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What's the Going Rate for Agony?

By Gregory Flannery · June 8th, 2005 · Burning Questions
Will the Catholic Church never understand the harm perpetrated by priests who molest kids?

The settlement of a class action lawsuit against the Diocese of Covington is touted by church officials, attorneys for the victims and the news media as a step toward healing. But, even at $120 million -- the largest damage award yet in a civil suit over sex abuse by priests -- the settlement will buy nothing of the kind.

Healing the wounds of child sexual abuse is a lifelong ordeal, and it's not a function of the courts. Depression, self-loathing, post-traumatic stress, difficulty in personal relationships, sexual dysfunction, divorce, alcohol and drug abuse, suicide -- these are some of the markers for survivors of childhood abuse, and the payment of damages is ill-suited to healing any of them.

That's not to say the $120 million serves no good purpose. Making the church pay is a form of justice. Indeed, as many victims have argued over the years, making the church pay is the only way to make it take abuse seriously.

It took years of litigation and the filing of criminal complaints to get the Catholic Church to face the problem. For all its preaching about sexual propriety -- forbidding birth control, damning premarital sex, opposing single-sex relationships, even telling kids that masturbation will send them to hell -- the church enabled perverted priests to continue molesting kids for years.

That's the real lesson of the settlement in Covington.

The class action suit alleged a 50-year history of cover-up of complaints about abuse by priests. In the end, the church paid up. The record is too painfully clear for it to have mounted much of a defense.

Nor is the record much better in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, whose own archbishop had to appear in court to enter a plea of no contest to a charge of failing to report child abuse to police.

Stan Chesley, whose law firm represents the victims, praises Covington Bishop Roger Foys for agreeing to the settlement. Foys, who took office in 2002, has distinguished himself from his predecessors by publicly apologizing for the abuse and, from all accounts, showing genuine concern for the victims.

But the real test for the Diocese of Covington is still ahead. Earl Bierman, the retired priest who attracted the most notoriety of the Northern Kentucky cases, is asking emergency parole on his 20-year prison term. Bierman, jailed since 1993, allegedly is dying of cancer.

In an editorial praising the settlement of the lawsuit, The Cincinnati Enquirer allowed that it "opens the door to forgive." Will the Catholic Church support Bierman's bid for early release? At the time of his sentencing and during one of his earlier efforts at parole, the church offered to house him at ecclesiastical facilities.

But wouldn't the church send a better message by placing victims first and opposing Bierman's parole? One survivor, who asked not to be identified, believes Bierman continues to be a threat to the public.

"I am for second chances, but Bierman has used up all of his, courtesy of the bishop," the survivor says. "How could any behavior on his part be possibly good enough to allow this insanely manipulative, notoriously repetitive felon the credence to return to freely mix with people, including children? What will he do? Where will he go? He has already made threats on individuals in revenge. I believe he is vindictive enough to try to carry out those threats and insane enough to justify returning to his old ways."

Good Catholics and others concerned about children can make their views on Bierman's release known by writing the Kentucky Parole Board, P.O. Box 2400, Frankfort, KY 40602.

BURNING QUESTIONS is our weekly attempt to afflict the comfortable.


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