Beyond the numbers


The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) released two studies February 27, one on the number of incidents as well as the financial cost of the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy between 1950 and 2002, the other offering an evaluation of the data and possible explanations for the scandal. The first report, conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, found that more than 10,667 children had been assaulted by 4,392 priests over the fifty-two-year period. That figure represents 4 percent of priests active during that time. The researchers cautioned that these numbers were probably low, because not all victims had come forward even now. According to the John Jay report and other news accounts, the church nationwide has spent close to three-quarters of a billion dollars on legal settlements, lawyers’ fees, and therapy for victims and perpetrators. The second study, conducted by the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People (NRB), the lay panel created by the bishops to probe “the causes and context of the crisis,” is a 158-page report. Commonweal will present further analysis of it in the March 26 issue. Here are some initial comments. First, neither report attempted to determine whether the sexual abuse of minors was more prevalent among Catholic priests than among other professional groups, such as schoolteachers, who routinely deal with children. It is impossible to make such comparisons because there are simply no good studies of other institutions. Indeed, the NRB notes that sexual abuse is “a societal problem,” one the church can now help ameliorate. The data suggest that incidents of abuse have declined dramatically since many bishops took steps to protect children in the early 1990s. Whether that is in fact the case, only time will tell. The NRB emphasized two factors to explain the pattern and pervasiveness of sexual abuse, which appears to have peaked with the ordination class of 1970, in which one out of every ten priests has been credibly accused. First, the report cited the poor screening of candidates for the priesthood in the 1960s and 1970s. “Many sexually dysfunctional and immature men were admitted into seminaries,” the study says. Second, the board criticized priestly formation, especially around the discipline of celibacy. Since 81 percent of those abused were boys, the NRB concluded that the all-male environment of the priesthood presents a special challenge to homosexuals. Neither the requirement of celibacy nor the mere presence of homosexuals can be said to have “caused” the crisis, however. Most homosexual priests serve well and remain celibate. Celibacy itself is rightly regarded as a great “gift” to the church. Still, it is clear that candidates for the priesthood who are homosexual should receive special scrutiny and training. That said, the board noted that the number of priests who have been in sexual relationships with adult women or men is far greater than the number who have abused children. Living a celibate life in a modern, hypersexualized culture is extremely difficult. All priests need more spiritual guidance and institutional support in honoring their vows. The board’s report was highly critical of the way bishops handled accusations against priests and the way victims were treated. “The members of the review board stress that we see this crisis as one of the episcopacy as much as it is a crisis of the priesthood.” Many of the NRB’s criticisms of clerical culture have been voiced by other groups and observers. Avoiding public scandal was too often a bishop’s principal concern. In response to lawsuits, bishops turned to lawyers instead of reaching out to victims. “Many lawyers did a great disservice to the church,” said Robert S. Bennett, chair of the board’s research committee. Canon law, as well as the clerical subculture, extended every presumption to accused priests while victims were effectively silenced. In the treatment and rehabilitation of abusers, some bishops hid crucial information from clinicians while others placed too much trust in psychiatry and therapy. Institutionally, the absence of formal systems of cooperation and information sharing among dioceses kept bishops in the dark about the prevalence of abuse. Some bishops deliberately withheld information about abusive priests from fellow bishops. In that regard, the NRB rightly urges the bishops as a group to issue an annual report on such abuse. Among the board’s recommendations, many of which stressed transparency and accountability in church governance, several seemed especially promising. With great perspicacity, the report saw how damaging is the absence of “ongoing intellectual, spiritual, and psychological formation and monitoring of priests after ordination.” Given the shortage of priests, providing such support is a daunting challenge, but it must be done. Too many priests are overworked, burned out, socially and psychologically isolated. The board also calls for “meaningful lay consultation” in the selection of bishops and for a continuing lay role in church oversight. Equally important, bishops must break the code of silence that prevents one bishop from publicly criticizing another. The scandal has intensified the crisis of morale among priests. Many priests feel they have been made scapegoats both by the public and by their own bishops. Some think the zero-tolerance policy adopted by the bishops in Dallas in 2002, which requires the removal of one-time offenders, unduly harsh and unfair. (According to the John Jay report, 56 percent of priests had only one accusation made against them. Serial abusers, of whom there were 147, were responsible for a quarter of all the accusations.) Moreover, priests note that bishops have failed to impose stringent punishments against fellow bishops. Ordinaries guilty of covering up abuse and transferring abusers are not compelled to resign. “The bishops must place priestly morale high on their agenda and must show that they are willing to accept responsibility and consequences for poor leadership decisions if the confidence of the laity in the leadership of the church is to be restored,” said the board. The NRB report acknowledges that the zero-tolerance rule (agreed to by the Vatican), though prudentially warranted at this time, might not be the best way to ensure the safety of children. It is not possible for the church to keep track of or to supervise defrocked priests. Wouldn’t it be better for all concerned if the church continued to accept responsibility for and exercised some authority over these men? No one is arguing that abusers be placed back in ministries with children, but is expulsion and laicization always and in every instance the right response, especially for one-time offenders? Anyone who reads the John Jay study and the NRB report will be profoundly disturbed by the extent of the suffering hidden behind the statistics and by the depth of ecclesiastical failure. Something more than priestly and episcopal fallibility has been exposed. The crisis has revealed a disturbing detachment from reality on the part of those to whom Catholics look for moral inspiration and leadership. Yet that is not the end of the story. The USCCB’s commissioning of these studies is evidence of the church’s genuine remorse and contrition and of its determination to tell the truth regardless of the consequences. It is a harrowing thing to confess wrongdoing and to ask for forgiveness. But as we all know, unless one is truly sorry and possesses a firm purpose of amendment, reconciliation is impossible. These reports are also evidence of the fruitful collaboration that can-and must-exist between the laity and the ordained. All Catholics owe the lay review board a debt of gratitude for the professionalism, theological sensitivity, and honesty of its report. In calling the bishops to account, and in speaking forthrightly about the clericalism at the root of the scandal, the board has opened a door long closed. Its work provides a model for future governance of the church, one in which the hierarchy will not only listen to, but also trust, the laity. March 2, 2004

Published in the 2004-03-12 issue: 
Also by this author
Richard McCormick, R.I.P.

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads