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Reporting of sex abuse incidents in the church often incorrect

Posted: Friday, November 08, 2002

A few weeks ago, a significant number of newspapers around the United States stated that the Vatican had rejected the U.S. Catholic Bishop's norms for protecting children and young people. The norms had come about as a result of a number of incidents in which priests had sexually abused youth.

Reporting of these incidents understandably has been quite extensive given the nature of the crime as well as the persons who committed the crime. Still, the reporting often has been incorrect.

Regarding the norms sent to the Vatican, there was no rejection. After the process of review had begun, however, it soon was determined that some corrections were needed if they were to be in accord with the canon law of the Catholic Church.

The task of further revising these norms was assigned to a joint commission consisting of four bishops from the United States and four Vatican officials representing four different Vatican Congregations.

Their joint task was to reflect upon the text and refine the norms as then deemed necessary. This has now been accomplished and these refined norms will be addressed by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops during our November meeting in Washington D.C.

Many people (Catholics included) do not understand the procedures in place to which Catholics bishops must adhere. Because every Catholic bishop is autonomous in the diocese in which he serves, the process of jointly addressing issues can be a bit complex.

For instance, it is often assumed that the cardinals have the final say in what happens in the Catholic Church in the United States. In reality, they have authority only in their own dioceses. Likewise, it is often assumed that the Vatican makes particular church law for Catholics in the United States. In reality, they give what is called a recognitio to the particular laws presented to them by the U.S. Episcopal Conference. Only the full complement of bishops from the United States has the authority to establish norms for the Catholic Church in the United States. This must be accomplished by a two-thirds majority and then the appropriate recognitio from the Vatican (to assure that the norms are consistent with universal church law).

As a Catholic bishop, this has been a trying experience. It has been for most bishops. The incidences of child sexual abuse perpetrated by a few priests has been both horrendous and criminal.

The great majority of Catholic priests, however, behave exactly as you would expect them to behave as good men trying to be of service to their flocks. Still, there are a few who have caused great harm. Levels of priests who have abused a child is around 2 percent. While a relatively low percentage, one child molested is still too many.

It would be a big mistake by society to portray this as being something about which only the Roman Catholic Church should be concerned or that happens only at the hands of a few Catholic priests. It is not a clerical problem. It is a societal problem.

It occurs throughout the world and is found in all strata of society. According to one study, about 20 percent of the general population will be victimized through sexual molestation before they reach the age of 18. Incredibly, 60 percent of child abusers are parents of their own children.

As a Catholic bishop and a member of the U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops, I know how that it is incumbent on us to restore confidence and trust by confronting this evil.

I have heard the pain in the voices of people who have suffered as a result of this sin. At the same time, because it is a pervasive evil that affects all society, it is incumbent on all people in society to assure that all children receive the protection they need.

Michael Warfel is the Roman Catholic bishop of the Archdiocese of Juneau.



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