Miami Herald
Posted on Sun, Mar. 24, 2002
CARL HIAASEN

Time for church to pay up

Joining a long squalid roster, the Archdiocese of Miami has admitted
buying the silence of several men who accused a local priest of
sexually molesting them while they were boys.

That's how the Roman Catholic Church customarily handles such
allegations -- with hush money and a coverup. Once upon a time it
worked, but not anymore. Victims of pedophile priests are stepping
forward all over the place, and the exploding scandal has demoralized
many devout Catholics and battered the priesthood. Predictably, the
headlines have renewed debate over the absurd celibacy rule for
priests, but only in a few communities has the church hierarchy's
despicable conduct been discussed.

One of those places is Boston, where 86 alleged victims of a priest
named John Geoghan recently won a $20 million-plus settlement. Many
other cases are pending.

Geoghan's crimes took place more than three decades ago, and his
proclivities were well known to Cardinal Bernard Law, head of the
Boston archdiocese. Yet the cardinal did not notify the police nor
did he inform parishioners whose children might be at risk.

Instead, whenever Geoghan got in trouble (and he got in plenty), Law
simply moved him to a new parish. Now defrocked, Geoghan recently got
10 years in prison -- not because the Catholic Church turned him in,
but rather because some of his victims were brave enough to speak out.

Law has admitted making mistakes in handling the Geoghan case, a
stupefying understatement. What the cardinal actually did was to
conceal evidence of multiple felonies while enabling a pathological
sex offender to continue his crimes.

Scores of boys and young men will be scarred forever because the
church was more concerned with protecting its image than its people.
Law should drop to his knees and thank God that he wasn't indicted
for obstructing justice, although he should have been.

The Archdiocese of Miami settled out of court with five men who said
that they were molested as boys. A lawyer in two of those cases
identified the priest as Father Joseph Cinesi, who resigned in 1999
from a Broward parish and said he would fight to clear his name.

Typical of these settlements, the Cinesi payouts were attached to
confidentiality agreements that forbade the victims from publicly
revealing what had happened. That has been the church's favored
method of ensuring secrecy, but it's no longer foolproof.

Two weeks ago, Bishop Anthony O'Connell of Palm Beach resigned after
it was revealed that he had fondled a seminary student 25 years
earlier and that in 1996 the church secretly had paid $125,000 to the
man.

The list of incidents grows daily, which is what happens when a
coverup unravels. The New York Times reported that, since January, 55
Roman Catholic priests in 17 dioceses have been suspended, removed,
forced to quit or put on administrative leave because of alleged
sexual misconduct. Sordid headlines have surfaced from Maine to North
Dakota to California and beyond -- Ireland, France, Austria. Even in
Poland, the homeland of Pope John Paul II, the archbishop of Poznan
is facing public accusations of molesting a seminarian; charges he
has denied.

The pontiff has condemned the actions of pedophile priests as
''evil,'' yet he has remained silent on the issue of the church's
shameful policy of covering up the crimes.

At this point, however, little can be done to shut the floodgates. By
its own actions, the church has made itself a ripe target for legal
retribution by victims of predatory priests.

In Florida, the church tried to protect itself from sex-abuse
litigation by claiming, outrageously, that it was constitutionally
immune from such lawsuits. The state Supreme Court bluntly stuffed
that argument, ruling recently that ``the First Amendment does not
provide a shield behind which a church may avoid liability.''

Far worse than the big-dollar payouts are the disillusionment and
heartache that the scandal has caused among loyal parishioners and
the many good priests, including my own uncle. Today the Roman
Catholic Church stands with no hope of continuing to hide the awful
truth, and no legal or moral defense for its past behavior.

Ordinary people go to prison for having sex with minors. Pedophile
priests, however, get an airline ticket to a new parish while the
church buys off the victims and tells no one. A church that preaches
honesty and virtue.

To willfully turn a sexual predator loose upon a community is
reprehensible, yet it has happened time and again. Who knows how many
young lives have been damaged or wrecked? The time for the church to
confess its sins is long past. Let's see the holy checkbook.

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