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Abuse cases still scar church's US image

In the US, Catholics say the next Pope must hold child abusers accountable in order to restore the church's image
Last modified: 11 Mar 2013 00:12

American Catholics say the clergy child sexual abuse scandal is the biggest problem confronting the church today. That’s one finding of a survey by the Pew Research Center conducted in February. The survey also shows large majorities feel Pope Benedict XVI and American bishops have done a poor job of handling the crisis and in dealing with sexual abusers in the clergy.

No one knows precisely how many boys and girls have been sexually molested by priests; one estimate says at least 100,000 children were abused in the United States alone.

Adrian Ramirez, a 38-year-old married father of two who lives in the Highland Park section of Los Angeles, spoke to Al Jazeera about the sexual abuse that blighted his childhood and affected his adult life.

From the age of 11 Ramirez was brutally and repeatedly raped- hundreds of times over the course of two years.

The abuser was a man studying for the priesthood who had been placed in charge of youth activities in the parish.

"I’m constantly reliving it," he says quietly. "After the youth groups he would rape me in his car. He would…even at church he would do it—in the pews. He would say, 'imagine it’s God touching you.'  Who does that to a kid, you know? I was 12-years-old and I’m like, 'Really? God is saying this is OK?'"

The sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy is a worldwide crisis with evidence that priests used their position of power to molest children in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Germany, Ireland, Kenya, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, Poland, the Philippines, and Tanzania to name a few.

"It is the most despicable crime," says Patrick Wall, a former priest and canon lawyer who investigated cases of sexual abuse on behalf of the Church. Wall left the priesthood in 1998 and is now a leading advocate for abuse survivors. He’s the author of one of the definitive books on the subject, "Sex, Priests and Secret Codes."

"At least in a physical murder the pain is done. But when it comes to the sexual abuse of a child, that pain never ends,” Wall says. "The sexual abuse of a child is a permanent scar upon the soul that never goes away. And it's always there. It's always rubbing at them. It's always a partially opened wound."

Covering up scandals

High church officials sought to cover up the scandals. Bishops like Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles and Bernard Law of Boston had shuffled pedophile priests from one parish to another and hid abuse allegations from police and prosecutors. The cover-up was meant to avoid scandal, but it also meant that the survivors of abuse were often manipulated.

"One of the things that the priest and the priest's lawyer would say to the child and the family was, 'you really don’t want to come forward and put shame upon you and your family'. As if it were the child’s fault," Wall says.

"I never told nobody," Ramirez says. "I come from a very Catholic family. We don’t talk about this stuff. I never told my parents because [I thought] they would never believe me. So I never told nobody. Not even my friends."



The fallout from the scandals rocked the church to its core. In the US alone six thousand priests were defrocked and dozens went to prison for sex crimes. The US church paid over $3bn to settle lawsuits brought by survivors of abuse, and eight US dioceses declared bankruptcy.

While $3bn seems like an enormous sum, it is only a small fraction of the vast wealth of the Catholic Church. An analysis of Church finances by the Economist magazine estimated that the Church spends $170bn per year on its activities in the US.

But the damage to the Church’s reputation may be the scandal’s lasting legacy. “The biggest thing the church has lost is the moral standing,” Wall says. “It used to be that the people would seriously honestly listen to if a bishop had something to say about a particular topic. At this point the bishops have lost their moral authority also within the church itself.”

The behavior of the Church has been "reckless", Adrian Ramirez says. "They need serious change. We're talking about kids getting abused, we're talking about kids getting trashed, and they're more worried about their image, and protecting these perps than they are the kids. They advocate that their priorities are the kids and their families, but really I see something totally different."

The scandal came to dominate the papacy of Benedict XVI. The Pope met with victims personally to apologise, and expressed feelings of shame.

Benedict called for repentance and soul searching within the hierarchy, and instituted some reforms meant to keep pedophiles out of the priesthood.

'Very cowardly'

Ramirez doesn't think much of Benedict’s decision to retire, which the Pope said was due to ill health and age. "I think he chose the easy way out, deciding to give up his place as Pope. It’s very cowardly," he says.

With the next Pope inheriting the burden of the scandal, advocates for survivors say what's needed is stronger action- holding priests and bishops accountable, removing clerics who covered up cases of abuse, and releasing the secret, confidential church files on abusers to the courts and the public.

Catholics United Executive Director James Salt says: "The new Pope has an opportunity to reset the priorities of the church. And the most important way the church can rectify the problems of its abuse of minors is listen more to the loyal laity, those of us in the pews, who love the church but desperately want better leadership."

"We need a pope that will fire a bishop for knowingly putting priests back into ministry that they knew were sex abusers,” says Wall.

For Adrian Ramirez, the psychological wounds inflicted in his childhood have never healed. The man who abused him introduced him to alcohol, marijuana and cocaine, and Ramirez struggled with addiction. As a 14 year old, he attempted to hang himself. Later, the secret tormenting him inside affected his marriage and his relationship with his daughters.

"I didn't know what the hell was going on. My life was upside down. I don't remember too clearly some parts of my kids' childhoods - the fun times - because I was medicated. So I lost a huge part of my kids life because of what happened."

Ramirez has renounced all religion. That causes conflicts with his parents, who remain devout Catholics despite what happened to their son.

Ramirez received a financial settlement from the Los Angeles diocese - part of a $600mn payout to abuse survivors who took the diocese to court. But he says money does little to ease the pain he feels every day.

"It’s constantly repeating itself," he says, noting that he has difficulty sleeping at night.

"It's like a video tape. I guess you could say I’m not at peace."

Follow Rob Reynolds on Twitter: @RobReynoldsAJE