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Governments must step into priest sex abuse cases

By Terence McKiernan, Special to CNN
  • Terence McKiernan says Catholic Church sex abuse scandal has reached global level
  • The pope and the Irish Cardinal Brady now known to have closer ties to issue, he says
  • He says German, Irish officials have investigated to foil church secrecy, and U.S. should, too
  • McKiernan: The church has protected priests who abuse at the peril of their prey

Editor's note: Terence McKiernan is the founder and president of, a library and Web archive of the Catholic sex abuse and financial crisis.

Waltham, Massachusetts (CNN) -- We've come to a remarkable moment in the ongoing clergy abuse crisis. What began years ago as revelations of sexual abuse by priests -- recounted, in solitary acts of courage, by their victims and played out for the most part in parishes and local newspapers -- suddenly seems to have gone global.

This is because Pope Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sean Brady, primate of all Ireland, are now involved in the crisis in a very ground-level way.

Through news reports, we have learned that in 1980, when Pope Benedict XVI was Archbishop of Munich Joseph Ratzinger, he approved an order to move a priest named Peter Hullermann into the diocese of Munich, Germany, for therapy after parents complained that the priest had had sexual relations with their children. Hullermann soon resumed his pastoral duties, while Ratzinger was still archbishop. Shortly after Ratzinger left his Munich post in 1982, Hullermann was moved to a church in Grafing, nearby, and was convicted, four years later, of sexually abusing children there. Yet he was kept in ministry until a few days ago.

Cardinal Brady, back when he was the Rev. Brady in 1975, swore two little boys to secrecy during a church investigation into their abuse by the Rev. Brendan Smythe. In the ensuing 18-year silence, Smythe went on to abuse dozens of other children in Ireland and the United States. He died in Irish prison in 1997.

As a result, some victims are now calling for Brady to resign, and people are asking why Ratzinger and Brady didn't call police.

That question goes to the heart of a major change that is occurring in state-church relations. As the depth and range of the secrecy that allowed child sexual abuse to continue within the Catholic Church is revealed, some governments are becoming comfortable with the notion that they must become more active. The U.S. should follow suit. Congress should convene hearings on the true scope of child sexual abuse within religious institutions.

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Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has insisted that "truth and clarity" are required, and the Irish government is considering investigations of every diocese in Ireland. Three investigations have been completed already: of the Diocese of Ferns (October 2005); of the horrendous system of institutional schools (May 2009); and of the Archdiocese of Dublin (November 2009). When the report on the institutional schools was released last year, thousands of Dubliners took to the streets.

This is the context in which Brady must decide whether to stay or go.

Some may be surprised that after 15 years of news about clergy abuse in Ireland, there are still such reserves of public distress. This raises another important point about the government reports. Not only has the Irish government accepted its responsibility to investigate, but what it has found has transformed the landscape in Ireland.

The government's access to church files, its resources and its professionalism have revealed the crisis in Ireland as never before, with an astonishing level of detail -- providing a level of realism that has overcome any reluctance among Catholics to accept what has been going on. Why is this important? Because until all the facts are known, as Merkel has said, sex-offending priests remain at work in parishes and schools. Grown men and women whose lives have been damaged remain frightened to come forward, priests' superiors look the other way, and the potential for more crimes to be committed continues.

In the United States, there have been six local and state investigations: of Westchester and Suffolk counties in New York; and of New Hampshire; Boston, Massachusetts; Maine; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The Westchester investigation was cursory, but the others were substantial.

Thanks to the New Hampshire investigation, we know that in one thoroughly investigated diocese, almost 10 percent of the priests have been accused of sexually abusing children. Because of the Boston report, we understand how middle management participated in mismanaging the crisis. Thanks to the Philadelphia report, that archdiocese now devotes a page of its Web site to a list of its accused priests, with their photos and whereabouts. But these six investigations cover only a tiny percentage of the U.S. population, so very little of the United States has benefited from the investigations.

What's more, most of the country has not experienced the revelations that made headlines in Boston; Chicago, Illinois; Los Angeles, California; and other cities. In many dioceses, the names of many accused priests are not known, let alone the full extent of their crimes.

This means that in most dioceses in the United States, sex-offending priests are probably still in ministry, and the culture that supports them is still in place. Little wonder that, long after the zero-tolerance policy was approved with much fanfare by bishops in Dallas, Texas, in June 2002, the Rev. Daniel McCormack was accused of abuse in the Chicago archdiocese but was kept in ministry by Cardinal Francis George.

Despite George's violation of the Dallas agreement, his colleagues elected him president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in which capacity he welcomed Benedict to the United States when the pope visited in 2008.

Sexual abuse by clergy is not just a Catholic problem. Every religion and denomination has covered up sexual abuse.

A congressional investigation in the U.S. would make our population safer and would also address the international aspect of the abuse problem.

The Catholic Church and other churches are global entities that have too often used their transnational structures to protect accused clergy and to provide them with new populations on which to prey.

The clergy abuse crisis is a national emergency that has had a serious health and economic impact on millions of citizens. The Irish government has provided the United States with a blueprint for effective action. It is crucial that Congress get involved.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Terence McKiernan