OPINION: The priest problem  

OPINION: The priest problem  

THE Irish Times newspaper called the litany of Catholic Church child sex abuse cases “the greatest institutional crisis in its modern history”.
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Other denominations have their problems also, but the celibacy demanded of Catholic priests seems to have contributed to its disproportionate involvement in pedophilia.

In Ireland, taxpayers will foot one-fifth of the $500million needed to settle 3000 claims against the Catholic church. Another 2000 claims have been lodged in Canada. Australia has sentenced at least 51 priests in nine years, while England has convicted 21 in seven years. In December the Bishop of Boston, Archbishop Bernard Law, resigned over allegations that he covered up pedophile accusations against his various clergy.

What this sorry catalogue shows is that every single church official must be acutely aware of the child abuse question, and their responsibilities in responding to allegations against their number.

In this light, it is difficult to accept a decision taken by the Catholic Bishop of Maitland/Newcastle, Michael Malone, to allow Father James Fletcher to continue in his job for nine months after police told the Bishop they were investigating an abuse allegation againt the parish priest.

Father Fletcher, whose parish includes Branxton, Greta and Lochinvar, was finally stood down from parish duties in mid-March, when charges were imminent.

It should be noted here that Father Fletcher has not been convicted of a crime; the allegations against him remain untested. This, though, is not the point.

The sheer magnitude of the Catholic paedophile issue, and the responsibility that Bishop Malone acknowledges he has to the complainant and the parish mean that Father Fletcher should have been stood down as soon as the allegations were raised, not when they were about to be made public through a court case.

When to act

Two recent cases have interesting parallels here. Catholic Archbishop of Sydney George Pell stood down when allegations of a case of abuse some 40 years previously were raised in the media. The allegations have not been tested before a court, but an inquiry by a retired judge said the complaints had not been established.

More recently, Governor-General Peter Hollingworth a senior member of the Anglican church stood aside over a rape allegation from the 1960s.

In the Hollingworth case, the Prime Minister Mr Howard faced criticism for allowing Dr Hollingworth to stay in the job for the recent months before the allegations became public.

The Catholic Church’s “Towards Healing” policy promises “a compassionate response to the victim (is) the first priority in all cases”. The policy also recognises the hurt caused by a response that “denies, distorts or minimises complaints”.

When the official policy is full of such sentiments, but the church leaves an accused priest in the job for nine months, it must be tempting for the victims of abuse to conclude that the church says one thing, while doing another.

An extra-edition of both the Boston Herald and The Boston Globe newspapers after the announcement of the resignation of Boston Archbishop Cardinal Bernard Law.