June 14th, 2010
08:29 AM ET
Editor's Note: David Clohessy is executive director of the U.S.-based international support group SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests.
By David Clohessy, Special to CNN
Let’s be brutally honest: all of us want the Catholic Church’s ongoing clergy sex abuse and cover-up crisis to end. Like the BP Gulf oil catastrophe or the never-ending Middle East conflict, it’s tragic, wearing and seemingly intractable.
In fact, we’re all so desperate to see some light—any light—at the end of this awful tunnel that often we look for, cling to, and exaggerate even a hint of progress. It’s a dangerous place to be, because such despondency tempts us to seize on “false idols” and apparent glimmers of hope that, sadly, are illusory.
Such is the case with Pope Benedict XVI’s apology on Friday.
Maybe, as some commentators claim, he was clearer than in his earlier brief comments on the crisis. Maybe, as a few Rome news correspondents suggest, there’s something significant about the pope's location and timing, speaking from his balcony before thousands of priests.
But whether he says more words, clearer words, or even sadder words is fundamentally irrelevant. Words don’t protect kids. Actions protect kids. A victim from our group in Virginia says it best: “No child on the planet is safer today because of what the pope said last week.”
Hours after the pope’s brief and vague abuse remarks, I found myself almost debating over the phone with a young reporter from a major U.S. new outlet. He seemed genuinely incredulous that I wasn’t enthusiastic about Benedict’s apology about the scandal.
He finally sputtered, “But this is such a grand gesture—an apology straight from the pope himself, right in St. Peter’s Square!”
“You nailed it,” I replied. “It is a grand gesture. And gestures—large or small—protect no one and change nothing.”
Searching for any analogy that might help him better understand what’s at stake, I propose that I passively watch while a criminal struggles with a child who can’t swim and eventually throws the youngster into a swirling river. “Say I first whisper an apology, then apologize in a conversational tone, and finally shout ‘I’m so sorry’ at the top of my lungs. None of that stops the child from drowning.”
When it comes to the safety of children, only actions matter.
And in this crisis, decisive action is clearly possible. The pope is a monarch. He rules the worldwide church. It’s not a complex, messy democracy in which delicate negotiations and balancing acts and compromises are inevitable.
The pope could issue a decree tomorrow mandating that each of the world’s roughly 2,800 dioceses post on their websites the names of all proven, admitted, and credibly accused child-molesting clerics in their diocese. Bishops who don’t comply would be ousted.
On most issues, talk is the pope’s only weapon. He can’t issue orders to combat world hunger, the AIDS epidemic, economic inequity or global warming.
With predatory priests and complicit bishops, however, he’s got real power. That’s what makes his refusal to act so inexcusable. Benedict really could, almost instantly, make children safer. He’s been a Vatican bureaucrat for decades and the pope for five years. He has had ample time to deter future crimes and cover-ups by publicly punishing and removing those who commit, ignore or conceal child sexual abuse.
Thankfully, however, there are proven solutions that don’t rely strictly on the church hierarchy. Let’s face it: real reform of private institutions often comes only through outside pressure. No entity can effectively police itself, least of all an ancient, rigid, secretive, all-male monarchy with a widely-documented track record with predatory employees and complicit supervisors.
Here is what government officials can and should do:
–First, launch independent, thorough investigations into the extent of cover-ups of clergy sexual abuse in each Catholic entity—dioceses, schools and religious orders. That’s what the Irish government has done. Only when a crisis is understood can it then be effectively addressed.
–Second, aggressively and creatively use existing laws to criminally pursue child molesting clerics and their complicit colleagues and managers.
–Third, eliminate or reform predator-friendly laws, including statutes of limitations, that give child sex offenders and their enablers incentive to destroy evidence, threaten witnesses, intimidate victims, fabricate alibis and flee the country.
Apologies and forgiveness, as SNAP’s founder Barbara Blaine often says, are appropriate after, not during, a crisis. At this point, such pleas are at best well-meaning but inappropriate distractions from “job one”—protecting the vulnerable. With that task, sadly, the pope has barely begun. So secular authorities need to step in.
And when most predators are ousted and most enablers are disciplined, then the task of healing the wounded and understanding the crisis and devising longer-term remedies can begin. That’s when real light, not illusory light, will appear at the end of this tragic tunnel. We owe it to children—those being molested today and those who will be molested tomorrow—to help create and hold out for that light.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Clohessy.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.