Don Williams
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Don Williams is a prize-winning columnist, blogger, fiction writer, sometime TV commentator, and is the founder and editor emeritus of New Millennium Writings, an annual anthology of stories, essays and poems. His awards include a National Endowment for the Humanities Journalism Fellowship at the University of Michigan, a Golden Presscard Award from Sigma Delta Chi Society of Professional Journalists, a best Commentary Award from SDC, Best Feature Writing from the Associated Press Tennessee Managing Editors, the Malcolm Law Journalism Prize from the Associated Press, Best Non-Deadline Reporting from the United Press International, Best Novel Excerpt from the Knoxville Writers Guild, a Peacemaker Award from the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, five Writer of the Month Awards from the Scripps Howard Newspaper chain, and many others. In 2011 he was inducted into the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. His 2005 book of journalism, Heroes, Sheroes and Zeroes is under revision for a second printing, and he is at work on a novel and a book of journalism. His columns appear at and have been featured at many other well-known websites. To run his column, gratis, at your website, post this link to a dedicated spot: Need a speaker, panelist, tv commentator or teacher for your group or to lead a writing workshop, in your town? Email

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Call the cops on abusive priests. Anything less is a cover-up
(Copyright by Don Williams, All rights reserved   05/03/2002)

It was one of those questions that comes out of the blue and kicks you in the side of the head, my friend told me.

While driving along in her car with her eight-year-old, the boy piped up and said, "Mama is the pope a child molester?"

"No, no sweetheart!" his mother responded urgently, then stopped, trying to think of what to say next. No sweetheart, it's just a bunch of parish priests, wouldn't quite do. Unfortunately, she realized, the truth was nearly as bad as the boy's misapprehension of the truth. Still, she finally did own up that there are, unfortunately, some priests who abuse children. She hastened to add that the vast majority do not. What an ugly spot the Catholic Church finds itself in today. Thousands if not millions of the faithful are bound to be disillusioned by stories of wolves in sheep's clothing--no, it's worse than that--wolves in shepherds' clothing. Those trusted to take the tenderest care of the most vulnerable among us, have, upon occasion, used that very trust, that very vulnerability, for their own sexual gratification. To his credit, the Pope called a meeting of Roman Catholic leaders to try to bring coherence to the situation. American cardinals and bishops, who oversee lots of churches, met with Vatican officials for two days last week in order to figure out how to dam back the growing scandal.

What they came up with won't do at all.

American Catholic leaders came back with a plan to defrock any priest who has become "notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors." In cases that are "not notorious" they would leave it up to the local bishop to decide if such a priest is a threat to children and should be defrocked. Well, just what do these cardinals and bishops think "notorious" means?

In this context, it means someone who is already known to be a child molester.

I hope my Catholic friends will pardon the disrespect, but this is outrageous. They're going to defrock only those who have repeatedly molested children?

Most of us have a better idea.

How about they call the cops at the first hint of abuse of even one minor child, and suspend the priest in question until all allegations have been resolved. Anything less is a cover-up.

It does little good for Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua to "clarify" the statement several days later by saying, "All of the cardinals are agreed on zero tolerance, and by that I mean that we are all agreed that no priest guilty of even one act of sexual abuse of a minor will function in any ministry or any capacity in our dioceses."

The words were right, but the timing was wrong. It was too clearly an attempt at damage control, and it wasn't really clear whether he was, indeed, speaking for all of the cardinals. If that's what they meant, why didn't they say so in their formal declaration, which had the sound of a tepid compromise between disagreeing parties on a committee.

"Now, we've all known priests who have gone astray," you can imagine one of them saying. "Let's not forget our good friend so and so...."

The church hierarchy will have a chance to state clearly its position in June, when all U.S. bishops gather in Dallas. Unless they declare that even one act of sexual predation against a minor will be treated as a crime they will have failed the faithful and society at large. Ditto for any cardinal or bishop or anyone else who aids and abets such crimes by assigning predatory priests to any parish that contains minor children.

In my book, Cardinal Bernard Law, who allegedly reassigned priests he knew to be sexual predators, is a criminal and should be treated as such.

He may have acted out of compassion for priests he knew. He may have acted to keep from besmirching the reputation of the Catholic Church. He very well might have believed the reassigned priests had reformed or were capable of changing their behaviors.

Very well, these are mitigating factors.

The courts law should line them up on a balance sheet along with aggravating factors, and have the last word. Anything less gives both God's law and secular law a bad name.