The debate will linger indefinitely, but Bishop James R. Hoffman appears not to have had any real choice other than to remove from the ministry four Toledo Catholic Diocese priests who admitted to sexual misconduct with children.
The bishop's action, in accordance with the “zero tolerance” policy adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops last month, will not be popular with all of the congregants of the five area parishes involved, but such is the nature of sweeping rulings.
Many, if not most, Catholics support severe disciplinary measures against priests whose sexual abuse of trusting children breaks not only their vows to God but also the laws of man. The conundrum for the faithful, of course, lies in the church's teaching of redemption, a second chance. Nonetheless, as one observer put it, the shepherd bears a higher burden of responsibility for misdeeds than the flock.
Two of the four priests involved admitted more than one offense. In one case, the multiple offenses were committed while the priest was a high school teacher here in Toledo. Short of murder, it's hard to imagine a more grievous crime against children than sexual abuse, especially at the hands of a person the child believes to represent God.
If any single lesson stands out in the burgeoning national wave of sexual misconduct by clergy, it is that there have actually been many more offenses than those reported. Judging by news reports, the trail of shame and human degradation lengthens by the day.
Many parishioners of St. Michael the Archangel Church in North Toledo are grieved about the removal of their pastor, who they had forgiven and who, unlike the others, served time in jail for his offense. That is understandable, given the wonderfully human propensity of many people for forgiveness and belief in redemption.
But Bishop Hoffman should not be faulted for sending an unequivocal message that such behavior by a priest can never be ex-cused or tolerated, even if the offense occurred years ago and even if the offender already has been punished under criminal law.
Under church law, the consequences of removal from the ministry are harsh indeed. The priest remains a priest but cannot administer sacraments or say Mass in public, and may not wear the clerical collar. Restraints that severe are pretty much a collective career-breaker.
What should not be forgotten in this controversy, however, is the loss of innocence and trust on the part of the young victims. In many cases, what has been taken from them can never be restored, either by God or man.