A reluctant yes


As anticipated, media coverage of sexual abuse by clergy seems to be cresting, at least to some degree. However, the crisis remains one of tragic proportions and should receive the attention of church officials for the foreseeable future. Priests who were identified, evaluated, and punished years ago are crying foul, calling the bishops’ zero-tolerance policy flawed. Stories of priests who have confessed their crime and whose witness to virtue has been applauded firsthand by their congregations have left some Catholics disillusioned by the severity of the new policy within a church that preaches forgiveness as a gospel mandate. Moreover, citing a breach of their canonical right to due process, some priests are appealing to Rome. It already appears that, pending further word from the Vatican, some dioceses will in fact not implement a zero-tolerance policy in those cases in which there is no clear evidence that there was more than one offense. On the other hand, victims and survivors of sexual abuse are as quick to cry foul in the face of this mounting opposition, stating that the very nature of this crime is such that one incident is unlikely. The lack of evidence and the testimony of the accused are not sufficient proof for them that it occurred only once. They may be correct. The database to which I have been exposed over the last seventeen years in dealing with the issue head-on convinces me that the weight of evidence is on the side of victims. Though complex, the pattern of sexual offenders is clear. They convince their victims that they are the only ones to whom they have given special affection. This makes the victims unique and special. Moreover, despite the more open atmosphere created by the Boston disclosures, this "secret" remains a strong inhibitor, preventing many victims from revealing the incident for years, and for some, forever. The absence of public disclosure of even one incident results in the virtual denial of an opportunity for other victims of the same offender to know that there were other victims. Victims need to have become survivors in order to speak out confidently on a platform of wellness, as it were. Until they are able to do so, they remain captive to their own protective wall of silence, as well as the wall built around them by authorities and authority figures. Negotiations designed to be opportunities for healing and reconciliation have become opportunities for intimidation by defense attorneys and the institutions that often protect offenders. Although such conversations should take place on a level playing field, in many cases the field has been far from level. This is a further inhibitor even for victims who feel they must speak up but are unable to do so. Offenders are con artists and will leave no stone unturned to cover up their sexual crime or misconduct. They will lie and think that they are telling the truth. It is part of the illness. Psychiatrists and therapists can deal only with the data to which they are privy. If the offender tells them there was only one incident and there is no evidence to the contrary from other victims, the diagnosis and prognosis tend to favor the "reformed" offender, declaring him "safe" for ministry. I have not yet been exposed to psychological or psychiatric evidence or opinion to the contrary. Even on the assumption that there may be situations in which offenders have indeed been guilty of one offense and experienced a subsequent metanoia, the prevailing sense among victims and people in the pew appears to support the consensus that offenders should never again be permitted to function in ministry. The act can never be undone; the damage to the victim is residual and permanent. Forgiveness does not automatically restore a victimizer’s right to a position of trust. He forfeited that right by his act of degradation, which was in effect a total derogation of his office. This does not exclude the possibility that an aged or infirm priest will be cared for with minimum amenities and health protection. Other cases of dated incidents may be less clear as a result of insufficient evidence. This situation works to the legal advantage of the alleged offender, as indeed it should-innocent until proved guilty. However, it does not mean the incidents did not take place. It means only that the evidence is insufficient. The situation is ambiguous at best for both the alleged offender and the alleged victim, but it remains a moral issue for the church. Catholics are resilient but their mantra remains explicit: "There will be no healing without justice; no justice without truth; no truth without full accountability."

The Reverend Kenneth Lasch is pastor of St. Joseph’s Church, Mendham, New Jersey.

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Published in the 2002-09-27 issue: View Contents
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