The National Catholic Review
Thomas J. Reese
What can European bishops learn from the U.S. sexual abuse crisis?
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When the story of sexual abuse of minors by members of the Catholic clergy and the story of how that abuse was dealt with by church officials exploded in the United States, most Vatican officials and European churchmen considered it an American problem. Then when Canada and Ireland experienced a similar crisis, it became a problem of the “English-speaking world.” Instead of seeing the crisis in the United States as a warning to put their own houses in order, too many European bishops continued with business as usual, believing that the crisis would not touch them.

Now that the crisis has arrived in Europe, what can the European bishops and the Vatican learn from the U.S. experience?

Begin with the context. The sexual abuse crisis did not start in Boston; it first came to public attention in the mid-1980s with a court case in Lafayette, La. The crisis was covered by The National Catholic Reporter long before The Boston Globe noticed it. It was in the mid-80s that insurance companies told bishops such cases would no longer be covered by their liability insurance. This should have gotten the attention of any prudent C.E.O.

A Long Learning Curve

Before 1985 few bishops handled these cases well. The tendency was to believe the priest when he said he would never do it again and to believe psychologists who said the priest could safely return to ministry. The bishops were compassionate and pastoral toward their priests, while forgetting their responsibility to be pastoral and protective of their flock. They tried to keep everything secret so as not to scandalize the faithful.

Between 1985 and 1992, the bishops began to learn more about the problem. They held closed-door sessions with experts at their semiannual meetings. At one closed meeting, at least one bishop told his brother bishops of the mistakes he had made and urged them not to do the same. The number of abuses declined during this period.

In 1992, under the leadership of Archbishop Daniel Pilarcyzk, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a series of guidelines for dealing with sexual abuse. Data collected by researchers at the John Jay School of Criminal Justice show that the number of abuse cases plummeted in the 1990s, indicating that by that time most bishops “got it.” The guidelines were opposed by Cardinal Bernard Law, however, and ignored by other bishops. The guidelines were not binding on the bishops, and they continued to leave open the possibility that an abusive priest could return to ministry. And at a meeting in St. Louis, Mo., that same year, a group of psychologists who were treating priests urged the bishops to keep open the possibility of returning the priests to ministry.

The scandal in Boston showed that voluntary guidelines were insufficient. It also showed that no one trusted the bishops (or their advisors) to decide who could safely be returned to ministry. As a result, in 2002 the bishops, with Rome’s consent, imposed binding rules requiring zero tolerance of abuse, the reporting of accusations to the police and mandatory child protection programs in every diocese. Under the zero-tolerance rule adopted at their meeting in Dallas, any priest involved in abuse should never be able to return to ministry. In most cases, he was to be expelled from the priesthood, with possible exceptions if he is elderly and retired or infirm. The Dallas rules also required a lay committee in each diocese to review accusations against priests who are suspended from ministry while an investigation takes place. The Dallas rules were controversial in that many priests saw the zero-tolerance rule as draconian. They also feared false accusations and that the rules made them guilty until proven innocent. They objected that Dallas dealt only with priests, not with the bishops who were guilty of negligence.

In any case, it took the American bishops 17 years to figure out how to proceed, from the 1985 lawsuit against the Diocese of Lafayette, La., to the establishment of the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002. The European bishops need to travel the same ground very quickly, and the Vatican needs to make zero tolerance the law for the universal church.

What Not to Do

While the Europeans can learn from what the American bishops got right at Dallas, they can also learn from the mistakes the Americans made during the crisis.

From the beginning, the American bishops underestimated the size and gravity of the problem. Prior to 1993, only one-third of the victims had come forward to report the abuse to their dioceses, so not even the church knew how bad the crisis was. Most victims do not want others to know they were abused, especially their parents, spouses, children and friends. Media coverage of abuse by clerics encouraged and empowered victims to come forward as they recognized they were not alone.

Today, Europeans are shocked by the hundreds of cases that are being reported. They should get ready for thousands more. In the United States over 5,000 priests, or 4 percent of the clergy, were responsible for 13,000 alleged instances of abuse over a 50-year period. There is no reason to think Europe is different. Hope for the best, but do the math and be prepared.

The biggest miscalculation the American bishops made was to think that the crisis would pass in a few months. Hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass is a failed strategy. Unless they want this crisis to go on for years as it has done in the United States, the European bishops need to be transparent and encourage victims to come forward now. Better to get all the bad news out as soon as possible than to give the appearance of attempting a coverup.

One school in Berlin, a Jesuit school, did the right thing. It knew of seven cases of abuse, went public, hired a female lawyer to go through their files and deal with victims and then wrote to the alumni asking victims to come forward. When at least 120 victims did so saying that they were abused at Jesuit schools in Germany, the foolish concluded that the school had been crazy to issue the invitation. But not only was it the Christian thing to do, it was also smart public relations. No one is accusing the current school administration of covering up. In addition, rather than having three to five years of negative publicity as one victim after another comes forward, they will endure a few months of unwanted publicity before the media move on to something else.

American bishops also made the mistake of blaming the media, faulting the permissive culture and trying to downplay clerical abuse by pointing out that there are 90,000 to 150,000 reported cases of sexual abuse of minors each year in the United States. While there is truth in all this, it is counterproductive for the bishops to make these arguments, which come across as excuses. Rather, the bishops should condemn the abuse, apologize and put in place policies to make sure that children are safe. Nor is one apology enough. Like an unfaithful spouse, they must apologize, apologize, apologize.

Finally, the American bishops excused themselves by saying they made mistakes but were not culpable because of their ignorance. Sorry; this won’t wash. American Catholics wanted some bishops to stand up and say: “I made a mistake; I moved this priest to another parish. I did not think he would abuse again. I got bad advice, but I take full responsibility. I am sorry and I resign.”

If 30 bishops in the United States had done this, the crisis would not have gone on as long as it did. People would have said, “Good, that is what leaders are supposed to do. They get it. With a new bishop we can have healing and move on.”

Bishops have to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the whole church. It is a scandal that Cardinal Law was the only U.S. bishop to resign because of this crisis. It is encouraging that four Irish bishops have submitted their resignations. Unless the church wants this crisis to go on for years in Europe as it did in the United States, some bishops will have to resign.

Will the European bishops learn from the U.S. experience? I hope so.

Thomas J. Reese, S.J., former editor in chief of America, is senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University, and author of Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Ch

Comments

Norman Costa | 4/20/2010 - 9:12pm

Whoops, didn't mean to double post, above.

Norman Costa | 4/20/2010 - 9:11pm

Dear Editors,


I'm sorry you deleted my comments to this article by Father Tom Reese. It was in the form of a "Dear Holy Spirit" letter.


My father was sexually abused by a priest who was preparing him for the Sacrament of Confirmation. He is 93 years old, infirmed, and in a nursing home. The abuse took place around 1930, and probably at St. Monica's Church on East 79th Street, in New York City. It is likely the his four brothers were sexually abused when he was preparing for Confirmation.

I contacted the sexual abuse victim coordinator at the New York Archdiocese. I asked that the church make a personal visit to my father and apologize for the horror that was visited upon him. You editors and the New York Archdiocese have something in common. My request for spiritual reparation was 'deleted', also. I have not received so much as an acknowledgement of my request. My father doesn't have much longer to live.

I have asked for only one thing. It is the one thing that Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized over and over, since his visit to the United States, two years ago. I asked for PASTORAL CARE for my father. Is PASTORAL CARE a joke? I should have asked the Holy Spirit, in my letter, to get the Pope and our priests up off their duffs and start delivering REAL PASTORAL CARE. Perhaps it's all straw.

Being a psychologist, and researching child sexual abuse, I find their there is something about all child sexual predators that is a near certainty. Men and women who sexually abuse children do not dabble in their perversion. Rather, their entire lives are organized around finding victims and opportunities to satisfy their need for predation and abuse. That is why a single priest can, over the course of only a decade or two, perpetrate his horror upon scores, if not hundreds, of innocents. How many other children were scarred by this priest as he used the Sacrament of Confirmation to find his unholy opportunities?

My father was doubly traumatized by clergy sexual abuse, and his heroic service in WWII. He suffered from PTSD all his life, and still does. His PTSD affected our entire family, not just my father.

I'm going to repeat my request to the New York Archdiocese. I believe it will be placed on the DELETED pile, again. I'll let you and your readers know what happens. Maybe one of you editors will take this seriously, and use it as a 'test' of what happens when PASTORAL CARE is requested for one of the suffering faithful of the church, my Father.

Norman Costa | 4/20/2010 - 9:11pm

Dear Editors,


I'm sorry you deleted my comments to this article by Father Tom Reese. It was in the form of a "Dear Holy Spirit" letter.


My father was sexually abused by a priest who was preparing him for the Sacrament of Confirmation. He is 93 years old, infirmed, and in a nursing home. The abuse took place around 1930, and probably at St. Monica's Church on East 79th Street, in New York City. It is likely the his four brothers were sexually abused when he was preparing for Confirmation.

I contacted the sexual abuse victim coordinator at the New York Archdiocese. I asked that the church make a personal visit to my father and apologize for the horror that was visited upon him. You editors and the New York Archdiocese have something in common. My request for spiritual reparation was 'deleted', also. I have not received so much as an acknowledgement of my request. My father doesn't have much longer to live.

I have asked for only one thing. It is the one thing that Pope Benedict XVI has emphasized over and over, since his visit to the United States, two years ago. I asked for PASTORAL CARE for my father. Is PASTORAL CARE a joke? I should have asked the Holy Spirit, in my letter, to get the Pope and our priests up off their duffs and start delivering REAL PASTORAL CARE. Perhaps it's all straw.

Being a psychologist, and researching child sexual abuse, I find their there is something about all child sexual predators that is a near certainty. Men and women who sexually abuse children do not dabble in their perversion. Rather, their entire lives are organized around finding victims and opportunities to satisfy their need for predation and abuse. That is why a single priest can, over the course of only a decade or two, perpetrate his horror upon scores, if not hundreds, of innocents. How many other children were scarred by this priest as he used the Sacrament of Confirmation to find his unholy opportunities?

My father was doubly traumatized by clergy sexual abuse, and his heroic service in WWII. He suffered from PTSD all his life, and still does. His PTSD affected our entire family, not just my father.

I'm going to repeat my request to the New York Archdiocese. I believe it will be placed on the DELETED pile, again. I'll let you and your readers know what happens. Maybe one of you editors will take this seriously, and use it as a 'test' of what happens when PASTORAL CARE is requested for one of the suffering faithful of the church, my Father.

6466379 | 4/18/2010 - 12:25pm
"Taking Responsibility" by Jesuit Father Thomas J. Reese is great and not surprisingly so, coming as it does from a man many of us see as an exemplary Jesuit, priest and Catholic. Allow me to respond as follows.

I don't know if it was pedophilia, homsexuality, fornication, or a kind of adulterous affairs with married woman. The young man was sexually intrusive, a scandal in his town - he was also a priest! He was exceptionally young to be a priest, but a priest he was and not dressed as a cleric of the 1500s when St. Philip Neri passing him on the street said a cheery, "Good morning, Father!" The young man turned on his heels, gruffly responding, "How did you know I am a priest?" Philip replied, "I see a light around your head!"

So, apparently, even priests leading sexually scandalous lives have a "light" shining around their heads? If this is true (we have the word of a Saint for it) it must be also true that we laity also have light shining around our heads by spiritual affiliation, since we, too, are a priestly people, male and female, baptized into a priestly Church. Realizing that we are "people of light" people enlightened through Faith, let's act as such in cleaning up the muck in the Church, taking responsibility for it, all of us, doing so in spirit of charity and justice equally applicable to both the abused and the accused. Let's clean up the Church at its Human Institution level, a level which is the work of human hands, but let's not forget that, at the Divine Instution level, the Church, our Church, is also the creative work of the Hand of God! And as such is indestructible.

True, Bishops didn't do all that should have been done, to deal with delinquent priests, becoming themselves delinquent. However, the Bishops with a few exceptions, did do all that they could do, trapped as they were in a human institutional system so flawed that, sooner, or later. it was bound to implode. It has!

But listen to what Pope Benedict writing as Cardinal Ratzinger says about the Church, in his masterpiece, "Introduction To Christianity" (Book 2, Ch.2, pg. 139. "Let us speak out and say what plainly worries us today ...". "We are tempted to say, if we are honest with ourselves, that the Church is neither holy nor catholic; the Second Vatican Council itself ventured to the point of speaking no longer merely of the holy Church, but of the sinful Church, and the only reproach it incurred was that of still being too timorous; so deeply aware are we all of the sinfulness of the Church." He continues. "The centuries of the Church's history are so filled with all sorts of human failure, that we can quite understand Dante's gastly vision of the Babylonian whore sitting in the Church's chariot...".

The future Pope said a lot more and now as Pope Bendict continues to speak forthrightly about the failures of our Church. But unlike so many others, even those of us who do love our Catholic Church, the Pope speak with charity, and a sense of ligitimate justice applicable to the abused and the accused, doing so as Christ would have done, with repentance. Certainly we should not become participants in what I call, "The Chrisie and Richie Show" (you know whom I mean) where the arrest of Pope Benedict is being sought on the grounds of "crimes against humanity." This is certainly not in line with taking responsibility as Church, for the Church!
George Purnell | 4/17/2010 - 9:39pm
Relax. The crisis is over. Saint Berlusconi has declared that the criticism of the Pope and the Vatican is unfair.
john fitzmorris | 4/17/2010 - 5:13pm
An intelligent, forthrigth discussion of the proper way, the Christian way of handling the tragedy. Well done, Fr. Reese! But handling the problem only involves one aspect of the scandal: cleaning up the mess the bishops have made of the matter.

What cuased this anti-gospel behavior to permeate the Church. There is something that is festering in the heart of the current institutional structure of the hierarchy and the priesthood that made this unspeakable abuse possible. Not only made it possible, but seems to have given comfort and shelter to heinous criminals in order to perserve the "face" of the Church Forget the claims of compassion and forgiveness, the driving force was protecting the institution.

That is where I think the discussion now needs to turn. What is it in the heart of the Institutional Church that made bishops believe that the reputation of the Church and compassion for the sinner(criminal) were more important than the lives of our children.

I hope that Tom Reese would now turn his considerable intellectual and communication talents to helping us get to the heart of the problem and lead us to serious reform. Otherwise there are nillstones being ready to put around the necks of the bishops. Nothing less than the future of the Church is in the balance
Mary Emmick | 4/17/2010 - 2:04pm

Our Archdiocese of Seattle and many archdioceses in the U.S. just had millions of dollars spent on a Welcome Home recruitment campaign to invite and lure fallen away Catholics back to the church. What are we luring them back to? I am so ashamed of our hierarchy and the coverup and middle age darkness.

Kate Smith | 4/17/2010 - 7:01am

Maureen,

I've heard the same thing you have:  it is happening all over, with religious order priests and nuns quietly being returned to public ministry after allegations of abuse were found credible.

My situation is a little different in that my 2003 legal agreement with the Jesuits says this cannot happen.   I had 25 years of experience with Jesuits and knew from my own experience and what I read in the paper that Jesuits will engage in this behavior, moving perps around.  So, the provincial at the time made it VERY clear that NO public ministry is allowed.  Zero.   It wasn't only a promise.   It's a legal contract.

My attorney and I are looking forward to exposing these practices, since we have issues to take to court.   I want most to focus on the Jesuits utter failure to take responsibility.  Most people caught red handed admit it.   Not Jesuits.

Kate

MAUREEN TURLISH SISTER | 4/16/2010 - 5:02pm
Interesting Kate B.

I find that is the case here in Delaware particularly with the suits being filed against individuals belonging to religious communities.

My contacts tell me that provincials and superiors can't wait to settle civil cases so that they can transfer the known sexual predators elsewhere.

People need to keep the pressure on and that means on the bishop of the diocese as well. He may say he has no authority over the religious orders but they serve in the diocese at his pleasure. I know of cases where there is no supervision. They come and go as they please, a tragedy waiting to happen.
Kate Smith | 4/16/2010 - 4:45pm

This article leaves out the history of religious orders on the subject of clergy sexual abuse in the United States.   This is a very serious omission, since priests and nuns in religious orders make up a very large percentage of ministers in the American Catholic church.

In this web site's group blog, "In ALL Things", the experience of female victims is ignored.   Blog post after blog post discusses homosexual priests and pedophilia, or homosexual priests and celibacy.

So, I suppose it makes a lot of sense that the first lawsuit about a perp priest returning to public ministry in violation of a legal agreement will be filed by a female victim of a religious order priest.  See, our experiences do not matter.   We're female.    Provincials can do whatever they want, while bishops are given mandates to follow since 2002.   And abuse of a male is talked about, while abuse of a female is insignificant.  A female victim of a religious order priest is invisible.  So, of course, the legal agreement made with a female victim of a religious order priest is most likely to be violated.

In 2003, I was found credible by the Jesuits,  and the Jesuit perp was banned from public ministry and teaching.  Under the very next provincial, the Jesuit perp was back in ministry and teaching, at least since 2006.  I discovered it in 2009.  The province took no steps to stop this, so I contacted Jesuit Superior General Fr. Nicolas, who told me that he asked the provincials to take responsibility, both the provincial who was soon leaving, and the provincial who was arriving.   That did not happen - no one took responsiblity.  Fr. Nicolas ignored me when I told him this.  In fact, the Jesuit president of Fordham University had to ban the Jesuit perp from campus in 2009 because his provincial was permitting him to return to teach.

I did not choose to go to court and file a law suit.  The Jesuits did, by not taking responsibility for their actions and for the legal agreement they signed in 2003.   It will be an interesting time in court.   I have a lot of questions for Jesuits, starting with sexism and gender biases, and why they sign legal agreements they won't follow.  And why they return abusive Jesuits to ministry.

Most of all, I want to ask Fr. Nicolas why he does not care about Jesuits failing to take responsibility.  I really look forward to asking Fr. Nicolas questions.

MAUREEN TURLISH SISTER | 4/16/2010 - 2:46pm
And the sexual abuse crisis in the Unites States will continue as long as the bishops here refuse to acknowledge their part in covering up for and enabling the sexual abuse of so many.

Actions have consequences. Crimes have consequences. Trafficking in individuals for purposes of sexual exploitation has consequences. Crimes against humanity have consequences.

Remember that the Holy See is a signatory to the United States Convention on the Rights of the Child.

One question I would direct to Tom Reese is regarding his comments on the binding nature of the rules he speaks of in the paragrap below:

The scandal in Boston showed that voluntary guidelines were insufficient. It also showed that no one trusted the bishops (or their advisors) to decide who could safely be returned to ministry. As a result, in 2002 the bishops, with Rome’s consent, imposed binding rules requiring zero tolerance of abuse, the reporting of accusations to the police and mandatory child protection programs in every diocese. Under the zero-tolerance rule adopted at their meeting in Dallas, any priest involved in abuse should never be able to return to ministry.

It has been my understanding that the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, by its nature, does not have the authority to compel compliance by the bishops, that how they define Accountability & Transparency is pretty much left up to them.

How are the rules binding? What and where can one find the penalties for the bishops who violate these rules?

Sister Maureen Paul Turlish
Victims' Advocate
New Castle, Delaware
maureenpaulturlish@yahoo.com
Todd Phillipe | 4/16/2010 - 2:29pm
Fr. Reese has offered an honorable and affirming way forward from the ongoing hell that is clergy sexual abuse, in America and elsewhere, regardless of when it happened. Yes, his plan will require sacrifice and will be painful, more so for some individuals in positions of authority and trust. Both sacrifice and pain are necessary before true healing and renewal can begin. After all, Jesus had to die before he was raised up. Today, the Church needs some leaders to "die" by confessing and resigning in order that the whole Church might be "raised up" to new spiritual life. Reese's call for the heirarchy to "man up" and do the right thing is refreshing and hopeful.