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This past Saturday night, retired Roman Catholic Priest Joseph Pilger, 78, was beaten to death in his home in Lexington, Ky.
Pilger was a convicted sex offender who pleaded guilty to abusing three altar boys in his Western Kentucky parish in 1995 and received a mere five years probation.
Despite the shocking nature of his murder, I hate to admit that I wasn’t entirely surprised. Just this past August, convicted sex-offender and defrocked priest John Geoghan was also murdered, in a Mass. jail.
It is troubling to think that these acts of violence are becoming a trend and may represent a greater anger that isn’t being addressed by reluctant acts of compensation by the Church. The frustration felt in parishes—not only in Massachusetts and Kentucky but all over America—is reaching a boiling point. The Church seems to think that the resignation of Cardinal Bernard F. Law ’53 and the $10 million settlement of a lawsuit paid out to victims of abuse in Massachusetts dioceses is the end of the scandal, but justice still hasn’t been served.
Geoghan alone gathered over 130 accusations in his thirty-year career before finally being defrocked in 1998, and yet was only charged and convicted on one single count of indecent assault and battery of a ten-year-old boy. Pilger, after admitting to assaulting three boys, only received probation. It’s insulting to think that a man found guilty of indecently assaulting three young boys and potentially scarring them for life would be let off with probation, regardless of the fact that he’s a priest or in his 70’s. If anything, his punishment should be more severe for abusing a position of the utmost trust in our society.
If the Church really intends to bring peace to the victims of ecclesiastical sex abuse, they’re going to have to make more of an effort to make sure that these offenders are prosecuted to the full extent of the law. The Church cannot simply throw money at the victims as they’ve been doing, and Law’s well-chosen replacement, Archbishop Sean Patrick O’Malley, cannot simply shake a lot of hands and be sympathetic. They have skipped a step. If the Church hopes to again forge the bonds of trust for people who feel genuinely betrayed by what is literally the most sacred part of their lives, it must first thoroughly investigate all of the allegations and prosecute offenders-—not settle out of court.
By allowing this public anger and concern to go unaddressed, the Church is letting the misdeeds of an unfortunate few overshadow the good to which a vast majority of Catholic priests dedicate their lives, not to mention tarnish the reputation of their honorable profession. Rather than take special care of the offending priests—as Law did for almost half a century—the Church should be distancing itself from their sins. Obviously the institution’s current actions aren’t satisfying to the public, with demonstrations and waning church attendance, and now with the murder of these perpetrators.
For the protection of the guilty, and perhaps for the preservation of the Catholic community, the Church needs to come out from behind the stained glass curtain and do something to really address this public anger and feeling of injustice—before more blood is shed and more faith is lost.
—Peter Charles Mulcahy is an editorial comper.
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