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.