When the U.S. bishops meet in Dallas, Tex., on June 13-15, the sexual abuse crisis will be at the top of their agenda. The media, the laity and the nation will be watching, ready to pass judgment on the bishops if they do not meet expectations. Two issues have become litmus tests to measure how well the bishops meet their challenge: mandatory reporting and zero tolerance for sex abusers.
Mandatory Reporting. Good citizens are supposed to report crimes and assist the police in their work, but one is not normally arrested and prosecuted for not reporting a crime. It is presumed that the victim of a crime will report. But some crimeschild abuse, spousal abuse, abuse of the elderly, for examplefrequently go unreported because the victims are afraid or helpless. As a result, certain professions are designated mandatory reporters of these crimes: doctors, nurses, counselors, social workers and teachers.
In 29 states, priests are already mandatory reporters of suspected child abuse, either because the law specifies them (11 states) or because everyone is required to report such suspicions (18 states). But normally, the law applies only if the victim is still a minor. Because of this, most of the recently revealed crimes by priests would not be covered by mandatory reporting laws; the victims are now adults and can report the crime themselves. In addition, the law usually limits reporting to credible allegations and suspicions, which leaves some discretion to the reporter. We believe that the church should report allegations of sexual abuse by priests even if the allegation is flimsy or concerns victims who are now adults.
Traditionally, priests and psychologists were not required to report crimes because society believed that victims would be helped and crime reduced if both victims and criminals had access to confidential professional help. Similarly, journalists are not normally required to reveal their sources because the public good of a free press outweighs any individual conviction. If the laws are changed, whatever is required of priests should also be required of other professionals, such as psychologists, doctors and teachers. But no matter what is determined regarding counseling sessions, the secrecy of the confessional must be respected by law.
Zero Tolerance. When faced with multimillion-dollar liability judgments, the simplest and safest policy for the church is to expel any priest guilty of sexual abusesimply throw him out on the streets and be done with him. On the other hand, this may not be what is best for society at large, let alone the most Christian response.
Sexual abuse cases are spread over a wide spectrum of types. There are the true pedophiles, who are compulsively attracted to prepubescent children and tend to be serial offenders. These are sick and dangerous people who will require lifelong supervision by the state and should never be allowed near children or in ministry. But most of the abuse by priests has been with post-pubescent teens. Some are true ephebophiles, who are sexually attracted only to such teenagers. These serial offenders should not be in ministry.
On the other hand, many adult heterosexual males, who are normally attracted to adult women, find some 16- and 17-year-old girls sexually attractive. Because of moral training, social constraints and sexual outlets with adult women, heterosexuals do not normally fall to this temptation. Likewise, many adult homosexual males, who are normally attracted to adult males, find some 16- and 17-year-old boys sexually attractive. Because of moral training, social constraints and sexual outlets with adult men, homosexuals do not normally fall to this temptation.
But some heterosexuals and homosexuals do fall, often with step-children, relatives, students or teenagers under their care. In many cases, alcohol, depression, loneliness and lack of adult sex facilitate the abuse. Although still criminals, these are not serial, compulsive abusers. Such abusers have lost the right to work with or care for children, but should they be defrocked for something that occurred 20 or 30 years ago and was not repeated? Could such priests’ work be confined to adults or to some kind of office work?
We believe that it should be national policy that no priest guilty of abusing a minor should remain in priestly ministry. Any exception to this policy should require the approval of a lay board and public disclosure of the priest’s past to any community to which he ministers.
But even if such priests never minister again, what should the church do with them? Throwing them out is an easy answer, but some of them are in their 70’s and 80’s and retired, with no means of support. It may also be safer for society if the church continues some supervision of such priests, although the risk of legal liability for doing so may frighten many bishops. These are not simple issues. When the bishops meet in Dallas, we should beware of simplistically passing judgment on them and listening only to sound bites.