June 14th, 2010
08:29 AM ET

My Take: Why I can't accept the pope's latest apology

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.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Bishops • Catholic Church • Opinion • Pope Benedict XVI • Sex abuse

soundoff (215 Responses)
  1. Kimariey Kaltenbachk

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    July 31, 2012 at 4:51 am |
  2. Concerned

    I think you have so many Catholics trying to defend their religion because they are complicit by continuing to support the church and the Pope. Saying the same thing happens in other religions does not excuse what the leader of 3/4 of the world's people is doing. Why are child molesters the killed by convicts? Because it is one of the most disgusting acts a human being can do, especially against children. There is nothing any of you can say on this post to JUSTIFY what these so called leaders (demons) do. "G" is the only one who came close to expressing the outrage I feel; not just for the Pope and the so-called catholic church but for its defenders, i.e. the politicians, law enforcement and anyone else in power who continues to let this happen. They're all complicit. I wouldn't let my child near a catholic church and will teach them about their abusive history dating centuries back. Their souls have manifest the work of the devil for years with their sinful, proud ways. May God have mercy on them because they're certainly going to need it.

    July 22, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
  3. Entropy

    It just goes to show that morals don't come from religion.

    July 8, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
  4. Conan

    All you do gooders should give up. If I were a lawyer for the catholic chirch, I would get them all off on diplomatic immunity. After all
    the catholic church is its own sovereign country. All the roman chatholic churchs would then be diplomatic embassies and be sovereign soil of the vatican city. They would be santuary to any one within. (Oops, they already are!) The clergy would be diplomats, and could be immune to crimes committed in this country. (Oops, they already are! Or at least seem to be.) Homosexuals outside of the church, will be visited with the same hell fire and brimstone as Sodom and Gommora (sp). If they are
    married there spouses will be turned into a pillar of salt. (Sorry got carried away.) But homosexaul and hethrosexual child molesters, are required to say three hail mary's and have a lateral move across town, to new hunting grounds. After all they represent the infallable pope and are agents of god. They are criminals after the fact by aiding and abetting and are made into bishops, cardinals, and probably some day even the pope.
    Of course church attendance will drop, when the front doors of a church has a sign that says "Public Notice, child molester within." How could a priest, bishop or cardinal minister to the flock wearing an ankle bracelet.

    Yep, I wouldn't count on the help of the politicians.

    When they do wrong, its just political mud slinging!

    When governments do wrong, it national security!

    When the clergy do wrong, it just doing gods work, or gossip!

    July 5, 2010 at 8:38 pm |
  5. david

    the next pope will not be chosen from Europe. europeans are educated and therefore too critical of church crimes. look to the 3rd world for the next pope. that will be their reward for gaining converts and most importantly for giving the vatican a free hand to engage in any kind of abuse it so chooses. In some places in the world the church is all they have so they don't rock the boat and because of that one of their own will be chosen as the head of the church.

    June 28, 2010 at 7:10 pm |
  6. VSSaucouer

    Clohessy loses all credibility when he says "no child on the planet is safer... ". According to a John Jay College study over 1200 Priests have been suspended from ministry. The study also found that the percentage of abuse by male clergy of all religions is approximately the same – 4%. The Catholic Church deserves to be excoriated for the horrible crimes some of members have committed, but it's a fallacy that it has done nothing in recent years to protect children from abuse.

    June 23, 2010 at 11:53 pm |
  7. VSSaucouer

    Clohessy loses all credibility when he says "No child on the planet is safer....". According to a John Jay College study over 1100 Priests have been removed from their ministry. Also, There is a Zero Tolerance policy on abusers since 2002. When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants. Safe Environment training is taking place in 193 dioceses/eparchies of the country. Over 2 million adults have been trained to recognize the behavior of offenders and what to do about it. Over 5 million children have been equipped with the skills to help them protect themselves from abuse. Background checks are conducted on Church personnel who have contact with children. Over 2 million volunteers and employees; 52,000 clerics; 6,205 candidates for ordination have had their backgrounds evaluated. All dioceses/eparchies have Codes of Conduct spelling out what is acceptable behavior. This serves to let people know what can and cannot be done as well as letting others know what behavior can be expected. It encourages the reporting of suspicious behavior.
    All dioceses/eparchies have Victim Assistance Coordinators, assuring victims that they will be heard. In 2009, $6,536,109 was spent on therapy for the victims of clergy sexual abuse. All dioceses/eparchies have Safe Environment Coordinators who assure the ongoing compliance to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. Bishops are meeting with victims. Dioceses/eparchies have Healing Masses, retreats for victim/survivors and other reconciliation events.
    Dioceses/eparchies require intensive background screening as well as psychological testing for those wishing to enter the seminary. The Church deserves to be excoriated for the horrible crimes some members of its' Clergy committed, but don't make it sound like it's done nothing to stop it from happening, again.

    June 23, 2010 at 11:44 pm |
  8. SAG

    Get your Bible, show me where Jesus teaches us to confess our sins to a man..show me where He teaches about praying to anyone other than God the Father..show me his teachings on purgatory, or about their being a central authority over the church (other than Himself), show me one example of Peter (the so called first pope) ever acting as a central authority. NO ONE can show any evidence of Jesus teaching any of these things because the evidence does not exist.

    To be a Christian means to be a follower of Christ and His teachings. A brief study of the Catholic Church and its beliefs concerning Indulgences, Transubstantiation, Mass, the Deity of Mary, Penance, the Papacy, etc. clearly reveal how un-Christian the Catholic religion truly is. Contrary to popular belief, these people actually do know better. Romans 1 tells us what happens to those who willfully and grossly pervert the teachings of Christ:

    Romans 1
    24Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

    26Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. 27In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

    28Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done.

    June 22, 2010 at 1:33 am |
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About this blog

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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.