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Catholic Church Reels From Latest Child Sex Abuse Investigation


Pope Francis released a letter today addressing sexual abuse. It said the Catholic Church must, quote, "acknowledge our past sins and mistakes." The Vatican has been struggling to respond to the latest investigation into child abuse at the hands of priests. A grand jury in Pennsylvania last week released what is being called the most comprehensive investigation into sex abuse within the church. It detailed horrendous acts involving more than a thousand children abused over seven decades across six dioceses in Pennsylvania. Earlier this morning, I spoke with Father Thomas Reese. He's a Jesuit priest and a senior analyst with the Religion News Service, and I asked him if he thought Pope Francis and the church have been doing enough to support survivors.

THOMAS REESE: I think we can always do more to support survivors. I think it's very important for the bishops to listen to the survivors. That's one of the most important things they can do. Every survivor you talk to is angry, not just because of the abuse they experienced, but because of the denial they experienced when they tried to tell their story. And it's so important for bishops to set aside time to listen to the victims because this is one way we can help in their healing.

GREENE: Is the church doing that? Is the church finding forums or places where survivors can have those discussions?

REESE: Some bishops are. I think every bishop needs to do it. You know, the pope has actually begun doing that himself. You know, a year ago, I would've said that the pope, you know, only got a B in terms of how he was dealing with the sex abuse crisis. He was on board totally with the zero tolerance of abuse by priests. This is the law of the church now. Any priest involved in abuse can no longer act as a priest. He's going to be removed from the priesthood. But, you know, we were still kind of not dealing with the bishops who weren't implementing these rules and were involved in cover-ups. And the pope was sometimes defending these bishops because he didn't understand the situation. Well, he went through a big conversion earlier this year. He had been defending the bishops in Chile, and he got real angry when he found out that he was wrong, and he apologized. He admitted he was wrong and demanded they submit their resignations - all of the bishops of Chile submit their resignations to him. This sends a signal to every bishop in the world that if he doesn't do his job, he's going to hear from the pope.

GREENE: Well, a lot of people, Father Reese, think that it should go well beyond priests losing their jobs, well beyond priests hearing from the pope. I mean, many are looking for changes in the law to get rid of the statute of limitations to clear the way for civil lawsuits to be filed by survivors. You actually wrote recently that that might not be the right answer. Why is that?

REESE: Well, I think that the survivors of abuse, obviously, deserve justice, and they also deserve to be helped. But I'm not sure suing is the best route. You know, suing works fine for a profit-making corporation because you have owners that either cut corners, endanger the lives of their customers, the environment or their employees, and were making money on it. And they deserve to be punished and you can punish them financially.

The problem with nonprofits is nobody owns them. You're not punishing the bishop when you make a diocese pay millions of dollars. You're punishing the people in the pews who put their money in the collection basket. It's their money. You're also punishing the people who benefit from that money - you know, the parishes, the schools, poor people who are supported by charities. I think a better way would be something like we had with the 9/11 Commission where the bishops put forward, you know, a bundle of money and set up an independent board. And then victims can simply come in and tell their story, and that independent board can decide, you know, how to help these people and how much money each person should get.

GREENE: I guess a lot of people would hear that and say, sure, filing lawsuits is not perfect; a lot of money goes to lawyers, and maybe it prevents an institution like the Catholic Church from doing good things, but that it's the only way - that the threat of lawsuit is the only possible way to truly change and reform the behavior of a nonprofit, and without that, things just really won't change.

REESE: Well, yeah, I don't know the answer to that question. I think if we look, though, at the changes that have already occurred in the Catholic Church, we see that - you know, ever since 2002, the church law says any accusation against a priest has to be reported to the police. And in addition, the church has procedures now - if it's credible accusation, the priest has to be suspended while a complete investigation takes place. And if he's found - that the allegation is true, then he's removed from ministry. And I think if we also have procedures that punish bishops who don't implement these rules - remove them from office and, in fact, put them in jail, which we can do now - that's doing a lot in terms of changing the culture of this church, of this institution.

GREENE: I just think about, though, you know, your proposal for setting up some sort of 9/11-like commission, and I just wonder, has the church earned the trust of survivors at all...

REESE: Oh, I don't think...

GREENE: ...In any way that they - that they should be involved in the solution as opposed to going through the courts?

REESE: Absolutely not. For example, in Pennsylvania, I think the dioceses of Pennsylvania should come up with a bunch of money, give it to the state of Pennsylvania and ask the attorney general, the guy who did this grand jury report - ask him to set up a process to give out the money to the victims. No. Nobody in the church should be involved in distributing this money. The only thing we have to ask of the church is, how much money can it pony up?

GREENE: What do you tell people, as a priest, who come to you and ask you - what is happening here? - I mean, people who you feel like you serve.

REESE: Well, the first thing I say is, I am very angry. I mean, reading the grand jury report is disgusting. It's awful what happened to these children - should not have happened to one child, and the fact that it happened to a thousand children is just abominable. I think anger is a legitimate and proper response to what happened. And then I think we have to hold the church's feet to the fire and make sure it follows the law, it follows its own rules and procedures for dealing with abuse.

GREENE: Father Thomas Reese is a Jesuit priest. He writes about church affairs for the Religion News Service. We really appreciate your time, father. Thank you.

REESE: I wish I was talking about something better.

GREENE: We do, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL LANOIS' "FLAMETOP GREEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.