Editorial: How much worse will this church scandal get?

The giant elephant in the room during every Catholic Mass is not going away anytime soon.

And, with recent developments in New York State and around the country related to the sexual abuse scandal, it is fair to say the Roman Catholic Church is at a critical point in its long history. It needs to make a choice: Tell the truth or keep on lying.

The hierarchy has made awful decisions in the past about this outrageous part of its history. Even as churches in places like Ireland have emptied, its focus has been to suppress it and keep practicing Catholics from learning its full extent. It seems the hierarchy would prefer the church to die its own death rather than confess the cold truth to parishioners and try to save it.

The decisions church leaders make now will determine what Catholicism will be moving forward, as parishioners come to terms with the reality of decades of abuse and cover-ups. If John Paul II knew about allegations of abuse, and did little about them, did he deserve sainthood? How much does Pope Francis know — and when did he know it?

Last week, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood’s office issued subpoenas against every Catholic diocese in the state — including the Diocese of Rockville Centre — as part of an investigation into the sexual abuse of minors by the clergy. There is no doubt that a trove of files will come back. In Suffolk County alone, a 2003 grand jury report by former district attorney Thomas Spota unearthed scores of reports of priests abusing boys, their crimes covered up by the diocese and hidden away in secret files. That’s just one diocese.

Ms. Underwood’s investigation comes on the heels of the Pennsylvania grand jury report presenting evidence that 300 “predator” priests had raped and sodomized more than 1,000 victims in the previous seven decades. It’s not hard to imagine scores of Catholics giving up on their church after reading those horrifying accounts.

“The Pennsylvania grand jury report shined a light on incredibly disturbing and depraved acts by Catholic clergy, assisted by a culture of secrecy and cover-ups in the dioceses,” Ms. Underwood said in a statement. “Victims in New York deserve to be heard as well.”

Since Pennsylvania’s action, some 10 states have launched similar investigations. Hotlines set up for abuse victims have lit up nationwide. New Jersey has created a task force headed by an experienced criminal prosecutor to subpoena records and seek testimony. If what was discovered next door in Pennsylvania is also true in New Jersey — and in parishes across New York State — this scandal will live for years to come.

After reading the Pennsylvania report, many Catholic families are now asking how any responsible parent could ever allow his or her child to go off on a weekend retreat with a Catholic priest.

Where is all this going? How will it end? Will Catholic churches in America empty out as they have in Ireland, where historians will one day ask which was worse for that country: the British or the Catholic church?

It is hard to imagine a scenario in which Pope Francis is not dragged further into this morass. Which American prosecutor will want to put him under oath before a grand jury, and ask him what he knew and when he knew it? Sound far-fetched? Perhaps.

Last month, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, former Vatican ambassador to the United States, accused Pope Francis of knowing that Cardinal Theodore McCarrick had abused young seminarians and, instead of acting on it, lifting penalties that had been imposed on the cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI.

Along with accusing Pope Francis of complicity in the cover-up — which, if true, should mean he must resign — Archbishop Vigano has wildly suggested that homosexuality in the priesthood may be the root cause of this scandal. To many observers, the Catholic civil war is in full battle mode.

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