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Sex abuse scandal hits home

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The Roman Catholic sex abuse scandals hit Charlotte again with the recent arrest of former Charlotte priest Joseph Kelleher. By coincidence, Kelleher's arrest in Stanly County, on charges that he molested a 14-year-old boy in 1977, happened around the same time Pope Benedict XVI announced the much-awaited new rules for dealing with clergy sex abuse. Reaction by local Catholic officials was encouraging for those who want the church to deal more strongly with the sex abuse crisis. The Vatican's message, on the other hand, was yet another disappointment that left some wondering whether this pope understands not only the damage being done to the Church's reputation, but also how angry many Catholics are at the Vatican's handling of the whole mess.

The Catholic Diocese of Charlotte contacted Stanly County's Dept. of Social Services when it first heard of the allegations against Kelleher, and Bishop Peter Jugis placed Kelleher on administrative leave until the diocese's own investigation is finished. Local Catholic officials' reaction was, I feel, swift and appropriate, although the diocese's official statement about the arrest could have contained more compassion for victims of abuse.

Last week, Kelleher was accused of molesting another minor, this time in Charlotte in 1981, but he has not been arrested for that alleged crime. Some local Catholics who knew Kelleher when he served in Charlotte expressed disbelief at the charges and held public vigils, at which they expressed their belief in Kelleher's essential goodness. I have no way of knowing whether Kelleher molested those boys, and I'll assume he didn't until he's tried; however, anyone who has followed the worldwide abuse scandals knows there have been other accused priests who received similar support from former parishioners, but were convicted nonetheless.

As for the pope's new rules, Benedict did nothing to allay the growing realization among Catholics that he is primarily a bureaucrat, more interested in protecting the Vatican's turf than achieving justice or transparency. The new rules are dispiriting, and not even as strict as those previously adopted by many American dioceses. As the New York Times' Maureen Dowd wrote, "... the penitence of the Church is grudging ... Church leaders [Vatican officials] are merely as penitent as they need to be to protect the institution."

As a Catholic who has spoken to numerous other "members of the faith" about this issue, I can tell you that a lot of us are fed up. On the ground level, the Roman Catholic Church does a great deal of good in this world, through its widely diverse membership and its overworked priests and nuns. For a Catholic parishioner who has, say, spent a few hours working with the wounded, displaced and marginalized, the last thing he or she wants to hear is that the Vatican can't bring itself to be humble.

American Catholics' relation to the Vatican has changed over the years. When I was a kid, whatever came out of Rome was automatically revered as the highest truth. Many U.S. Catholics still feel that way, but more and more, whenever the latest pontification from Rome is announced, one senses an attitude that may not exactly say, "Who cares?", but definitely takes Rome with a grain of salt.

The late historian Barbara Tuchman wrote, in her book The March of Folly, about Renaissance popes clinging to their sleazebag, crooked ways in the face of the widespread discontent that eventually led to Martin Luther's break with the Church. Benedict XVI is clearly nowhere near those popes' equal in terms of faithlessness and arrogance; however, if he continues his clueless streak regarding clergy sex abuse and other issues such as the ordination of women, he will succeed in doing something even those Renaissance popes couldn't do: make the Vatican irrelevant to its members. At this point in the life of the crises, I don't know if that would be a bad thing.


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