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Houston We Have a Problem and it’s the Catholic Church in Texas

When one thinks of Texas, the Catholic Church never used to come to mind.  Texas was/is known as firmly part of the Bible belt.  However, in the last 30 years, Texas has experienced a dramatic demographic shift.  There are 15 dioceses in Texas, including two archdioceses in San Antonio and Galveston-Houston and Texas numbers about 8.5 million Catholics.

The figurative head of the church in Texas is Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and Texas’ first cardinal ever.  When the lists were released last week DiNardo made a statement to the press that typified the Catholic bishops response to the sex abuse crisis across the country.  He was quick with a pat to his own back and told the media that “it was the right thing to do.”  The day before the lists were released, DiNardo removed one of his own priests who was on the list for allegations of sex abuse that he had known about for quite some time.

The Texas lists are much like the lists released in other states and those released by the Jesuits in that they are short on information, in most instances only providing the name of the priest and the time he served in ministry.  Since they were compiled separately, there is no uniformity to their reporting standards. 

Perhaps the most surprising item in the release is the number 300 or now 286. That’s the number of priests who’ve been credibly accused in those 15 dioceses and archdioceses.  (The numbers were revised after initial release to reflect the lower number.)  Depending upon how you look at it, the number is surprising.  One may be surprised at the relatively few priests on the list given the number of Catholics in Texas and the number of dioceses.  On the other hand, one could be equally surprised at the high number of priests given that Texas was essentially mission territory until relatively recently.  While most of the lists reflect data that goes back 80 years, the Catholic population in Texas and the priests who served them were few and far between up until the 1980’s. 

Paul Petersen, a spokesman in Dallas for the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, said the overall lack of detailed information pointed to the need for state and federal law enforcement agencies to investigate the history of clerical sex abuse in Texas.

“All of this is the fox guarding the henhouse,” he said. “Most of this has not been corroborated by the police department, so you have to scratch your head and say, ‘Where is the actual transparency?’”

Mr. Petersen also said he thought it was probable that there were more than 300 priests who had committed sexual abuse in Texas since 1950. He pointed to a report in December by the Illinois attorney general that said the Catholic Church there had withheld the names of at least 500 priests accused of sexually abusing minors.

There are 3.4 million Catholics in Illinois, according to the Catholic Conference of Illinois, or less than half as many as in Texas.

“I am skeptical,” he said. “I am not trying to make it bigger than it is, but I think the number 300 is crazy low.”

Perhaps Mr. Petersen is right.  One thing is certain-it’s not a good idea to rely on the Catholic Church to police itself or make accurate reports about the scandal.  A statewide law enforcement investigation will be necessary to arrive at the truth.

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