Sex-abuse crisis is a watershed in the Roman Catholic Church’s history in America
The last decade has been a season of agony for the Catholic Church in the United States, a pilgrimage through purgatory made all the more painful by being self-inflicted.
Thousands of children have accused Catholic priests, seminarians, nuns, and brothers of molesting them. Victims have told stories of suffering intensified by official church neglect. The church has paid out billions of dollars in settlements. Most controversial of all, Catholic bishops have been accused of trying to hush it all up, shuffling offenders from one unsuspecting parish to another.
Now, Msgr. William J. Lynn, former secretary for clergy of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, has become the first high-ranking church official convicted for failing to protect children from the possibility of abuse.
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It’s a pivotal moment in the worst crisis the Catholic church in the United States has ever faced.
“Everybody working for a bishop is put on notice that they can go to jail if they don’t do the right thing, even if they’re doing what the bishop was telling them,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Woodstock Theological Center.
“This is sending a very strong message to every priest personnel director, bishop’s secretary, and chancellor in the country that it won’t be a legitimate excuse to say, ‘The bishop told me to do it,’ ” said Reese, formerly editor of the Jesuit magazine America and author of books on the Vatican and the American hierarchy.
“It’s hugely significant and long overdue,” said Philip F. Lawler, editor of the online Catholic World News. “If bishops and their assistants in the chanceries had been accountable, they wouldn’t have to be held accountable by the courts.”
“It’s a major, major move forward for those of us trying to help victims,” said the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle, a canon lawyer formerly on the staff of the Vatican’s diplomatic mission in Washington.
An even higher-ranking church official than Lynn – Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., – has been charged criminally with failure to report abuse. Finn was indicted on the misdemeanor charge in October. His trial is scheduled for September.