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April 21, 2006

Priestly Crimes (Continued)

Roy Meachum

Two matters have brought the Roman Catholic Church's sexual scandals back into the news, big time. Off the nation's front pages, the revelations roll on: Boston, for example, announced this week its compensations for victims are nearing $50 million. So far.

Closer to home, Baltimore's archbishop, Cardinal William Keeler, reached 75, the age when Rome decreed all hierarchy must submit a letter of resignation, a left-over relic from Vatican II.

During the councils to bring new life to the church's governance, it was hoped that forcing aside older ordinaries for younger men would automatically achieve modernization.

Dubbed "aggiornomiento" by John XXIII, who summoned the church fathers, the word translates approximately "up to date."

The much beloved pope hoped to save his church from the loss of faith and the growing barrage of criticism that followed World War II. Not a well kept secret, he planned on loosening celibacy, allowing marriages that might have encouraged young men to enter the priesthood.

John didn't. His death in the middle of the councils permitted the Vatican's bureaucracy to install on St. Peter's throne one of their own. Pope Paul VI knew better than to rock the waves of the Tiber, the moat that separates the papal territory from Rome. More than a river, it acts as a barrier, Italians say, to allowing the rest of the world in.

One by one the promised reforms dropped by the wayside. The few left at the council's end served the conservatives' cause. The most far-reaching was the decision to render the mass into all the languages spoken by the faithful; merely a gesture, it would be cited as the leading proof for how the church was changed. It didn't.

As years passed, the polyglot services served chiefly to mask the way the Vatican curia has tightened their reins. Local bishops have become mere messengers for the church bureaucrats. The manipulation of the official resignation date stands as an example.

Since canon law forbids the hierarchy serving beyond 80, those "extra" five years are wielded as a club to keep the hierarchy in line. Witness what's happening in Baltimore.

Of all the church fathers embroiled in the sex scandal, William Keeler stands naked and alone; on two charges he cannot hide behind other archdiocesan officials.

Mr. Keeler shielded a rather vicious predator, sending him back into his parish, overruling a committee the cardinal had appointed to give explicit advice on the matter. The priest might be serving now if yet one more victim had not come forward.

More cruel and certainly less Christian was Mr. Keeler's treatment of the young man who first accused the sexual predator. The archbishop offered no assistance and even refused to talk to either the victim or his family, very prominent among African Americans in the archdiocese.

Restoring the suspended pastor to his pulpit set in motion events that climaxed in the bloody outcome. In rapid order, the new complaint forced the archbishop to remove him from his parish, while holding on to his Roman collar.

Not done with courting the still popular pastor, Mr. Keeler placed him in an interfaith group, where he enjoyed the privileges and respect that came with his 'Roman collar.

After another man stepped forth, the first victim demanded the priest apologize; he reportedly received scorn, which led to the shooting of the predator.

When given a second chance to apologize and comfort the victim, Mr. Keeler refused to have dealings with the former altar boy; the prelate's position changed only under public pressure. Such hypocrisy simply had no business being rewarded by allowing the cardinal to hold his high office.

With his resignation, the curia can partially redeem itself; it could tell Baltimore's archbishop to do as I suggested before: throw his miter into the Inner Harbor and get out of town. Don't count on it.

William Keeler is tight with the Vatican's good old boys; today's curia would not hustle him out of the door. That happened to Washington's Cardinal Patrick Aloysius O'Boyle over demonstrations objecting to the failed coup initiated by the curia to "get" a Catholic University moral theologian. This is a far different church.

On the national scene, the Supreme Court ordered Los Angeles' Roger Mahony to enable the legal system to prosecute "rogue priests," as The New York Times' editorial tabbed them. Though not named in the suit New York's Cardinal Edward Egan practices the same obstructionist tactics as his West Coast colleague.

Both church leaders have been criticized for their handling of the scandal by a national council of laymen who warned "there must be consequences," for both the leaders and the Roman Catholic Church in this country.

By the way, this resistance to authorities and shielding pedophiliacs is by no means peculiar to this country. The Irish might be coping with an even worst crisis and there are others. The Vatican really stands guilty, in every case.

If you have seen Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons" or know about the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral, you are aware that the Catholic Church has long insisted it stands above man's laws.

With Rome's strong backing, the bishops consider an existential right their duty to maintain the church above man's laws.

In ancient times, all crimes committed by professed religious, women and men, were tried in church courts, which claimed jurisdiction even over murders and thefts. But then, Rome had the power to excommunicate kings and other rulers, bringing genuine hardships to their people.

Those times have been long gone, although rarely has a bishop been brought to trial in the United States; and never a cardinal. However, never before have so many millions and millions been paid out by the church or prisons and jails held so many ex-priests.

In the past I have heard members of the church hierarchy write off the faithful who question their superiors' acts. "We don't want them," a bishop once said. "We would be better off with a smaller church, anyway." He and his ilk are getting what they want.

Now, with the Supreme Court's ruling, we might actually see men like Cardinal William Keeler brought to answer for their crimes. It could happen.

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