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Editorial: The road to atonement for the Buffalo Diocese

The pressure on the Catholic Church is rising, and on the Buffalo Diocese, in particular. Across the country, federal and state investigators are launching probes into sexual abuse by priests and cover-ups by the church hierarchy.

The scandal in Buffalo is going national, as the CBS News program, "60 Minutes," broadcast a segment on it Sunday night, focusing on a church whistleblower and a local deacon who has called for Buffalo's bishop to resign.

Let the disruption begin.

We know, by now, surely, what the Catholic Church should not be: a place where pedophiles roam, wearing the robes of priests. Nor should it be a place where those pedophiles are protected by unscrupulous bishops.

It’s time now to focus on what it should be. The Catholic Church – and all other religious organizations – should be places of refuge and, of course, worship.

The church is those things, of course, and is in many ways a blessing to their communities. But those virtues are overshadowed by what can only be called the wickedness of child predation, and it has gone on for decades. Law enforcement is, finally and belatedly, starting to make a difference.

The U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation into Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania. In Western New York, CBS News reported that the U.S. attorney has subpoenaed the Buffalo diocese. The network reported the focus involves the “alleged trafficking of minors across state lines for the purpose of sex abuse.”

Let that sink in: It didn’t say priests were moved across state lines and continued to abuse helpless, powerless children. The allegation suggested that children were being transported so they could be victimized. It seems hard to believe, frankly. But it was also hard to believe that bishops would ever protect predator priests, knowing more children were in the pipeline.

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office released a shocking grand jury report earlier this year, charging that bishops and other church leaders had covered up the abuse of more than 1,000 individuals over a period of more than 70 years.

That report sparked investigations by attorneys generals in a growing number of states. Alaska last week became the 15th jurisdiction to launch an investigation. Besides New York and the District of Columbia, the list includes Nebraska, Missouri, Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, Vermont, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, Florida, New Mexico and New Jersey. In New York, the focus is on Buffalo.

The horrors of sexual abuse by priests, lived and relived by its victims, has been pushed to the forefront of public debate since The Boston Globe broke a landmark story 16 years ago. More recently, The News has undertaken a significant effort, breaking many stories involving sexual abuse by priests in the region and WKBW-TV reported internal church documents showing that Buffalo Bishop Richard J. Malone kept two priests in ministry despite misconduct complaints against them involving adults.

Decades after the abuses, retribution is arriving in the form of a secular justice system that should have been activated long ago. The Justice Department’s inquiry in Pennsylvania is believed to be the first statewide investigation by the federal government of the church’s sex abuse scandal, as reported in The New York Times. The Associated Press first reported the subpoenas.

It has taken the bravery of victims who were sexually abused as children, in some cases several decades ago, to come forward and start the cleansing. The church must change, no matter how painful and it must begin at the top and radiate throughout the organization.

Nothing less than far-reaching change and atonement – legal and spiritual – will suffice.

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