Serious Study of Sex Abuse

By John L. Allen Jr.
The Word From Rome
June 6, 2003

Is the sex abuse crisis in the American Catholic Church over?

At one level this is almost an absurd question, given that evidence to the contrary is nearly ubiquitous. To cite just a few recent developments: The Manchester, New Hampshire diocese in late May settled 61 sex abuse lawsuits for $6.5 million; negotiations have broken down in Boston to settle almost 500 cases, meaning a new round of litigation seems inevitable; a 44-year-old priest in Utah was arrested for soliciting a minor over the Internet; four men have sued the Cincinnati archdiocese for alleged abuse by a priest in the late 1970s and 1980s; a former priest who fled the United States rather than face sex abuse charges died while trying to evade police in Mazatlan, Mexico; the Los Angeles archdiocese is invoking the First Amendment to resist demands to turn over documents related to sex abuse cases; and Phoenix Bishop Thomas O'Brien has avoided prosecution by signing a statement in early June admitting to mishandling accusations of sexual abuse against priests.

Even if the level of public interest is lower now compared to mid-2002, any one of these stories could catch fire and return the crisis to the front pages. Moreover, no matter how aggressive a set of policies the Church adopts, no matter how alert its bishops become, a few priests will always fail. The need for vigilance will never go away.

But there's another sense in which one can more reasonably ask if the crisis is over, and that's whether the Church has learned its lesson. Has the system been reformed to ensure that priests are less likely to offend and bishops less likely to look the other way?

That question was very much in the air during a two-day seminar at the University of Santa Clara, May 30-31. Tom Plante, a lay professor of psychology, organized the event as preparation for a book he's editing for Greenwood Press tentatively titled "Sin Against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church." Plante invited a roster of clinicians, seminary rectors, activists and journalists to contribute to the project. (I was invited to contribute a chapter on the crisis seen from Rome). Plante secured funding to bring the authors to the beautiful Santa Clara campus May 30-31 to discuss one another's drafts, and to talk about where the crisis stands.

The group, in addition to Plante and myself, included Nanette de Fuentes, a therapist who works for the Los Angeles archdiocese; Kirk Hanson, a business ethicist and expert on crisis management at Santa Clara; William Spohn, a moral theologian at Santa Clara; Samuel Mikhail, director of therapy for the Southdown Institute in Canada, a treatment facility for priests and religious; Fr. Gerald Coleman, rector of St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park; J.A. Loftus, a therapist and former director at Southdown; David Clohessy of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests; Michael Rezendes, part of the Boston Globe's Pulitzer Prize-winning team that worked on the sex abuse story; Richard Sipe, long-time writer on sexuality and the priesthood, and a consultant in numerous sex abuse lawsuits; and Jesuit Fr. Curtis Bryant, former director of St. Luke's Institute in Maryland, another treatment center for priests and religious. Other authors, such as Kathleen McChesney, head of the U.S. bishops' Office of Child Protection, will be contributing chapters but were unable to be at the seminar.

Broadly speaking, there were optimists and pessimists on the $64,000, "Are we out of the woods?" question.

Optimists, primarily the clinicians and seminary rectors, argued that factors including better formation, early identification of risk factors, a new social awareness that will minimize risky behaviors (for example, parents will be less likely to leave children in unsupervised settings with clergy), cultural encouragement for reporting abuse, and the "one strike" policy all mean that men entering the priesthood today are less likely to abuse, and more likely to be caught early if they do. Thus, when all is said and done, the first decade of this century should have nothing like the total number of abuse cases we now have from the 1970s and 1980s.

Plante, who sits on lay review boards for sex abuse cases in both the San Jose diocese and the Western province of the Jesuits, offered an encouraging parallel. In the 1960s and 1970s, he said, studies indicated that up to 23 percent of male psychotherapists had sexual contact with their patients. Within a generation, Plante said, that number was cut to between 1 percent and 1.5 percent, through a combination of aggressive one-strike policies, better training and changing sensitivities.

Pessimists, however, argued that because there is a latency period between acts of abuse and the reporting of those acts, we cannot know how much abuse is being committed by Catholic priests right now. Moreover, they fear that as the intense public attention of 2002 recedes, there will be a return to "business as usual." They fear fundamental reform of the Church is unlikely. Given that, they say, we should assume the worst about what the future will bring.

Both perspectives were given voice in a public forum for the university community on the afternoon of May 30.

De Fuentes, who sits on the lay review board in Los Angeles that examines abuse cases, said she believes the scandal has made it easier for bishops who want to address the problem.

"Those bishops who want to be responsible in this area, they now feel they have more power to implement things they have been wanting to do," she said. "And those who have been in denial, I think they are forced out of denial."

De Fuentes and Plante agreed the creation of lay boards demonstrates "a commitment to do the right thing."

Sipe spoke for those who were less sanguine, arguing that the sex abuse crisis is a symptom of the Church's failure to deal with a host of issues involving celibacy and sexuality, including contraception, homosexuality and premarital sex. Those issues "will need to be addressed before the bishops can regain any credibility," Sipe said.

* * *

Inside the seminar, I found the voice of the clinicians consistently fascinating. For many the last few months have been difficult, since the therapists, along with the bishops, emerged in some circles as the chief villains of the sex abuse story. Some psychotherapists have been accused of na´ve assessments of abusive priests, recommending men for return to ministry who later committed further acts of abuse. In some cases those accusations are correct, and no one is more aware of that than the clinicians, who were openly self-critical during our two days together. At the same time, they have a rich vein of experience about treatment and rehabilitation that sometimes is drowned out by the clamor for get-tough approaches.

One point that came through loud and clear was that we don't have the scientific data to draw conclusions about causes and solutions to the crisis, so that much public commentary today, from left and right in the Catholic Church, amounts to guesswork.

Perhaps the most pressing version of this point was made in the chapter contributed by Loftus. "The paucity of actual research into the sexual landscape of celibate clergy," he wrote, "is staggering."

Why don't we know more? In part, the clinicians said, because it's difficult to find support for the needed research. Major grant agencies typically don't want to invest in research on such a targeted population, the results of which are unlikely to be generalizable. If the Church pays for it, on the other hand, then you have the same suspicion of the research as if tobacco companies were paying for studies on nicotine addiction.

Further, the Church to date has not had an open-door policy to facilitate research. More than once, serious studies have been proposed and rejected, in part because the bishops didn't seem to trust those who would be carrying out the research.

Over and over, the clinicians exhorted the Santa Clara seminar that solutions to the sex abuse crisis must be "data driven," i.e., based on valid social scientific findings.

Plante made the observation that such findings are often counter-intuitive, meaning that they don't necessarily coincide with what many observers find to be "obvious" or "common sense." For example, Plante pointed to the results of studies on recovery from heart attacks. Those studies indicate that one's exercise regimen or actual physical condition is a less accurate predictor of recovery that what one believed about one's condition before the episode. In other words, if the patient believes he or she is healthy, the odds for recovery are better than for patients who are actually more "healthy" but also more worried.

Plante's point was that many explanations and solutions to the sex abuse crisis that can seem obvious now, at least to some pundits and reformers, may actually appear counter-productive or unhelpful once the research data is in.

* * *

Mikail, clinical director of Toronto's Southdown Institute, offered an especially thought-provoking perspective. Over the past 36 years, Southdown has treated more than 5,000 Church professionals from across the English-speaking world who suffer from a variety of emotional disorders and addictions. Half have been males, of whom 12 percent had sexually abused a minor and 3 percent met the criteria for identification as a pedophile.

Because the Canadian bishops do not have a "one-strike" policy, Mikail is still involved in framing risk assessments for priests who may be under consideration for return to ministry. That decision is not up to the institute, but to the priest's bishop or religious superior.

I asked how risk assessments work at Southdown. Mikail explained that observations from group therapy form one important component. How does the offender react when confronted with stories from victims? Does he show empathy, can he be transparent about what he did and the consequences of those actions? Is he honest about the details of his own acting out? Other variables include how old the victims were when the man started to violate, since this will bear upon whether he is a classic pedophile or has some other form of arrested sexual development that may be more receptive to treatment. (In general, pedophilia is attraction to prepubescents, meaning children under 13).

The priest is also given instruments such as the Abel Screen of Sexual Interest, which rates his attraction to various images. It's considered a less invasive and more reliable alternative to penile plethysmography. (The plethysmograph is a machine that measures changes in the circumference of the penis. A stretchable band is fitted around the subject's penis and connected to a machine with a video screen and data recorder. Changes in penis size are recorded while the subject views sexually suggestive or pornographic pictures, slides, or movies, or listens to audio tapes with descriptions of such things as children being molested. Some studies say the devices have failed to detect nearly one out of three known sex offenders tested, and plethysmographic evidence has been declared inadmissible in court.)

Mikail said the following are additional factors used in framing a risk assessment:

Substance use;

Distorted thinking regarding minors and sexuality;

Denial, minimization, rationalization, and other psychological defenses employed to displace responsibility from the self;

Level of empathy, not just for one's victim, but others who were also victimized (for example, those in their groups);

Level of social skill/competence;

Support systems, ongoing supervision, and availability of ongoing treatment.

In the end, how effective is all this in predicting the likelihood that a priest will re-offend?

Mikail said there's a need for longitudinal studies to track how often priests re-offend. St. Luke's Institute in Maryland, a psychiatric hospital for priests and religious, claims a 4 percent recidivism rate for priests it has treated and released. Although this figure reflects only instances of abuse reported either to the police or the Church, and hence the actual number of new acts of abuse could be higher, nevertheless it suggests that treatment and follow-up supervision can be successful.

Mikail's overview led to a lively conversation about "zero tolerance" for clerical sexual abuse. Broadly speaking, some participants felt that both clinical experience and a gospel standard of compassion argue in favor of treating cases individually, and allowing for the possibility that some men may be capable of returning to ministry with little risk of re-offending. Others, however, felt that the benefit of the doubt should run in favor of potential victims. Moreover, they argued, for the Church to regain credibility in the United States, a "zero tolerance" stance is necessary, even if it means denying a handful of priests the chance to minister when they might be able to do so without substantial risk.

* * *

One other question that surfaced inside the seminar, without any clear answer: How representative of the rest of the country on the sex abuse issue is the Boston archdiocese?

Rezendes of the Boston Globe argued that while Church leaders may want to believe there's something "in the water" in Boston that produced an aberrant situation, in truth Boston is fairly representative of the rest of America in terms of the dimensions of the crisis.

I noted that many American bishops with whom I have spoken over the course of the last year dispute that assertion. Not every American bishop, they say, handled things the way Cardinal Bernard Law did. Not every diocese ran its affairs like Boston, and not every priest caught up in this scandal resembled accused serial pedophile John Geoghan. The fact that Law, Boston and Geoghan became the template through which the country saw the crisis, the bishops argue, seriously distorted the story.

Some in Santa Clara were sympathetic to this argument, while others saw it as a form of denial that will be exposed as revelations from various parts of the country continue to emerge. Time will tell.

* * *

While I was in San Jose, I had the pleasure of being invited to dinner with a group of priests gathered by Fr. Al Larkin at his Sacred Heart Parish. Larkin, who knew me from a presentation Robert Blair Kaiser and I made to priests on sabbatical at the North American College a couple of years ago, is the chair of the priests' council in the San Jose diocese.

Besides Larkin and me, the group included Fr. Steven Brown, pastor of Star of the Sea Parish in Alviso; Fr. Patrick Browne, pastor of St. Joseph Cathedral Basilica; Fr. Timothy Kidney, pastor St. Cyprian's; Fr. Randolph Calvo, pastor of Mt Carmel in Redwood City in the San Francisco archdiocese; Fr. Tom Madden, director of Vallombrosa Retreat Center at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park; Fr. Jack Bonsor, who teaches at Santa Clara University; and Fr. Gary Thomas, pastor of St. Nicholas.

Beyond teasing out the latest Roman gossip, the priests wanted to talk about their local situation -- the ethnic diversity in San Jose (100 different languages in a mid-sized diocese), the wide socio-economic range that runs from recent immigrants to Stanford Ph.Ds and dot-com millionaires. The priest shortage is taking its toll, and these guys are worried about how challenges will be met as they age and fewer candidates emerge to take their place. This is not an ideological matter, but a meat-and-potatoes issue born of deep pastoral concern.

As I've written before, the sex abuse crisis has produced a climate in which it's fashionable to bash "clerical culture," as if the only personality types Catholic seminaries produced over the last four decades are sexually abusive priests and "hear no evil, see no evil" bishops. It's just not so. Many of the most generous, most honorable, brightest and most committed people I've ever met are Catholic priests, and I cannot believe they are exceptions to a dysfunctional norm.

The evening in San Jose renewed my conviction that the Catholic priesthood in the United States, despite all its well-documented challenges, is still one of the Church's great resources.


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