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Cardinal's cleaning of the closet leaves traces of doubt


ITHINK it's fair to say that pages 18A and 19A of Thursday's Sun gave a lot of people around here the creeps. It was cleaning day for Cardinal Keeler and the Archdiocese of Baltimore, with accommodation by this newspaper -- two pages of bold-faced names and fine print summarizing decades of child sexual abuse allegations against diocesan and visiting priests. The total ran to 83. The truth shall set you free, but sometimes it just gives you a queasy stomach.

Some of us gave the pages a quick scan to see if we knew anyone who had been listed.

Some read every detail.

Some believe Keeler's list to be justified in light of the scandal in the American Roman Catholic Church.

Some believe Keeler's action to be overkill, an effort by a panicky hierarchy to come clean at the expense of the reputations of good men.

I've been engaged in this latter argument a couple of times since Keeler's cleaning day.

I've read every synopsis the archdiocese presented. In the majority of the cases that were released for publication -- printed in The Sun and Catholic Review, and posted on the archdiocese's Web site -- the accused priest or brother had admitted to his depravities or, in the case of those charged with crimes, pleaded guilty and been defrocked. (To be fair, some only admitted to "inappropriate conduct.")

But there were a few cases, mostly involving priests and brothers from other dioceses and orders, where the outcome was apparently not known and the guilt of the accused was not made clear. It was simply stated that sexual abuse had been alleged to diocesan officials, and left at that.

Where I come from, which is a newspaper newsroom, that's not really good enough.

No such allegation would have been published without the rest of the story. If police or prosecutors officially charge someone with a crime, we report that routinely.

But the mere existence of serious "unofficial" allegations -- made to, say, a newspaper reporter -- would not find its way into these pages without further investigation and substantiation (not to mention screening by a libel attorney).

Nor would the fact that a newspaper reporter simply had referred an allegation to law enforcement authorities get ink.

So, if anyone could cry foul over the cardinal's list it would be those former priests and brothers who were charged but never convicted.

Where the outcome was not known and the allegations nonetheless made public -- those are the men who might have a justifiable, if not actionable, gripe.

We are asked to trust that, in a few instances, the cardinal did not disclose allegations because "an investigation concluded that the facts did not indicate that sexual abuse occurred."

That suggests all other allegations released to the press and public were credible or else would not have been published.

And that's the leap that's tough to make. It's a troubling lapse in the cardinal's otherwise deeply sincere effort to purge the archdiocesan closet of its defrocked skeletons and make the church "transparent."

My complaint might seem like a quibble to those who care about the Catholic Church and want its leaders, like Keeler, to purge the archdiocesan closets of every last skeleton, defrocked or not, convicted or not.

And, besides, who am I to tell the cardinal what to do? As I've stated before in earlier columns on this subject, the church in which I was raised is not a democracy and, while I believe the cardinal listens to his flock, I don't believe what we say makes much of a difference.

If it did, then the cardinal and his peers would address the much larger issue looming over this tragic episode -- the need for the church to ordain to the priesthood men and women who are also allowed to receive the sacrament of matrimony or engage without shame in loving relationships with other adults.

Nothing else has been made clearer to me since all the hand-wringing about the sexual abuse of children and the years of bishops covering up crimes and recycling misfit priests from one parish to another.

Celibacy must go. It can be retained, the way Mass in Latin is retained by some priests and parishes. But the vow of celibacy is an unreasonable demand, based in dubious theology, and it threatens the future of the church. It has a lot to do with this sad fact: In the United States, there are more Catholic priests over 90 than under 30.

Dropping celibacy is not the magic lozenge that would make predators of children go away. I'm not making that leap, nor am I asking anyone else to.

But I've a hunch that, if the Vatican dropped celibacy from the conditions of ordination and thereby opened the culture of the priesthood, the priesthood in time would appeal to greater numbers of healthy and bright men and women. The church would also lower its risk of having to pay damages to victims. Fewer priests would give us the creeps. I might be wrong -- my thinking is not infallible -- but I doubt it.

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