In 2003, the U.S. Catholic bishops’ National Review Board put together a request for proposals for two studies of the church’s sexual-abuse scandal. One study would examine the “nature and scope” of the crisis. Another would look at its “causes and context.” I was a member of the board at the time. We selected the John Jay College of Criminal Justice to conduct both studies. Last month, John Jay released the second study [pdf] to decidedly mixed reviews.

The John Jay research team, led by Karen J. Terry, has followed the National Review Board’s request. We wanted to know what factors made the epidemic of abuse happen (causes) and what environment helped it thrive (context). The Review Board published its own report [pdf] in 2004, when Justice Anne Burke of Illinois served as interim chair. That report was based on more than eighty interviews with bishops, priests, victims, victims’ family members, victims' advocates, psychiatrists, psychologists, sociologists, and priest-perpetrators. The board concluded that the selection and formation of seminary candidates was seriously faulty and that the response of the bishops was seriously deficient, from their presumptions in favor of accused priests and their disdain for dealing with victims to their reliance on secrecy and therapy to avoid scandal. But the board knew that such an anecdotal report needed to be vetted against all available facts. That would take several years, and that is what we asked John Jay to do.

John Jay found that the epidemic of child sexual abuse that engulfed the church in the 1960s and ’70s was primarily the result of ill-trained and psychologically unsuited priests who found themselves spiritually at sea in the rapidly changing sexual and social mores of those years and who turned to defenseless children as an outlet for their confused sexual yearnings. Critics of the report have made much of this finding—noting that John Jay only backed up what some bishops had been saying for years. That does not mean the report is wrong. Sometimes intuition can be right. And, to be fair, the bishops were not alone in making that claim. They were working from what the National Review Board said in our 2004 report, which was not controlled by the bishops.

The John Jay report is important because it provides the facts to help us grasp what happened in those years, and outlines the steps necessary to prevent it from happening again. To the bishops’ credit, many of those steps have already been taken. The heightened screening procedures for seminary admission and ordination, together with a new emphasis in seminary training on human formation and how to deal with the challenges of celibacy, will, if maintained, go a long way toward limiting the number of sexual misfits we ordain, although, as the report admits, it is almost impossible to identify most potential abusers in advance. Similarly, the safe-environment programs now in place in every U.S. parish and diocese go a long way toward protecting children. Not only are church volunteers (lectors, ushers, religious-education teachers) required to go through safe-environment training, but so are children, who are taught to identify signs of impending abuse and instructed to seek help if they are made to feel uncomfortable. This training has made it much more difficult for abusers to harm kids.

That leaves one other factor that helped cause the epidemic: the bishops themselves. As did the National Review Board’s 2004 report, the John Jay report clearly identifies the bishops’ inadequate response to reports of child sexual abuse as one of the major factors in the crisis. “To fully achieve change in the Catholic Church, all diocesan leaders must be committed to transparency about their actions, ensure that the immediate and appropriate responses to abuse become routine, and ensure that such actions are adopted on a national level by all church leaders,” the report says. “Most diocesan leaders [are doing this] yet some dioceses have continued to lag behind.”

That some dioceses still “lag behind” is inexplicable. The Dallas Norms were adopted by the bishops and sent to Rome for ratification in 2002 so that bishops’ responses to abuse would be immediate, appropriate, and transparent. It is not comforting to hear that nine years later, some dioceses (read “bishops”) are lagging behind. Unfortunately, given the Philadelphia grand-jury report released in February, neither is it a surprise (see "The Fog of Scandal").

We can do all the seminary screening and human-formation training in the world, and we can run safe-environment programs until we’re blue in the face, but without the buy-in of every single bishop some of our children remain in danger, and that is unacceptable.

Although perhaps John Jay was too polite to say so, that is the one remaining problem with the church’s response to child sexual abuse by clergy—there is no policing mechanism for bishops who are derelict in their duty, who do not follow the Dallas Norms, and whose actions or inactions lead to known abusers victimizing more children.

This is not just an American issue. While there is a lot of good to be said for the recent letter sent by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith to the bishops conferences of the world requiring them to adopt guidelines to deal with allegations of sexual abuse by clergy, the document has a fatal flaw.

Guidelines aren’t norms. Norms have the force of canon law; guidelines have the force of suggestion. Guidelines leave too much up to individual bishops, who can be quicker to protect their prerogatives than anything else, something the John Jay report and the National Review Board report emphasize happened in the early years of the U.S. crisis.

The U.S. bishops adopted good abuse guidelines at their meeting in November 1992. As the John Jay report notes, the vast majority of bishops followed them. But a small minority did not, one of whom declared at the November 1992 meeting, “Nobody is going to tell me how to run my diocese.” And, no surprise, it was in the dioceses (for example, Boston) where bishops ignored the guidelines and refused to limit their episcopal power in deference to the common-sense judgments of their confreres that the 2002 crisis first broke.

So guidelines throughout the world are not the best answer, simply because there will be some bishops who will choose not to follow them, as happened here between 1992 and 2002. When our guidelines failed because some bishops ignored them, the U.S. church had to turn to the Dallas Norms, statutes that had the force of canon law for every bishop, every diocese in the United States. And, as the John Jay report notes, those norms are working where they’re being followed—which is in most, but unfortunately not all, U.S. dioceses

Given the American experience, I don’t understand the Vatican’s reluctance to require norms, not guidelines. The CDF’s letter does not rule out norms, and even reminds the bishops of the extra steps they’d have to take to adopt them (mostly getting Vatican approval). If a bishop in a country that eventually adopts guidelines chooses to ignore them, what will happen? Will a Vatican official show up and ask “What are you doing?” I don’t think so. There are well-known cases in the United States where norms--particular canon law for the country, not simply guidelines, were ignored by bishops and there were no consequences. 

One Vatican observer, Sandro Magister, recently suggested that the Vatican wanted guidelines and not norms in order to avoid excessive centralization and excessive Roman legal responsibility when things go wrong: “This centralization has opened the door…to the risk that Vatican authorities and the pope himself could be dragged into court, for crimes committed by their ‘employees’ anywhere in the world.” How sad if that is the reason. This is the same mistake that the U.S. bishops made in their first response to the crisis: Ignore the victims and don’t do anything that might admit your own responsibility. Even sadder because the reasoning is faulty. Exercising jurisdiction over crimes does not make you responsible for the crimes. It doesn’t even make you responsible for ignoring the crimes. (Think every state government.)

As the John Jay report emphasizes, the current response—the one designed in Dallas in 2002—has worked well for the most part. The one failure with the U.S. bishops’ response to sexual abuse of children by priests is the lack of a policing mechanism for those few bishops who ignore the national norms and whose inaction allowed other children to be harmed. But this is not a failure of the bishops. This is a failure of the Vatican. And, unless Rome requires bishops conferences to adopt enforceable norms rather than ignorable suggestions, that failure will continue. 

Related: Myth-busters, by the Editors

Published in the 2011-07-15 issue: View Contents

Nicholas P. Cafardi is a civil and canon lawyer. He is Dean emeritus of Duquesne University School of Law and former general counsel to the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. His most recent book is Voting and Faithfulness (Paulist Press, 2020).

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