In so many respects, recent news reports of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests have done a disservice to the thousands of dedicated and devoted priests who hold such actions to be morally repugnant and reprehensible. But the public debate and gossip have taken on momentum of their own, adding to the rancor and widespread condemnation.
At the same time, those same news reports have underscored the fact that the evil of sexual abuse is matched by the evil of secrecy -- in terms of failing to report such abuse immediately, in terms of trying to keep a lid on reported cases and in terms of not informing new parishioners when admitted abusers are sent to new parishes.
The thinking of the church's hierarchy may be shifting under the pressure of public scrutiny. But it remains to be seen if the handling of future instances of sexual abuse by priests will be significantly different.
At the heart of needed change is the attitude of those who are abused and those who learn of the abuse. As we have seen time after time, victims of sexual abuse are often reluctant to report what has happened. This failure to act means undeterred sexual abusers can -- and often do -- repeat their offenses.
In the case of abuse by priests, many instances haven't been reported by the victims, usually boys, until they are grown men. This leads to perhaps the most basic questions of all: Why aren't these priests reported to the authorities and charged for their crimes? Prosecutors can't file charges if no one reports a crime, and they are limited on filing charges after long periods of time have elapsed.
Most states -- Missouri included -- have laws that require law enforcement personnel, most health-care providers, day-care workers and juvenile and probation officials to report cases of suspected sexual abuse. But ministers aren't included. There is a bill in the Missouri Legislature that would add members of the clergy to that list, provided a way can be found to protect the sanctity of the bond of confidentiality between ministers and those who seek guidance and help.
The other thing that needs to happen is for abuse victims to report these offenses to police instead of church authorities. If this is done in a timely way, police and prosecutors will be able to make decisions while evidence and memories are still fresh. Countless cases of abuse could have been prevented if the proper civil authorities had had an opportunity to put offenders behind bars. Moreover, prosecution acts as a deterrent to others who may be contemplating similar actions.
Meanwhile, we must be careful not to allow the actions of a few to condemn the many men and women who have assumed important responsibilities in our churches and who perform their duties with love and compassion for those who hold them in high regard.
Instead of secrecy, quick prosecution of those who choose to engage in criminal activity will be the best deterrent in cases of sexual abuse by anyone at any time.