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Bill Press is a syndicated columnist, CNN political commentator and author of the newly-published book Spin This!

Bill Press: Time for Catholic Church to abandon celibacy

By Bill Press
Tribune Media Services

WASHINGTON (Tribune Media Services) -- Time for full confession: I was once an altar boy, but was never molested. This week, the front page of the New York Times told the story of one not so lucky.

Like his two older brothers, Mark Vincent Serrano became an altar boy at St. Joseph's Church in Mendham, New Jersey. Invited to visit the parish priest in the rectory, he became -- from the time he was 9 until he was 16 -- a victim of serial molestation: groping, sodomy, oral sex and forced masturbation.

Serrano and his family later reported the abuse to church authorities. The guilty priest, now transferred to another parish, was never reported to law enforcement authorities. And, as part of a $241,000 settlement with the diocese, Serrano agreed never to discuss the case publicly. Only now, with the nationwide explosion in reports of priest pedophilia, has he broken his silence.

Sadly, stories like Serrano's are the pattern for churches across the country -- from New York to Santa Rosa, from Portland to Philadelphia. The elements are the same: a preying priest; innocent, adoring young boys; man-child sexual abuse seldom reported to police; no disciplinary action against priests except transferring them to their next parish, and next set of victims; then, years of silence and cover-up.

The ugly controversy, now painfully public, has rocked the Catholic Church.

Since January, at least 55 priests in 17 dioceses have been removed or suspended on sexual abuse charges. Two bishops have been forced to resign. The Church has paid over $1 billion in settlements to victims and their families, with many more cases pending. And in Boston, outraged Catholics confronted Cardinal Bernard F. Law and demanded that he resign for helping sweep molestation cases under the rug.

In some ways, the scandal is unfair. Most priests are not pedophiles. And most Catholics don't look the other way when serious crimes are committed. They don't deserve the black eye all Catholics are sporting these days. But because of its long cover-up, the Church brought this controversy on itself -- and nobody but the Church can fix it.

The path is clear, for both the short term and long term.

In the short term, every allegation of sexual abuse of minors must be immediately turned over to law enforcement authorities. Unfortunately, many bishops still refuse to do so because, in some states, priests are exempt from sexual predator laws. They are wrong. These are not priests who sinned. These are priests who committed crimes. They should not be above the law. The law must be changed. In the meantime, church authorities should suspend all priests accused of sexual misconduct and report them to police.

Not only that, clerical leaders who hid cases of pedophilia from the public, by transferring fallen priests from one parish to the next and enforcing a code of silence, should acknowledge their wrongdoing, publicly apologize -- and resign. No matter how powerful they are. It's the only way to restore the reputation of the Church.

But even that's not enough.

In the long term, the inordinate number of priest pedophile cases calls for a much more basic reform: getting rid of celibacy as a requirement for the priesthood. That revolutionary challenge was made by none other than The Pilot, the official publication of the Boston Archdiocese. An editorial in its March 15 issue raised the question: "If celibacy were optional, would there be fewer scandals of this nature in the priesthood?"

The answer is an unqualified yes. Again, not all celibates are pedophiles. And some married people are. But by requiring celibacy as a condition of ordination -- thereby turning away anyone with a normal, healthy sex drive -- the Church forces itself to select from a much too limited pool. We see today the sexual problems that result, and will continue to result, until the policy is changed.

There is no reason, except tradition, why priests are not allowed to marry. After all, only the Roman branch of the Catholic Church demands celibacy. Thousands of Greek, Armenian and Russian Orthodox Catholic priests are married and do a good job of juggling family and priesthood. So do Anglican priests, rabbis and Protestant ministers.

And that tradition does not go back to the founding of the church. Celibacy was only added a thousand years ago. Jesus did not demand celibacy from the first priests. Most of the apostles were married.

Surely, what was good enough for Jesus is good enough for the Church today.




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