The details in the story were all too familiar. A local priest, ordained more than a half century ago and today a well-established figure in his community, was accused of “improper conduct with a minor.” The alleged behavior was said to have occurred in Orange County more than 30 years ago.
The feelings of sadness and outrage that have accompanied every report of sexual misconduct by priests worldwide — covered up by the Roman Catholic Church for who knows how long — were also familiar.
“So what’s new?” a reader would be justified in asking. “Another old priest being publicly exposed for sins — crimes? — he committed when he was a much younger man. “What’s going to happen?” Good questions.
First, the specifics: Father John Lynch, who has been administrator of Immaculate Conception Church in Woodbourne since 2014, was removed from his ministry in response to the allegation, which is said to involve a single complainant. Lynch was pastor of the church from 1996 to 2014. He was ordained in 1965.
What’s new about this case and others of more recent vintage depends on how far back one goes. While there were isolated reports of priest sexual abuse of minors in the 1980s and ‘90s, the extent of the massive cover up by the church of these cases did not become widely known in this country until the early part of this century. Priests accused of abuse were routinely reassigned, victims quietly paid off, authorities kept in the dark. The system involved high church officials and was worldwide.
Sadly, the extent of this scandal continues to be revealed today, as with a recent report that church leaders covered up more than 1,000 cases of sex abuse by 300 priests in Pennsylvania. At the same time, that report is also part of the answer to the “What’s new?” question.
The Lynch case began with a complaint to the victim assistance coordinator of the Archdiocese of New York, a job new to this century. In a letter to parishioners of Immaculate Conception, Archbishop Timothy Dolan said the complaint was immediately turned over to the Orange County District Attorney. That office reviewed the complaint and referred it for outside investigation. A private firm retained by the archdiocese will review the claim and report to the archdiocese’s independent review board whether the claim is substantiated. If so, Lynch’s prior parishes will be notified. All new since 2002.
What will happen to Lynch is less clear. For the moment, he may not perform priestly duties or even wear the collar. If the claim is found to be true, he will be removed from the ministry. The statute of limitations on sexual offenses is five years after the victim turns 18, so prosecution is questionable. If he is cleared, he may return to his parish or a new assignment.
The courage of those who have come forward has prompted these changes and encouraged others to do likewise. If the abused have been slow to accuse, the church has been inexcusably slow to respond. Ultimately, what’s new is that the shame of the victims has been transferred to the church.