The Editors

Sexual abuse of minors by priests is once again making national headlines. No news story about the church is more shocking and scandalous than a report of children being sexually abused by priests. No victim is more defenseless than a child being preyed upon by an adult, especially an adult in a position of responsibility and respect.

Sadly, this news is not new. As early as 1985, The National Catholic Reporter began covering this story, to the dismay of many in the church. In 1986 a jury in Lafayette, La., awarded $1 million in damages to the family of an abused child, because the bishop knew the priest had problems and moved him to another parish, where he abused more children. It quickly became almost impossible for dioceses to obtain liability insurance to cover future cases.

The NCR articles and the Lafayette case were wake-up calls for most bishops, but many could not believe that the problem could exist in their dioceses. A few church officials explained it as a media conspiracy. In a series of closed-door sessions, the U.S. bishops’ conference began discussing the issue and educating bishops in the late 1980’s. Legal, canonical and psychological experts spoke to the bishops, who had to learn new words like pedophile and ephebophile. Bishops who had cases warned their colleagues not to make the same mistakes they had made.

At the spring 1992 meeting, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, as conference president, addressed the problem with directness and candor. He called sexual abuse of a child reprehensible conduct directed at a most vulnerable member of our society. He admitted that mistakes had been made in the past when people treated sexual abuse as a moral fault for which repentance and a change of scene would result in a change of behavior. Far more aggressive steps are needed to protect the innocent, treat the perpetrator, and safeguard our children. Where a lack of understanding and mistakes have added to the pain and hurt of victims and their families, they deserve an apology and we do apologize.

Archbishop Pilarczyk also revealed that in 1987 the conference recommended a five-step program for dealing with sexual abuse by clergy or church employees:

1. Respond promptly to all allegations where there is reasonable belief that the incident has occurred.

2. If the allegation is supported by sufficient evidence, promptly relieve the alleged offender of his ministerial duties and refer him for appropriate medical evaluation and intervention.

3. Comply with the obligations of civil law on reporting the incident and cooperating with the investigation.

4. Reach out to the victims and their families and communicate a sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well-being.

5. Within the confines of respect for the privacy of the individuals involved, deal as openly as possible with members of the community about the incident.

These guidelines recognized that most victims and their parents want three things: help paying for counseling and therapy, a sincere apology and assurance that the perpetrator will never again harm a child. Nonetheless, lawyers and insurance companies often instructed bishops to stonewall.

Despite these guidelines and more detailed procedures that followed, problems still arise. How to decide what is a serious allegation? How to investigate an allegation without destroying the reputation of an innocent priest? What do innocent until proven guilty and due process mean in this context? The allegations against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin were a case in point. The fact that most accusations are true does not mean that they are all true.

Confusion and disagreements also surround the treatment and rehabilitation of sex offenders. In 1992 Archbishop Pilarczyk refused to rule out the possibility of a priest returning to ministry after treatment. A report to the bishops from 31 experts in 1993 took a similar position, but added that such priests should not be allowed to work with minors. The president of St. Luke’s, a treatment center in Maryland, would not speak of curing this addiction, but he told the bishops in 1993, We are accumulating stories of successful recovery from sexual addictions extending over eight to 10 years of sexual sobriety. But Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia wisely argued that the presumption must be against return to any ministry because of the danger to future victims. Although it is unknown how many offenders attain sexual sobriety (sometimes with the help of medication that suppresses sexual drives), those who abuse again cause catastrophic damage to victims and the church, leading many to conclude that any return to ministry is too dangerous.

That abuse cases continue to surface indicates that guidelines on paper are not enough. Far stricter enforcement is called for to rid the church of this horrible scandal and, more important, to protect our children.

Comments

Edward J. FitzPatrick | 1/26/2007 - 2:02pm
Your editorial comments on sexual abuse by priests oddly used the term “sexual sobriety.” Since when is alcoholism and its major recovery term associated with a disease such as pedophilia and ephebophilia? This reader sees the use of the term as an attempt to project that recovery is a reasonably attainable goal similar to the recorded recoveries of millions of alcoholics since the founding of A.A. in 1935. While alcoholism is a serious disease, in most instances it can be successfully treated. The treatment of adult sexual abusers of children has no successful track record. Obviously sexual chastity should be the goal.

Alcoholics have one primary goal: to stay sober. Linking the recovery term in a cliché fashion to gross impurity that destroys children is not accurate.

Edward J. Thompson | 1/26/2007 - 2:01pm
Your editorial about sexual abuse by priests (2/18) reminds me that the past secrecy of our bishops in this matter is somewhat analogous to the Nixon administration’s coverup of Watergate. The Watergate break-in was bad enough, but the coverup made Nixon’s White House lose whatever credibility it once had.

The church hierarchy too has made matters much worse by refusing to recognize the problem of priests who prey on youngsters. Some of the same bishops who complain about the lack of vocations to the priesthood are the very ones guilty of covering up this horrible scandal.

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk is to be applauded for his courageous stand on this issue. But mere guidelines and apologies are not enough. What is needed during this Lenten season is an honest and sincere appraisal of how we got to this woeful state of affairs and how we are going to extricate ourselves from this mess.

Eugene Bova | 1/26/2007 - 1:50pm
Your excellent editorial on sex abuse (2/18) correctly states that guidelines are not enough. There is no justification for the hierarchy to determine if allegations are “supported by sufficient evidence.” Sex abuse is a crime. Only civil authorities should determine sufficiency and prosecute or absolve where appropriate. They have the responsibility, experience and knowledge to handle allegations of criminal activities.

If a complainant approaches a church authority, he/she should be told that the church cannot/will not investigate. The complainant should be given a form stating this and providing the address of the local civil authority. It might also require a signed acknowledgment of receipt of the form. Church employee handbooks should tell employees with suspicions of others to report them directly to the civil authorities without fear of recrimination. Interim action regarding the alleged offender’s status can be handled as the church authorities choose. This process would relieve the hierarchy of a responsibility it clearly should not have. Over time, it would reassure the public that there are no coverups and perhaps restore credibility.

Leo C Sprietsma, OFM | 2/14/2002 - 10:39am
The recent "Motu Proprio" from Pope John Paul II seems to include cases of child abuse with various other "priestly scandals." And it preserves a secrecy about the cases. It is past time for the highest authorities to acknolwedge that these cases are worldwide and that they are serious enough to merit special attention on their own Putting cases of "Liturgical Abuse" and rather unspecified charges of "disrepect for the Eucharist" in the same document that refers to cases of "sex with a minor under 18" does not do justice to the problem of child abuse by priests.

Joan E.Burke | 3/2/2002 - 11:50am
Marilyn, do you think that terms such as "psycho-sexual immaturity" or "arrested development" are a part of what you describe in your letter?

Marilyn M. Kramer | 2/13/2002 - 2:48pm
The profile of the sexual abuser describes an individual who cannot sustain close personal relationships, often because of deep-seated insecurity and inability to trust. They may be attracted to the priesthood because it offers a secure haven with a built-in aura of trust and no pressure for close relationships. Abusers trying to compensate for their own lack of trustingness may be attracted to the innocent trustingness of the young. For ephebophiles, the attraction may be akin to that of the deflowering rituals used in some ancient pagan religions. Both abuses involve domination and are perversions of our innate relational sex drive which because it developed later in our evolutionary history has different impulses that overlay the reproductive impulses we share with other species. The compulsion driving the sexual abuser is difficult to understand for those who believe our only innate sex drive is the reproductive impulse controllable through moral discipline and self-control and who therefore believe a cure requires only strengthening self-control through counseling and spiritual support. The problem is further complicated by the fact that the abuser convinces himself he is not harming children by introducing them to sexual affection. He completely blocks out the fact that by using them for his own pleasure he is destroying their trustingness, thereby replicating what happened to his own ability to trust. So total is their self-deception that they are extremely convincing liars when denying charges of sexual abuse.

Leo C Sprietsma, OFM | 2/14/2002 - 10:39am
The recent "Motu Proprio" from Pope John Paul II seems to include cases of child abuse with various other "priestly scandals." And it preserves a secrecy about the cases. It is past time for the highest authorities to acknolwedge that these cases are worldwide and that they are serious enough to merit special attention on their own Putting cases of "Liturgical Abuse" and rather unspecified charges of "disrepect for the Eucharist" in the same document that refers to cases of "sex with a minor under 18" does not do justice to the problem of child abuse by priests.

Joan E.Burke | 3/2/2002 - 11:50am
Marilyn, do you think that terms such as "psycho-sexual immaturity" or "arrested development" are a part of what you describe in your letter?

Marilyn M. Kramer | 2/13/2002 - 2:48pm
The profile of the sexual abuser describes an individual who cannot sustain close personal relationships, often because of deep-seated insecurity and inability to trust. They may be attracted to the priesthood because it offers a secure haven with a built-in aura of trust and no pressure for close relationships. Abusers trying to compensate for their own lack of trustingness may be attracted to the innocent trustingness of the young. For ephebophiles, the attraction may be akin to that of the deflowering rituals used in some ancient pagan religions. Both abuses involve domination and are perversions of our innate relational sex drive which because it developed later in our evolutionary history has different impulses that overlay the reproductive impulses we share with other species. The compulsion driving the sexual abuser is difficult to understand for those who believe our only innate sex drive is the reproductive impulse controllable through moral discipline and self-control and who therefore believe a cure requires only strengthening self-control through counseling and spiritual support. The problem is further complicated by the fact that the abuser convinces himself he is not harming children by introducing them to sexual affection. He completely blocks out the fact that by using them for his own pleasure he is destroying their trustingness, thereby replicating what happened to his own ability to trust. So total is their self-deception that they are extremely convincing liars when denying charges of sexual abuse.

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