Editorial: Church shines spotlight on own darkness

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“Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” – Ephesians 5:11

The Diocese of Santa Rosa made public Saturday the names of 39 Catholic clergy believed to have sexually abused about 100 children since the diocese founding in 1962.

Bishop Robert F. Vasa, writing extensively in this month’s issue of the North Coast Catholic newsletter, published Jan. 12, described the abuse as “very real trauma which the evil actions of priests and bishops have caused in the lives of thousands of young people in our nation.”

In most cases involving the Santa Rosa diocese, he points out, the abuses occurred decades ago, though the most recent were as late as 2006 and 2008. Fourteen of the 39 names were accused of crimes prior to joining the Santa Rosa diocese; 25 are now deceased; and none currently serve the diocese.

Among the would-be abusers on the list are former Hanna Boys Center clergyman, Rev. John Crews, who resigned from the home for troubled youth in 2013 after an allegation of sexual misconduct was made by the widow of a man alleged to have been abused by Crews in the early 1970s, and former St. Francis Solano assistant pastor, the late Francisco Xavier Ochoa, believed to have committed at least 10 counts of felony child sex abuse in his years with the diocese from the late 1980s to 2006.

Ochoa’s molestations first came to the attention of the Santa Rosa diocese in 2006, but when church officials dragged their feet for several days before reporting the allegations to the police, Ochoa took advantage of the window and fled to his native Mexico. He remained a fugitive in Jalisco until his apparent death from lung cancer at age 71 in 2009, never having to answer for his crimes.

The diocese’s delayed response to the Ochoa revelations and the role that played in his skipping town is demonstrative of the Catholic Church’s tradition of not treating child abuse with the gravity one would expect from an organization dedicated to the word of Jesus.

And, yet, here we are again. Every couple of years it happens: revelations of past abuse surface, attempts at a cover up are discovered, front-page headlines ensue and church officials apologize and say it will never happen again. It’s practically a cycle of abuse in its own right. Last August’s grand jury report detailing decades of abuse across eight diocese in Pennsylvania named more than 270 priests accused of sexually abusing over a 1,000 kids in the course of 70 years. The report initiated the naming of perpetrators in diocese across the country, in an admirable, if belated, attempt at transparency.

As far as the healing goes, it’s a start. And the Santa Rosa diocese should be commended for acknowledging the predators within its own ranks. And yet Vasa’s letter in the North Coast Catholic still at times succumbs to the same mitigations the Catholic Church has been pushing since papacy of John Paul II.

It qualifies the crimes; it compartmentalizes the perpetrators.

“The evil and sinful actions of these priests have adversely affected us all,” writes Vasa, who laments the “predatory priests” who have dishonored the many decent clergy dedicating their lives to helping others. “We have all suffered as a result of the evil actions.”

While no doubt there has been a lot of suffering to go around – and Vasa in no way equates the church’s victimhood with that of the abused – the laying of blame at the feet of a few bad actors ignores any possibility that the problem is systemic to the church, not simply the “evil actions” of a few “predatory priests.” Critics have long pointed to the church’s archaic views on sexuality, not to mention its refusal to ordain female priests or allow clergy to marry, as possible contributing factors to the institutional problems that have led such widespread abuse. Until church leaders confront those issues, the likelihood of further “evil actions” is all but certain.

That being said, the level of self-awareness reflected in Vasa’s missive would have been almost unthinkable 10 years ago; he’s right when he says some progress is being made.

“The church certainly does not want to simply state that you can trust the church,” Vasa says about whether parishioners should take the comprehensiveness of the list at the church’s word. “Such a claim in the light of the McCarrick scandal (in Pennsylvania) would be laughable.”

He goes on to acknowledge the church’s at-times criminal failure in protecting children from its own.

“The consensus at the time was that these flawed men could be rehabilitated with effective treatment,” writes Vasa, adding in profound understatement that returning the molesting priests to ministry was “naive and unrealistic.” “Further, the recognition of the deeply wounding effect which sexual abuse has on minors has also dramatically changed and evolved.”

Concludes Vasa: “The perception that the church is sheltering abusers of children needs to come to an end.”

At least one thing is certain about this dark period of abuse and renewed promise of transparency: The church’s greatest clarity has come in recognition of just how damaging church leaders’ long-held practice of denial and cover up has been to the very thing throughout these many scandals the institution seems to have held most dear: the church itself.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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