that this should never have happened.”


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