Puttin' Out the Bone

What Did the Bishop Know -- and What Did He Tell?

I first met Daniel Pilarczyk in the 1970s when he was an auxiliary bishop under Cincinnati Archbishop Joseph Bernardin. I was a member of the archdiocese's Social Action Commission, a group of volunteers who gave consultation to the local Catholic Church on social issues and policies.

Our commission learned of a quiet move by Bernardin and Pilarczyk to move a group of white school children from a closing Catholic elementary school in Mount Adams past a nearby, mostly African-American Catholic elementary school in Walnut Hills to an all-white Catholic school in Hyde Park.

Our bi-racial commission reacted with shock and red-hot rhetoric. Pilarczyk had a series of meetings with us and used feeble arguments to defend what was a clear move by a religious institution to sanction school segregation.

I remember sitting across from him, wondering how — under the stack of ceremony, robes and degrees — a man could be so blind to right and wrong. I knew he was feeling heat from the white Mount Adams parents, but I was raised to believe that institutions of moral leadership were often the only sources of courage and direction when times tested human frailty.

It was Bernardin who made the final call to bus those kids, but from everything I heard Pilarczyk say in meetings with us, Bernardin's shepherd to an incorrect policy was Pilarczyk.

Six months ago, I sat across from now-Archbishop Pilarczyk in a news conference when he announced there were priests working under him who had been accused of sexually abusing children. Contrary to an almost universal view that sexual offenders can't be cured, he defended his actions to cure the priests through psychological treatment — then put them back in "monitored" jobs.

I remember thinking how fragile the Catholic Church is. I mean, for all its wealth, history, membership and property, it all comes down to some guys making up arbitrary rules, some of which are stunningly shallow, sometimes illegal and clearly immoral. You could comb the world and find few educated people who think child abusers are effectively treatable.

On March 21 Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen announced criminal indictments of two men for allegedly abusing children while functioning as priests. More importantly, Allen said he knew of about 75 other victims who allege they were molested by 15 to 20 other priests, but he can't indict them because the statute of limitations had run out, the priests had died or Pilarczyk wouldn't provide the needed records. Allen said the Ohio First District Court of Appeals will soon rule whether Pilarczyk must turn over the records.

Asked if Pilarczyk could be criminally liable for not reporting to civil authorities allegations of sexual abuse by priests, Allen said it depends on what his office might learn from records the appeals court could release.

If you understand nothing else about this modern scourge of the Catholic Church, including the church in Cincinnati, know this: Bishops have protected moral slugs from being prosecuted for crimes against children.

If Allen heard from 75 victims but could only indict in two cases, why didn't the archdiocese see to it that other priests were punished when the offenses occurred?

On the day of Allen's news conference, Pilarczyk issued a statement saying that, in one of the two indictments, it was the archdiocese that alerted prosecutors to the accusation against the priest. In effect, he was saying the church is an active advocate for protecting children — not an impediment.

Really? Can Pilarczyk honestly say that each time he learned of a priest touching a child's penis or getting into his sleeping bag on an outing, he dropped a dime on the creep? Not that he made a call to one of his church's treatment centers, but called the civil authorities?

C'mon. With upwards of 75 children sexually abused by as many as 20 local Catholic priests, you'd think Pilarczyk would have had the judgment and moral conviction to do then what he boasts about doing now.

Who knows whether any bishops will be indicted for covering up crimes against children? One thing is clear: To Pilarczyk's chagrin, Allen — a fellow Catholic — has the guts to take on the leader of his own church.

But the facts seem troubling for Pilarczyk. As long as he treated these behaviors as treatable psychological missteps instead of repugnant crimes, he could be vulnerable. As a 33-year teacher, if I ever learned someone was sexually abusing one of my kids, I would do nothing before calling the cops. It wouldn't matter what a lawyer told me, it wouldn't even matter if a fearful victim begged me not to. I would call the cops.

Some would say Pilarczyk deserves the defense of coming from another time, and his actions have to be measured by past values — not today's. That's the weak line used to defend Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves.

Maybe that's the rap on my Catholic Church, that in spite of its rhetoric against situational ethics it's just some guys in Roman collars shucking and jiving like the rest of us.

That's so sad.

PUTTIN' OUT THE BONE appears monthly.