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Last week, a sad, sad story that began in Boston had suddenly burst onto the national scene. It had what journalists call “legs” – not because it was a new story but, rather, because it was an old one, a story pathetically familiar to just about every community in America.

It was the tale of Father John J. Geoghan (now defrocked), a 66-year-old Catholic priest who was ordained decades earlier, and who, from almost the beginning of his destructive career, has been accused of molesting perhaps hundreds of young boys at each of the many parishes he shepherded. The Church has had to deal with over 80 lawsuits filed by victims. He was even accused of molesting a boy whose own father had been molested by another priest when he was his son’s age.

This isn’t a story about revenge, punishment or retribution. Geoghan committed many crimes and destroyed many lives. He is a mentally sick, sick man who now happens to be an old man. The courts will soon deal with him as the law allows. In the meantime, save your compassion for this man’s young victims. Maybe even save a smidgen of compassion for Geoghan himself, a man whose diseased mind was no doubt leavened by a childhood fraught with abuse and who-knows-what other horrors.

But please, as a personal favor to me and as a salute to your self-respect, don’t shed one tear for the Catholic Church. Because what makes this case different – so very, very different – was that this time, in the course of legal proceedings, the Church was forced to publicly disclose 40 years of documents that proved beyond a doubt that it knew all about Geoghan. It covered for him, coddled him, supported him and even rewarded him. But you could search that file forever without finding one letter of support, apology or condolence to the numerous kids this guy had violated. The same Church that talks about the right to life sometimes doesn’t give a damn about the rights of the living – until it’s forced to by a room full of lawyers.

Every time somebody complained about Geoghan, the Church simply moved this serial predator to another parish. On occasion, he was referred for outside treatment – to two doctors who were general practitioners, one of whom did warn the Church about Geoghan. And the Church’s response? Geoghan soon wound up with another parish.

If Enron has you mad or if you’re upset that Vice President Cheney’s playing hide the salami with his oily oil-baron meeting list, you can’t be happy about this – it turns out that ex-Father Geoghan is only the tip of the iceberg: Yesterday, the Catholic Church turned over to prosecutors the names of other priests accused of sexual misconduct and it was just reported that there are 70 names on that list – 70! Multiply that by the number of potential victims, and suddenly, the Church begins to look like a gigantic brothel. Don’t get me wrong – bad apples and sexual predators aren’t any more Catholic than they are Jewish, Muslim or Protestant. And most priests are decent, law abiding, deservedly respected members of their parishes and communities.

But something special is happening in the Catholic Church. Here’s Ellen’s List to get things back on track:

1. Celibacy isn’t even for the birds. The Catholic Church has got to make at least one compromise in the interests of itself and its members: Drop the celibacy requirement. It isn’t normal, and hasn’t exactly attracted the most well-adjusted people to what is a very noble profession. The Church has always had a problem attracting the numbers of priests it needs – dropping celibacy would turn a trickle into a stream, and the water would be lot cleaner.

2. Hold bishops and cardinals accountable. Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, the man who knew full well what Geoghan was up to – nonetheless covered it up for years as Geoghan played musical parishes – should be held criminally accountable for his malfeasance. He’s already publicly apologized for his role in all of this, but it’s not enough. Funny isn’t it – some corporate fat-cat hands the stockholders the short end of the stick and winds up going to the can, even though the loss is “only money.” But some bureaucrat-priest looks the other way while countless children are molested, and what does he get for his fraud? The chance to do a teary-eyed mea culpa for 10 minutes on television before going back to business as usual. It stinks. State legislatures need to pass laws holding supervisors liable if they have had a role in covering up the sexual abuse of their employees. Geoghan deserves a cell in a prison hospital, but maybe Cardinal Law just deserves a cell.

3. Withhold contributions. Where the Church has misbehaved, parishioners should protest by hitting them where it hurts – the Sunday collection plate. Until the Church comes clean, Catholics should withhold contributions. After all, given Enron’s mismanagement, who would invest in them now? Contributing to the Church is also an investment of sorts – in the future. I say make them earn it!

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