News: Keys of the Kingdom

Catholic sex abuse scandal might be worse than it seems

Frau Bluecher

Catholic bishops have long hidden the truth about sex crimes committed by priests.

Next time the Hamilton County Prosecutor issues a grand jury subpoena to Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, he should ask for more than documents. The prosecutor should demand the archbishop's secret key — the one Pilarczyk is required to have under the Canon Law of the Catholic Church.

"In the diocesan curia there is also to be a secret archive, or at least in the ordinary archive there is to be a safe or cabinet, which is securely closed and bolted and which cannot be removed," says Canon 489. "In this archive, documents which are to be kept under secrecy are to be most carefully guarded."

Pilarczyk is, according to Catholic law, literally the keeper of the key.

"Only the Bishop is to have the key of the secret archive," Canon 490 says.

Of course, even if the prosecutor succeeds in getting that secret key, he might be too late for some of the evidence it could reveal. That's because Canon Law also calls for Pilarczyk to regularly purge the secret archive.

"Each year documents of criminal cases concerning moral matters are to be destroyed whenever the guilty parties have died, or 10 years have elapsed since a condemnatory sentence concluded the affair," Canon 489 states. "A short summary of the facts is to be kept, together with the text of the definitive judgment."

'You're blowing this thing up'
The fact that the Catholic Church has its own version of a statute of limitations isn't surprising. The scandal over child molestation by priests has by now been eclipsed by the lengths church officials have gone to cover up the crimes.

That's why Pilarczyk's insistence on a subpoena before surrendering church records was unintentionally funny: He claimed he was doing it to protect the privacy of the kids his priests have molested. All indications are the church has long sought to protect, before all else, its reputation and its treasury.

In 1992, the archdiocese allegedly reformed its policies on clerical sexual abuse. But secrecy — or "confidentiality," as the church prefers — remains highly prized in these affairs. A 1998 policy update, the "Archdiocese of Cincinnati Decree on Child Abuse," details procedures for returning to active duty priests who molest children.

The policy tells church officials how to handle information about the offense — the very issue that prompted Pilarczyk's subpoena last week.

"Confidential disclosure of the offender's history of child abuse to appropriate supervisors and peers will almost always be a factor in any future reinstatement," the decree says. "Honesty within the community and protection from legal liability may warrant public disclosure of incidents of child abuse, either in the immediate aftermath of an incident or later, should the offender be reinstated in an official role within the archdiocese." (Emphasis is per the original.)

Perhaps the most revealing statement in the decree is its listing of priorities for deciding what to tell about child abuse. Although Catholic officials claim the welfare of children is paramount, the archdiocese's own policy says the interests of the church come first.

"Consideration of disclosure ... will include foremost the well-being of the local church community and secondarily the wishes of the victim, the legal concerns of the archdiocese and the well-being of the offender," the decree says.

Even a summary of the decree prepared for volunteers at Catholic schools, churches and clubs seems to hint it's OK not to tell police about priests molesting kids.

"Most volunteers, since they are not acting in a professional capacity, have no obligation to report a suspected or actual act of child abuse to the civil authorities, but they are encouraged to do so," the summary says.

In the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, keeping sexual abuse secret has sometimes come even at knifepoint. For example, when a man confronted the Rev. George Cooley about molesting his son, a brawl broke out in the rectory at Guardian Angels Church in Mount Washington.

We know about the scene because Cooley, twice jailed for offenses against children, described it in a deposition filed in Hamilton County Common Pleas Court in April 1992.

"When I told (the man) I had touched (his son), when I rubbed my hand over (the boy's) genital area, (the man) punched me, cutting my upper lip," Cooley testified. "I said, 'Wait a minute. Don't do anything you're going to be sorry for, because you're blowing this thing up.' I said there was nothing to be concerned about, that nothing had happened. And at that point he pulled a knife. It was like — I don't know knives, but like a big Jim Bowie knife, had a big sheath on it. And he was flinging that around. So we wrestled in my cubicle of an office. ... He had been drinking. I could smell alcohol. So he wasn't very strong, so I overpowered him."

The man wasn't prosecuted for the attack on the priest and, in return, the priest wasn't prosecuted for child molestation — not until many years later (see Revolving Door for Cooley? issue of Jan. 18-24, 1996).

'The constant suspicion'
Cover-up has long been the way bishops deal with child abuse. In the Diocese of Covington, the late Bishop Richard Ackerman all but bragged about his success.

The Rev. Earl Bierman, who is serving a 20-year prison term in Kentucky for molesting young boys, was notorious for a 30-year history of abuse. In August 1977, Ackerman wrote to a psychologist about Bierman.

"This was an ongoing affair with a boy who, because of this conduct, had a complete nervous breakdown which required hospitalization," the letter said. "Earl Bierman does not know this, but this incident would have, except for my intervention, brought him to prison."

The bishop's letter, filed in Kenton District Court, is extraordinary for its frankness. Ackerman's plan for dealing with the child molester was to ship him elsewhere to work.

"In view of the fact that there is not a single place in this diocese which will willingly receive this priest, I think it best that he be encouraged to begin again in another diocese," the letter said. "His scandals are too well-known; he would be inhibited by the constant suspicion of others."

This week cardinals from the United States are at the Vatican to discuss the molestation of children by priests. In Cincinnati, Catholics wait for the next step in the county prosecutor's investigation.

In June 1992, The Cincinnati Enquirer trumpeted a promise by Pilarczyk, then president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"Bishops: Abuse is Priority," the headline said.

The subhead was equally promising: "More Aggressive Stance Adopted."

But so far the most aggressive stance by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati has been a refusal to tell what it knows. ©

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