Ruth Bass | Sidestepping the abusive side of humanity is unfortunately nothing new

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RICHMOND — For too long, the world has either pretended that sexual assault wasn't there or treated it as something that could be taken care of in a quiet corner and with no records kept. So, colleges — landlords to thousands of our vulnerable offspring — didn't call the police when one of their citizens attacked another. They might have had a meeting of the student disciplinary committee, they might have told the parents, they might have conducted a meeting in a dean's office. But as often as not, nothing much happened. The victim might still find him or herself in the library next to the person who had committed what would be a felony if it had happened on North Street. It was as if colleges were like Native American reservations with their own courts and laws.

Colleges do better, much better, on these things now, although Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is trying to make life easier for the attacker and thus much less easy for the victim. Today it's a police matter when boy assaults girl (or girl assaults boy, in fact). It's seen as a felony. But the Catholic Church has a long way to go when it comes to sexual assault. And the church is not dealing with college dorm, boy-girl assault. It's faced with adult priests molesting children.

Still, despite the fact that the church's ruler, Pope Francis, keeps waffling, things are happening. American bishops who did not move criminal priests around as if they were just pieces on a chess board have asked for more action. And most recently, in this state where The Boston Globe put its spotlight on the priest/boy scandal, several district attorneys have put their oar in.

In offices in Hampden, Berkshire, Franklin and Hampshire, the district attorneys announced that they would now be in the front line to help families affected by clerical sexual abuse. The DAs have started by setting up a telephone hotline that will allow victims of abuse to report directly to law enforcement, bypassing the need to complain to church officials or just suffer in silence. The hotline, the DAs said, would be staffed by state police detectives who are trained to deal with sexual abuse.

The move seems like exactly what should happen in a nation of laws. But for decades, the Catholic Church has chosen to hide the abuse and solve the local problem by reassigning the accused priest to another parish — where, in time, he would sin again and, again, get transferred. It reminded me of the days a long time ago when a vagrant in Pittsfield would be given a bus ticket to somewhere else so his mental problems or drunkenness could be another city's problem. It was a callous policy, with no compassion for the human beings involved. Likewise, when Rudy Giuliani decided to "clean up" New York's streets by not letting the homeless sleep there, he was quoted as saying, "You chase 'em and you chase 'em and you chase 'em and you chase 'em, and they either get the treatment that they need or you chase 'em out of the city." These things might seem like apples and oranges, but they have one disgraceful thing in common — we have too many human problems that we are unwilling to face with a long-term approach.

Solutions? People are working on them, even as Pope Francis, so often a compassionate leader, remained wishy-washy at the recent summit at the Vatican. Closer to home, Pittsfield's revered Father Peter Gregory recently suggested a basic change in the preparation of priests when he proposed that the seminaries close because "I don't think the men should be so isolated; they should be in a university setting. They need more of the world."

As an outsider — not Catholic, not even a churchgoer — I'd go further. Let priests marry, as other priests and clergy do, so they'd gain a whole new understanding of family life — the very thing they are supposed to support and provide counsel for. And I'd let women become clergy, as they are in churches and synagogues throughout the world, and as they did in the Catholic Church at one time. That would be serious change, likely for the better. And as Father Gregory said, "The church needs to change; we can't live in the past." So far, Pope Francis has not been much of a risk-taker.

Ruth Bass lives in Richmond. Her website is ruthbass.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.

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