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Hold the Applause

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Chaput.jpgTalk about sending mixed signals.

On one hand, the Philadelphia Archdiocese says it is getting tough on priestly sex abusers, with a zero-tolerance policy enforced by outsiders, many of whom are former prosecutors.

On the other hand, when the new archbishop, Charles Chaput, held a private dinner for scores of priests last month, the assembled gave a standing ovation to Monsignor William J. Lynn, who is facing charges of covering up for priests who were known abusers.

There is no indication the group also sang "Hail, hail, the gang's all here...."

But, it's clearly another in a string of public relations disasters for the archdiocese, especially after the Inquirer stripped the story across the front of the Metro section today (Tuesday, Oct. 5)

What could they have been thinking? How would they applaud someone under criminal indictment for official misdeeds?

To be clear, Lynn is not accused of abuse. His indictment stems from actions he took while secretary of the clergy from 1992 until 2004.  His job was to recommend where priests should be assigned.  In that role, it is alleged, he re-assigned priests who were abusers to other parishes, where they could and did abuse again. They should not have been let near children and they ended up raping altar boys.  

On one level, I understand the impulse to be supportive. The priesthood is a fraternity. These men went to school together, work together, and often socialize together.  They have empathy for the emotional toll it has taken on Lynn and reacted accordingly.

On the other hand, isn't this what got the church into trouble in the first place? When confronted with credible cases involving rape of children, the instinct was to protect the frat brother who was in trouble. There's a word for this -- clericalism -- and it is a pejorative. It's an ingrained system of clerical-collar cronyism.

Chaput was the one who singled out Lynn at the dinner, thus sparking the applause. In an earlier interview, Chaput said it was important that Lynn be treated fairly and "that he not be a scapegoat."

I understand that, too. There are no rogue priests, certainly none who are allowed into the hierarchy. In his role as secretary of clergy, Lynn was reflecting the will of those above him. To use an old phrase, he was only following orders. Yet, he was the only one indicted.

Frankly, I think the grand jury would have indicted Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua were it not for the fact that he is aged, infirm and apparently not fully sentient. But, it does raise the question of why a middle-level diocasan bureaucrat has to take the brunt of the ire of the grand jury.

So, the damage done to the church by these scandals continues. And it is not going to be undone anytime soon.

If you need proof, consider the movement, now being championed by suburban Catholics, to ease the rules on the statute of limitations in abuse cases to allow suits to be filed against abusers -- and not just priests, but all abusers.

These Catholics have joined with the groups behind a bill now in the state legislature to extend the right to sue to those abused before 2006, a whole generation of people.

The bill has had trouble gaining traction because it is opposed by the Catholic Conference of Bishops, which fears costly settlements, and the insurance industry, which generally opposes such extensions, saying it makes it impossible set rates if people can sue decades after a rape has happened. An action taken in 1977 may cost millions in 2011.

This new group Justice4PAKids is notable because it is being led not by abuse victims, but by the faithful -- regular churchgoers who are angered and sickened by the latest round of indictments.

This anger is toxic for the church. These are the people it depends on to fill the pews and the collection baskets.

The sex scandal has obviously tarnished the church in the eyes of outsiders. But, to lose the faithful? It could prove fatal.

The church will have to work hard -- and over several decades -- to undo the damage done. It's something the priests who attend the next gathering should keep in mind.

If I were them, I would hold the applause.

-- Tom Ferrick

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