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Editorial: Answers needed now from the Vatican

If it wasn’t clear before Tuesday, it was after. With two high-profile reports of the Vatican’s secrecy regarding the sexual misconduct of priests, it has become urgent for investigations of the church’s conduct to reach beyond dioceses and into the Vatican.

It was always plausible that the Vatican was at least aware of the sexual abuse of children. But was there a policy to cover it up? How else could such reprehensible, criminal conduct occur in so many dioceses around the world, with so many bishops diligently working to conceal it? What unifies those events? The church needs to tell.

Consider: In Boston, after then-Cardinal Bernard Law’s leading role in covering up for pedophiles among his priests was uncovered by The Boston Globe, he wasn’t punished. He resigned and moved to Rome, where Pope John Paul II appointed him to a post in a papal major basilica. Why?

The suspicions engendered by decades of cover-up were given new weight this week with news stories regarding the Vatican’s disregard of reports of terrible abuse and – less incriminating but revelatory, nonetheless – of its secret policies for dealing with priests who father children.

First the former: The Washington Post reported Tuesday that high church officials, including Pope Francis, were repeatedly warned about priests in Argentina who were sexually abusing isolated and helpless children at the religious Antonio Provolo Institute for the Deaf. One person has already pleaded guilty to sexual abuse, including rape, while charges are pending against 13 others. The accused ringleader is an 83-year-old priest named Nicola Corradi.

The crimes alleged are shocking. Prosecutors say children were fondled, raped and sometimes tied up. One child was forced to wear a diaper to hide the bleeding, they say. And, The Post reports, the pope knew.

Court and church documents, private letters and dozens of interviews in Argentina and Italy show that church officials, including Pope Francis, were warned repeatedly and directly about a group of alleged predators that included Corradi, The Post reported. No apparent action was taken.

Was that simply because of bureaucratic incompetence, willful neglect or a decision meant, somehow, to protect the church’s crumbling stature? It is essential to know.

As Tuesday’s other story demonstrated, it is beyond dispute that the Vatican isn’t above hiding its dirty laundry. An internal document, whose existence was confirmed this week by church officials, deals with priests who father children in spite of their pledge of celibacy.

It’s not surprising that enough priests violate the celibacy rule to require a formal policy. What is noteworthy is that the Vatican wanted to keep the violations a secret, along with the existence of a policy regarding them. Given that, it can hardly be strange to think that it may also have had a policy on secretly dealing with a worldwide scandal of sexual criminality by priests – a scandal that is ongoing.

The church needs to act boldly. Parishes in the West are withering, not solely because of the sex abuse scandal, but that is plainly a factor. Years of continuing revelations of gross misconduct will hurt the faith much more than honesty now. It’s always better to tell it all now than to endure years of revelations that serve only to convince supporters that their loyalty is misplaced.

In Western New York, we know that parishes large and small were served by priests accused of child sexual abuse and that bishops covered it up. We know the same pattern was repeated around the world. We know that Pope Francis was made aware of terrible sexual assaults in Argentina and apparently took no steps. And we know that the Vatican has a policy about concealing other kinds of embarrassing, if not always illegal, sexual conduct.

The church is holding a summit now to deal with this crisis. It cites legal and cultural barriers in this mission, but that can’t be an excuse for any entity, let alone a church, to turn its back on the sexual abuse of children – or of anyone else, for that matter.

That begins by being forthright about the history of priest abuses and cover-ups of their misconduct, even if that reaches into the Vatican. The church has forfeited the right to expect anyone to take it on faith that these awful events were mere coincidence. Tell it all, and do it now.

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