Puttin' Out the Bone

Making the Church Pay

The other day I'm driving along with a friend of mine and I start to bitch about the never-ending horror of the Catholic Church's veiling of their clergy's abuse of children. So he calmly says to me, "When I was a teenager, I was molested by a priest."

Bam. There it is. Right in my own car. A guy that I know. A prominent local journalist, and he tells me it happened to him.

For more than a year, this crime against the faithful has played out. You'd think it would shock the Catholic Church into rebuilding trust in the community, but it continues to play defense — a strategy that's costing it dearly.

In spring 2002, when I pressed the local church on its own child abuse statistics compared to what was breaking in Boston, I felt pushback. Dan Andriacco, spokesman for the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, made me feel that they were more concerned about protecting priests than children.

No question, he told me about their book outlining procedures to protect kids in their parishes from abuse by ordained men. But when I was the first journalist to ask them specific questions about the past, I felt coolness and defensiveness and not warmth and openness.

How many priests are documented to have molested children, I asked. Fewer than five, I was told. I remember pressing the question. Fewer than five would mean four. So why not say that number?

"Fewer than five," I was told.

You know, like, that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

As time passed, the local Catholic Church started to say it was five, not fewer than five. Well, that's progress. When I recently asked about that, Andriacco said that, because one of the five had been out of the country and another was semi-retired, he thought "less than five" was a fair characterization. In time, they decided to use the fullest number they had, to err on the side of completeness.

Good God! What do I care if a scumbag child abuser is in Rome working for the Pope or running the register part-time at a gas station? He's part of the picture in the Cincinnati Archdiocese, wouldn't you think?

In March, Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen said he believes there are up to 20 more priests whose possible crimes are beyond statutes of limitation.

Look, the Catholic Church's handling of these crimes against children is beyond explanation. At times the words coming from the Catholic Church, locally and across the country, even from the highest levels, sound frighteningly similar to, "I didn't have sex with that woman." Maybe, just like President Bill Clinton, the church was afraid to face embarrassment.

It is likely costing them. According to Andriacco, the local Catholic Church uses the month of October to draw an average of its membership. In October 2002, the numbers were down. That's last October, almost a year ago. During this year, we've learned proud Elder High School is now mocked for its pattern of child abuse. We've seen the news stories of the "less than five" priests play out on front pages. So the parish by parish census in the next few weeks could show further drops.

Since some have speculated that the protective public relations strategy all along was really about money, has there been a drop in donations at Sunday masses? Yes, according to Andriacco. But with a bad economy, you can't assume it's due to the scandal, he says. He adds that the archbishop's annual fund drive, which is collected outside Sunday masses, met its goal last year and is doing fine this year.

At the news conference in 2002, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk became defensive when I asked why Catholic priests abuse children in numbers higher than other groups. He said they didn't, and most abuse of children happens in families, a group that doesn't even practice celibacy, as Catholic priests do.

The fact is the Catholic Church itself is now wondering if it has a unique problem with child abuse. So it commissioned a study at John Jay University in New York. Dioceses across the country are required to submit data for the past 50 years dealing with child abuse by their clergy.

But just using anecdotal data, does anyone reading this think that, say, ministers of the Methodist Church also touch little boys or crawl into their sleeping bags on sleepovers — or even have sleepovers with children? Are we in the media picking on Catholics, ignoring reports that say Baptist ministers are fondling children?

Such a conspiracy would seem illogical. It seems that the Catholic Church has a unique history. It seems that the proper response would be forthrightness, openness and contrition.

There have been no incidents reported to have happened in the past decade, according to Andriacco. Local prosecutors are similarly silent on any new cases. So maybe this is a scourge of the past.

But back to that money. When I first visited Rome, I was stunned by the opulence of Vatican City. I couldn't help wondering what the hell all the gold leaf monuments, expensive stained glass and ancient artifacts had to do with the humble words of Jesus Christ.

I'm guessing if the man walked the earth today, he'd not only drive a hybrid but he'd also sell St. Peter in Chains and give the money to the children abused by his ordained priests — if for no other reason than to teach public relations and humility to the leaders of his flock.

Oh, and he'd strike down celibacy. And one more thing: He'd ordain women.

PUTTIN' OUT THE BONE appears monthly.

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