The following remarks appeared in the parish bulletin of Saint Joseph’s Church, Mendham, New Jersey, on March 10; it was written by the pastor, the Reverend Kenneth Lasch.

Recently one of our parishioners asked me when I was going to comment on the tragic events associated with the trial of the now defrocked priest in Boston. To be very honest, there was then and is now a part of me that would rather bury my head in the sand out of shame or embarrassment.

Shortly thereafter, I watched the ten o’clock news coverage of the story of clergy misconduct that continues to unfold. I can’t tell you how devastating it has been as a priest and pastor to follow this report and others which will continue to unfold in the secular media and in the Catholic press. As a church canonist, I am deeply saddened but alas, not surprised at the outrage being expressed in Boston. As many of our parishioners may recall, I was involved in the "total disclosure" of the sexual misconduct by one of my predecessors, which took place here at Saint Joseph’s many years ago. It is a story the details of which cannot be unpacked here. Suffice it to say that it was the most challenging experience of my life. The experience began with the revelation by an adult male in 1984 of a series of incidents of sexual misconduct that occurred during the seventies. My disclosure of these incidents to our parishioners took place in May 1995. As a result of my disclosure, other victims came forth. I even heard from one of my former altar servers in another parish who, when he read my remarks, finally gained the courage to call to report an incident in which he was the victim while attending a diocesan high school in the eighties.

Within a very short period of time, I became very knowledgeable about pedophilia and related sexual dysfunctions, not only among the clergy but also within family systems. Believe me, this is not a problem limited to the Roman Catholic clergy. Moreover, there are other institutions, including the media, that are quite adept at avoiding publicity and even covering up a crime "within their sacrosanct walls." However, because priests are held to higher standards—as indeed we should be—the misconduct of a priest inflicts greater damage not only on the victim and on his or her family, but also on the entire church community. I take no consolation in the observation by some loyal church people, including clergy, that the media are simply out to get the Catholic Church. That is not my experience. During that terrible period in 1995, I found my exchanges with the local media quite respectful, honest, and sensitive to the confidentiality required to protect the innocent. With few exceptions, reporters did not cross the line of ethics or propriety.

The irony, if that is the correct term to describe the bizarre trajectory of this continuing scandal, is that at the outset victims of clergy abuse were not looking for money. Few even turned to attorneys. They sought only an admission of guilt, an apology, the reassurance that it would never happen again, and some modest compensation to cover expenses for remedial therapy for victims. Instead, out of fear of criminal prosecution and/or civil suits, church officials turned to attorneys who in turn advised them not to disclose any information. In fact, only hours prior to my disclosure to the parish, I received a call from a diocesan attorney who advised me not to proceed.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops has met on several occasions to discuss the problem. Several public acknowledgements of and apologies for the harm that has resulted from clergy misconduct have been published over the course of the last ten years, the latest of which appeared very recently. Unfortunately, those who are closest to the situation find little consolation in these statements in the light of years of foot dragging. A colleague of mine, a canonist working in the office of the papal nuncio in Washington, D.C., in the eighties, joined with a civil attorney and a priest psychologist in proposing a very detailed policy to guide American bishops in dealing with the issue. I read the secret document very thoroughly. It presented an open, honest, fair, and balanced treatment of the issue and proposed a just remedy for all parties concerned, including treatment for the priest perpetrators. The document was "deep-sixed" and the canonist was advised that he should look for another ministry. He is currently serving as an Air Force chaplain.

I reported my 1995 statement on the case here at Saint Joseph’s to the office of the papal nuncio in Washington, D.C., and sent copies of my pulpit statement to parishioners, my comments to those invited to the disclosure meeting, and copies of local press reports. I received no acknowledgment from the nuncio’s office.

There is a "wall of silence" on the part of institutional leadership and it surely is not limited to the Roman Catholic hierarchy. Among law enforcement agencies, it’s called, "the blue wall of silence," that is, police are never expected to turn in a brother. I suspect that even the media are selective about what they are willing to expose within their own domain. Of course, the Roman Catholic Church is the target today, but let not those of other religious traditions or those of no tradition at all take delight in the publicity given to us. Truth can be unleashed at any moment about any institution that attempts to cover up its sins.

There are many ramifications connected to the public disclosure of a crime. (Sexual misconduct with minors is a crime!) And I realize that in today’s litigious society, there are deep pockets among some attorneys and there are even those who would accuse falsely for the sake of monetary gain. Although I have been proactive for victims of clergy abuse, I have also come to the defense of clergy unjustly accused. However, mercy will prevail only when justice is allowed to flourish. Justice does not shine under a cloud of secrecy. The Catholics with whom I am acquainted can handle the truth. They are resilient. They do not take delight in scandal and certainly do not want to wallow in the details of disclosure. However, if we do not tell the truth, the truth will come out elsewhere.

You can be sure that my naiveté about institutional integrity was cured.

 


Related: The Whole Story, by the Editors
The Church's Sex-Abuse Crisis, by Peter Steinfels

Published in the 2002-04-05 issue: 

The Reverend Kenneth Lasch is pastor of St. Joseph’s Church, Mendham, New Jersey.

Also by this author
Zero Tolerance?

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