Fridays of Lent are days of special sacrifice anyway, so I guess maybe the anguish caused by that day’s headline in our city’s newspaper should have been accepted as an invitation to further penance.
You’re familiar with the crescendo of recent stories on the sad and disturbing case of a German priest accused in 1979 of the vicious crime and sin of sexually abusing minor boys. When these hideous allegations came to the attention of this priest’s archbishop, a man by the name of Joseph Ratzinger — who now happens to be the bishop of Rome, Pope Benedict XVI — he rightly removed the priest and ordered him to report for residential assessment and therapy.
The shock of the original abuse is intensified because, tragically, upon his release from treatment, the priest was reassigned to parish work, although not by Archbishop Ratzinger. Horribly, as often was the case, the Reverend Peter Hullerman went on to abuse teenagers again.
Sad and sickening, a story all too familiar to us, as we Catholics in the United States have had to face this same ulcer ever so frequently over the last nine years. Scabs are reopened, anger rekindled, trust painfully restored now being chipped-away-at again, victim-survivors, their families, the vast majority of priests, and faithful Catholics, all hurt anew.
Pope Benedict XVI himself has expressed hurt, anger, sorrow, and contrition. As Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now as Pope, he is seen as one “who gets it” when it comes to the horror of clergy sexual abuse, and who has placed the full force of the Apostolic See, the Vatican, behind efforts to reform. Who can forget his forthright references to this scourge at least half-a-dozen times in his visit to our country nearly two-years ago, and his moving meeting with victim-survivors? And now we have his blunt, realistic Pastoral Letter to Ireland on the crises there. He must be asking, as we all do, “When will it all end.”
So Friday’s headline, only the most recent, stings us again: “Doctor Asserts Church Ignored Abuse Warnings,” as the psychiatrist who treated the criminal, Dr. Werner Huth, blames the Church for not heeding his recommendations.
What adds to our anger over the nauseating abuse and the awful misjudgment in reassigning such a dangerous man, though, is the glaring fact that we never see similar headlines that would actually be “news”: How about these, for example?
– “Doctor Asserts He Ignored Abuse Warnings,” since Dr. Huth admits in the article that he, in fact, told the archdiocese the abusing priest could be reassigned under certain restrictions, a prescription today recognized as terribly wrong;
– “Doctor Asserts Public Schools Ignored Abuse Warnings,” since the data of Dr. Carol Shakeshaft concludes that the number of cases of abuse of minors by teachers, coaches, counsellors, and staff in government schools is much, much worse than by priests;
– “Doctor Asserts Judges (or Police, Lawyers, District Attorneys, Therapists, Parole Officers) Ignored Abuse Warnings,” since we now know the sober fact that no one in the healing and law enforcement professions knew back then the depth of the scourge of abuse, or the now-taken-for-granted conclusion that abusers of young people can never safely work closely with them again.
What causes us Catholics to bristle is not only the latest revelations of sickening sexual abuse by priests, and blindness on the part of some who wrongly reassigned them — such stories, unending though they appear to be, are fair enough, — but also that the sexual abuse of minors is presented as a tragedy unique to the Church alone.
That, of course, is malarkey. Because, as we now sadly realize, nobody, nowhere, no time, no way, no how knew the extent, depth, or horror of this scourge, nor how to adequately address it.
The sexual abuse of our young people is an international, cultural, societal horror. It affects every religion, country, family, job, profession, vocation, and ethnic group.
We Catholics have for a decade apologized, cried, reached out, shouted mea culpa, and engaged in a comprehensive reform that has met with widespread acclaim. We’ve got a long way to go, and the reform still has to continue.
But it is fair to say that, just as the Catholic Church may have been a bleak example of how not to respond to this tragedy in the past, the Church is now a model of what to do. As the National Review Online observes, “. . . the Church’s efforts to come to grips with this problem within the household of faith — more far reaching than in any other institution or sector of society — have led others to look to the Catholic Church for guidance on how to address what is, in fact, a global plague.”
As another doctor, Paul McHugh, an international scholar on this subject at Johns Hopkins University, remarked, “Nobody is doing more to address the tragedy of sexual abuse of minors than the Catholic Church.”
That, of course, is another headline you’ll never see.