Feb. 11, 2003 Anchorage Daily News on church's handling of sex abuse victims

Posted: Monday, February 17, 2003

It took 20 years and a bolt of news out of Boston, but retired Archbishop Francis Hurley apologized Friday for doing nothing to help Pat Podvin after Mr. Podvin told him in 1982 about sexual advances by the Rev. Francis Murphy.

Archbishop Hurley said he wants to meet with Mr. Podvin in person. We hope they meet. We hope Mr. Podvin, principal at Service High School, can be as forgiving as he was courageous last week in telling the community his side of what happened to him 20 years ago.

It's the kind of courage and forthrightness that, for heaven knows how long, have been lacking in the Catholic Church on the question of priests abusing their position.

Archbishop Hurley was certainly right to apologize. We don't doubt he is profoundly sorry for what happened.

But something he said in explaining why he took no action then to help Mr. Podvin says volumes about the church's thinking and response:

''I took the story from Pat as telling me something about one of my priests I ought to know,'' Archbishop Hurley said. It's hard to read those words in any other way than saying that it's regrettable what may have happened to young Pat, but that the first concern was the fate of a priest.

The Catholic Church has had this wrong for a long time.

The first concern should be for the victim. The first concern should be for the flock, not the wayward shepherd.

Those in positions of authority hold a profound trust. As anyone raised Catholic can tell you, priests command a sacred respect, especially from youngsters in their charge. You go into the confessional taught that the priest is God's intermediary on Earth, granted the power to forgive sins in God's name. Mr. Podvin's person, faith and trust apparently were violated.

''There was no crime,'' Archbishop Hurley said, when asked why he didn't go to the police.

No criminal charges, that's right. There also apparently was no independent investigation of whether a crime was committed.

Some abuse of authority almost certainly was. Archbishop Hurley says that he believed Mr. Podvin's account: ''Pat's allegation is true,'' he told reporters Friday.

Mr. Podvin was 18, of a Catholic family. Did the archbishop expect him to go to the police without any support? Look at it this way: If your 18-year-old sister or daughter reported she was abused, would you expect your priest, minister or counselor from Standing Together Against Rape to say ''It's your crime, why don't you report it?''

No crime? Archbishop Hurley may or may not be correct. At this point, 20 years later, that would be difficult to determine, though Mr. Podvin's account is important. What the church did or didn't do then to address the matter has not been fully reported, so this specific case cannot yet be resolved.

But the larger principle is crucial: A clerical collar is no defense, either for a priest who offends or for his superiors who deal with allegations. A priest who abuses those in his trust is a sexual predator. Sexual predators belong in jail. Forgiveness? Yes. But justice, too, for an offender -- and public accountability for the institution.

Archbishop Hurley accused reporters of fishing. He's right. That's part of their job. Were it not for the persistent, fearless fishing of reporters and editors of the Boston Globe, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church would still be locked in the darkness of its silence in the face of suffering victims. And that includes the hierarchy in Anchorage.

Apart from the victims, those who have been hurt most by both the abuse and the church's stubborn conspiracy to cover it up are the faithful -- both laity and clergy. So many in the church have done so much good. But the church's refusal to stand in the light has cast a sinister shadow even on the innocent.

Covered up, old sins can't be forgiven, and they have a long reach. Mr. Podvin knows. So do the stunned people in Cuba, N.M., who suspended a youth counseling program in which the Rev. Murphy worked. So does Archbishop Hurley, who came out of retirement to apologize.

This isn't about the media or defending the church. This is about doing what's right. Acknowledging what's wrong is often the first step there. Mr. Podvin has turned on a light. The Catholic Church here should follow his lead.

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