Honesty Comes before Healing

By Pat McCloskey
St. Anthony Messenger
Downloaded June 9, 2003

Comprehending the scope of the clergy sex-abuse crisis is the Catholic Church's first step toward recovery.

"The Church in the United States is experiencing a crisis without precedent in our times," say the U.S. bishops in the opening sentence of their 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. In this unprecedented crisis, all the Church's members need to be honest about its extent and what steps are needed to begin healing. This special issue is one contribution toward that twofold goal.

Over the years, St. Anthony Messenger has published many special issues but none about a scandal that has enraged so many Catholics and caused some people to question why they remain Catholic. We are presenting a wide range of voices that, in our opinion, can help the Church respond to this scandal as a faith community guided by Jesus' Good News.

Our editors have written all the articles. Christopher Heffron interviewed two people who were abused as minors. Mary Jo Dangel spoke with the parents of an abused person and later with the priest who heads the National Federation of Priests' Councils, as well as the priest who serves as executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men. They offer contact information for two groups serving abused people.

John Bookser Feister talked with members of Voice of the Faithful. Barbara Beckwith interviewed four members of the National Review Board, appointed by the U.S. bishops to monitor diocesan compliance with the bishops' Charter and Essential Norms.

Susan Hines-Brigger talked with Bishop Joseph Galante, coadjutor bishop of Dallas, Texas, and a member of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. Carol Ann Morrow spoke to Phyllis Willerscheidt, who works for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis with people who have been sexually abused.

The editorial by Jack Wintz, O.F.M., and this month's articles will be available at after May 18, 2003. That site also contains our previously published material on this issue, including John Bookser Feister's interview with Kathleen McChesney, who was appointed on November 7, 2002, to head the bishops' Office for Child and Youth Protection.

If something seems missing from this month's issue, please know that St. Anthony Messenger will continue covering this story. This month is the first anniversary of the bishops' initial approval of the Charter and six months after the Holy See approved special canonical norms implementing the Charter.

When we published our February 1994 cover story, "How the Church Is Confronting Sexual Abuse" (winner of a first-place Catholic Press Association award), we hoped this scandal was declining. Tragically, it has increased. Although we are addressing this crisis primarily within the Catholic Church in the United States, the Church in other countries such as Canada, Mexico, England, Chile, Ireland and Poland is experiencing similar scandals.


Depending on their perspective and which word they use, people differ in describing what has happened and, therefore, what response is needed. The conversation within the Church has been hindered by preferring abuse and sin over the term crime.

Abuse suggests clinical treatment for abusers and counseling offered to those abused. Sin evokes moral failing, with an emphasis on repentance and forgiveness. Crime signals lawsuits, fines and prison sentences. All three expressions are accurate.

Only the term crime, however, fully acknowledges that predators have traumatized children and teens, causing severe, long-term consequences. Although protecting young people should have been the Church's first priority, many of its leaders and occasionally others too often made decisions motivated by a desire to avoid scandal.

Some abused people eventually committed suicide. In the last 14 months, at least four priests accused of sexual abuse have committed suicide. Many people abused as children or teens experience problems years later in forming adult relationships. Some of those abused by priests no longer identify themselves as Catholics. And every abused person has family members, classmates, neighbors and acquaintances-all very deeply affected by this scandal. Abusers had often been abused themselves.

At one time, many medical professionals thought pedophilia (sexual attraction by adults toward preadolescents) and ephebophilia (sexual attraction by adults toward adolescents) were conditions that could be cured. Today few reputable medical professionals believe that about pedophilia and many have serious doubts regarding treatment for ephebophilia. At best, pedophiles can be medicated, learn some coping skills and be kept in a restricted environment.

Bishops and superiors of men's religious communities did not always follow recommendations made by treatment centers to which they sent priest-abusers. Priests with prior accusations of sexual misconduct were sometimes reassigned across diocesan boundaries without informing the new bishop or religious superiors about their history.

Scope of the Scandal

How widespread is this abuse? This month Kathleen McChesney's Office for Child and Youth Protection plans to release its study on the scope and nature of the abuse, including information on the number of clergy accused, number and ages of victims, and costs of financial settlements.

On January 12, 2003, The New York Times gave 1,205 as the number of current, former or deceased priests accused of sexually abusing minors within the last 52 years. Statistics are given for each diocese, with the highest numbers of accused priests in Boston (94), Baltimore (55), Los Angeles (49), Manchester, New Hampshire (40), Cleveland (33), Chicago (30) and the Archdiocese of New York (30).

The New York Times estimated that 1.8 percent of priests ordained in the United States between 1950 and 2001 have been accused of having sexually abused minors. Half of those were accused of abusing two or more minors, usually males. The crime of sexually abusing minors, underreported in general, has until recently been even more underreported when the abusers were Catholic priests.

The New York Times also reported that nine priests accused of sexual abuse were reinstated in 2002 after investigations could not substantiate the accusations. In 1993, Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin was accused of sexually abusing a minor, who retracted that accusation four months later. Public authorities decided that a 2002 accusation against Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles was without foundation.

Since 1999, however, two bishops have resigned after admitting past sexual abuse of minors. Another bishop denied a similar accusation but then resigned. Several other bishops have resigned because of sexual relationships with adults.

In 2002, the Diocese of Manchester signed an agreement with the state's attorney general, acknowledging that past diocesan failures to protect minors from abusive priests were possible grounds for the diocese as an institution to be convicted under the state's child endangerment statute. On February 10, 2003, a special grand jury in Long Island published a report saying, "The history of the Diocese of Rockville Centre demonstrates that as an institution they are incapable of properly handling issues relating to the sexual abuse of children by priests."

The Charter and Essential Norms

In the early months of 2002, the clergy sex-abuse scandal in Boston quickly became a national crisis when more people abused by priests came forward. In April, Pope John Paul II called to Rome the U.S. cardinals, plus the president and vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The pope told them and Vatican officials, "There is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young." The meeting's participants drew up a final statement, which called for a set of national standards for dealing with sexual abuse of minors by priests and new procedures for dismissing from the clerical state those found guilty of that crime.

Independent of the Church's efforts, public authorities have continued their own investigations and prosecutions. Although some cases cannot be prosecuted because of each state's statute of limitations in civil law, the Church's law allows for prosecution of many of those cases.

During their June 2002 meeting in Dallas, the nation's Catholic bishops approved a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and then Essential Norms, new canonical procedures for dioceses and eparchies (Eastern Catholic dioceses) to implement the Charter. The Essential Norms and Charter were revised in November 2002.

The Charter pledges that the Catholic Church will provide a "safe environment" for all children in Church-sponsored activities. To do that, the U.S. bishops will eventually need to develop uniform procedures for handling sex-abuse allegations against lay teachers in Catholic schools, parish staff members, coaches and other people who represent the Church to young people.

In the Charter, the bishops pledged to report to the police all allegations of sexual abuse of those who are still minors and support the right of those who are no longer minors to report such abuse (Article Four). The bishops determined that, for even a single admitted or proven act of sexual abuse of a minor, the offending priest or deacon will be permanently removed from ministry (Article Five). No priest or deacon who has committed an act of sexual abuse of a minor may be transferred for ministerial assignment to another diocese/eparchy or religious province (Article 14).

The Essential Norms establish procedures for assessing allegations, for a canonical trial for the crime of abusing a minor, for formal dismissal from the clerical state (a separate juridical process) and related issues. Even if the offending cleric is not dismissed (as might be the case for some elderly offenders), he can no longer celebrate Mass publicly, administer the sacraments, wear clerical garb or present himself publicly as a priest (Charter, Article Five). That applies equally to diocesan clergy and priests who belong to a religious community.

The Charter calls for a national Office for Child and Youth Protection, assigning it three tasks: 1) assisting dioceses and eparchies in implementing "safe-environment" programs for children and young people, 2) assisting regional groupings of dioceses in auditing adherence to the Charter, 3) publishing an annual public report on implementing the Charter, noting any dioceses/eparchies considered not to be in compliance with "the provisions and expectations of this Charter."

The Charter also mandates a National Review Board to assist and monitor the Office for Child and Youth Protection and study the causes and context of the current crisis. In addition, the Charter calls for diocesan review boards to assist the local bishop in assessing allegations.

Financial Implications

No amount of money can erase the pain caused by the sexual abuse of minors. Out-of-court settlements, convictions and financial payments, however, are often the only way of establishing guilt and negligence in these cases.

Although most settlements have been confidential, the public record of money paid directly to those who have been abused already surpasses $500 million. The study to be released this month by the Office for Child and Youth Protection will provide more accurate figures.

The total cost of settlements, legal fees, counseling for victims and therapy for abusers is not known at this time. In January 2003, the Archdiocese of Chicago reported that it had spent $16.8 million in 10 years on sex-abuse cases. Four months earlier, the Archdiocese of Baltimore had reported that it spent $5.6 million in similar cases over the previous 15 years.

During 2002, the Archdioceses of Boston and Los Angeles decided to close their college seminaries in a budget-cutting move. That year also saw drastic reductions of staff in several dioceses-partly because of the sex-abuse scandal. Some dioceses face the possibility of bankruptcy.

An October 2002 Gallup poll revealed that 26 percent of Catholics surveyed said they would reduce contributions to diocesan and national collections if the funds went to pay for sex-abuse lawsuits; 22 percent said they would lower their parish giving if their donations went to pay similar lawsuits.

Last January, the board of directors of FADICA (Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities) urged the U.S. bishops to disclose how much their dioceses have already spent on lawsuits filed for children and teens abused by clerics.

What Healing Will Require

Not everyone can be healed of the trauma suffered by clergy sex abuse; some people have already died. Others have left the Catholic Church. Some remain, working for change and healing from within. The whole Church needs healing.

Renew International, well known since 1978 for its diocesan and parish renewal programs, has developed "Healing the Body of Christ," six sessions of teaching, reflection and dialogue about this crisis. This past Lent, all the parishes in four archdioceses and nine dioceses used this program. One or more parishes in another 18 archdioceses and 47 dioceses were also engaged in this program.

At the end of the Charter, the U.S. bishops make three pledges: to protect children and young people, to provide the needed resources and personnel and to ordain to the priesthood and place in positions of trust only those who share their commitment to protecting children and youth. Then the bishops continue:

"We pledge that we will work toward healing and reconciliation for those sexually abused by clerics.

"We make these pledges with a humbling sense of our own limitations, relying on the help of God and the support of his faithful priests and people to work with us to fulfill them.

"Above all we believe, in the words of St. Paul as cited by Pope John Paul II in April 2002, that 'where sin increased, grace overflowed all the more' (Romans 5:20). This is faith's message. With this faith, we are confident that we will not be conquered by evil but overcome evil with good (cf. Romans 12:21)."

The Church's efforts at understanding this crisis and taking effective action reflect its prayer to be "a living witness to truth and freedom, to justice and peace, that all people may be lifted up by the hope of a world made new" (Eucharistic Prayer "Jesus, the Compassion of God," approved for the United States in 1995).


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