Interview with Kathleen McChesney on Sexual Abuse of Minors by Clergy

Kathleen McChesney, in 2002, was a top executive at the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). McChesney left the FBI after 24 years of law enforcement service there and became head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Secretariat for the Protection of Child and Young People. She signed on for a three-year term at the USCCB in an unprecedented role as the church faced its greatest scandal of the modern day, the sexual abuse of children by clerics.  

America recently interviewed McChesney on her work and subsequent efforts fighting sexual abuse for the church and others throughout the world. She is editor of Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, a collection of essays on sexual abuse of minors, and Pick Up Your Own Brass, about leadership in the FBI and written with a fellow retired FBI agent.

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1. How seriously has the church approached the problem of clergy sexual abuse of minors?

Many of the bishops’ conferences and conferences of religious institutes in the United States and other countries have long recognized the serious problem of sexual abuse through the establishment and implementation of policies and procedures to protect children. The recent creation of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors finally affirms the commitment of the universal church to addressing the issue.

2. You have worked with bishops, in many countries as well as with secular officials, on this issue. Do you see any differences in approach from different nations and from religious and secular groups?

The most advanced approaches to dealing with the issue of sexual abuse come from the Anglophone (English-speaking) and European countries. Differences in civil laws, and even cultures, in various states and nations, influence the way in which church leaders respond to and prevent abuse of children and vulnerable adults—but the differences do not alter the fact that sexual abuse of minor is a crime and a grave sin.

Secular institutions, even within the same country, tend to have similar abuse prevention practices, but often respond differently to allegations of abuse and the way in which they hold offenders accountable. Transparency and accountability in matters of sexual abuse or misconduct continue to be a challenge for religious and secular institutions.

3. What have you learned from your years with this work?

I have learned several things. Among them are the fact that the universal church does not yet fully understand the magnitude and types of abuse that occurs within its ministries; that the church is addressing symptoms of the problem of sexual abuse rather than recognizing and dealing with its root causes; that additional training and procedures are required in dealing with boundary violations and “red-flag” behaviors; and that reconciliation and the restoration of trust will not occur where there is no public accountability.

4. What were your expectations when you got into this work? Did you have preconceptions that changed with experience?

I expected that the work of protecting children in church environments could only be accomplished through the dedicated collaboration of the laity and the clergy and that has been the case in every diocese or religious community that I have worked with. I also expected that the church would move more quickly to permanently remove offenders from ministry and to be transparent about those actions. I have a better understanding now of the large number of clergy offenders, the canonical implications of removing those men who do not accept responsibility for their actions by voluntarily removing themselves from ministry and the difficulties in finding meaningful work for the accused.

5. You’ve worked with two major institutions; the church and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Do you see similarities and differences between them, for example, in how they deal with problems?

Every major institution experiences problems and challenges in achieving its mission or objectives. The church and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are similar in the fact that their respective constituents expect ethical behavior from their representatives. They differ in that the processes for disciplining or removing a civil servant for misconduct is less complex than removing offending clergy from ministry.

6. Can this problem of sexual abuse of children ever be eradicated? Is this a societal problem, psychological illness or pathological condition?

It is unlikely sexual abuse of children can ever be totally prevented in any society or culture; however, the reduction in the number of offenses in recent years in the United States suggests that abuse awareness education and child protection policies and procedures are effective. Continued vigilance will always be required to keep children, and vulnerable adults, safe. The sexual abuse of children is a societal problem that occurs in religious communities, youth-serving organizations, schools, families and between strangers. Offenders cannot be identified by a single diagnosis or condition, i.e., there are no “tests” to determine if someone may abuse a child.

7. Where do you see progress in the church in addressing this problem? In U.S. society?

The progress in the church in the United States in addressing the problem is reflected in its public recognition of the problem of abuse; by improvements in its pastoral response to survivors and their families; its abuse-awareness educational programs for the clergy, laity and children; and its engagement of lay professionals to institute and manage safe environment programs that include background checks, recognizing and addressing “red-flag” behaviors, monitoring offenders, oversight and compliance.

8. Are people harder on the church than on other institutions, such as schools for example?

It is difficult to “measure” whether people are harder on the church than other institutions. However, people should hold those who represent the church to a higher standard in the area of child protection.

9. Do you recommend any hard and fast rules to addressing child protection?

The best practices in child protection are based on the concept that all adults, regardless of their specific roles, are responsible for making children safe. Abuse- awareness education, adequate screening of adults who work with youth, the implementation of codes of conduct and prevention policies, and the oversight of compliance with those codes and policies are essential to creating and maintaining child-safe environments.

10. Does anyone you have ever encountered stand out in dealing properly with this issue?

There are thousands of men and women who work to protect children in the church throughout the country, but those who stand out most are the survivor-assistance professionals who help men, women, boys and girls find the healing mechanisms that they need.

11. With such an inflammatory issue, do you worry about people’s legal rights being violated?

Regardless of the issue, in our civil and criminal justice systems and in canon law, great care should always be taken to protect the rights of those injured and of those accused.

12. Has the adversarial approach advocated by some groups and attorneys contributed to the bishops’ dealing with the crisis or hindering it? Why?

In some cases, litigation has been the catalyst for action by religious leaders in addressing the issue of sexual abuse or in particular cases. Nonetheless, protracted cases and the enmity often associated with the adversarial approach are not helpful in the healing process or in preventing future abuse.

13. Do you see unjust accusations against clergy and others?

False accusations of sexual abuse, although rare, do occur. This concern highlights the need for prompt reporting and law enforcement investigation of the allegation.

14. Previously part of the problem was a great discrepancy among dioceses in their dealing with abuse. Do you think the actions taken by the U.S. bishops in their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People have led to a greater consistency in effectively responding to issues of abuse and preventing it?

As the compliance audits for dioceses and similar processes for religious institutes have shown, the adoption and implementation of the Charter has led to more consistency in responding to and preventing incidents of abuse.

15. What are your reactions to situations in which bishops seem not to have taken the steps required to deal with abuse? Are they exceptions or symptoms of a more widespread problem?

When the Charter was implemented there was an expectation that all bishops would take the steps required to deal with abuse. While the vast majority of the bishops and other religious leaders followed the mandates of the Charter, some did not. Church leaders have yet to find a way to hold their peers accountable for non-compliance with the Charter’s mandate, which is a major cause for skepticism about the Church’s commitment to child protection and accountability.

16. To put that another way, have the bishops maintained their commitment to eradicating abuse and reconciling those harmed or are they backtracking now that the media attention has lessened?

While most bishops and other religious leaders have maintained their commitment to preventing abuse and responding pastorally to those who have been harmed, a few have not complied with the Charter’s mandate for reasons that are unclear. Media attention, like litigation, has also proven to be a catalyst for action in some instances.

17. Has the “Causes and Context” study made a contribution to understanding what happened to bring the crisis about? If so, what has it contributed?

The “Causes and Context” study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice contributed some new elements to the understanding about the causes of clergy abuse in the church, particularly about the organization, psychological and situational factors that contributed to the large number of  incidents of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the 1960s and 1970s. The study also affirmed other research about child sex abusers, that is, that there is no single cause of the abuse. Continued research in this area is essential.

18. Have you dealt with survivors of sexual abuse? Do you see any common traits that led to their being abused? Do you see any characteristics that determine how a person survives such abuse?

Yes, as a law enforcement officer and as a child protection official, I have dealt with many survivors of sexual abuse. I have also met with parents, caregivers and friends of survivors whose pain and suffering are often overlooked. There are no “common traits” among persons who have been abused. Anyone—a male or female of any age—can be sexually abused. Abuse occurs when the offender has relative power over the potential victim and there is a situational opportunity for the abuse to occur, i.e., the existence of an unsafe environment. Each survivor’s journey toward healing is unique. Notwithstanding the importance of professional therapy and emotional and spiritual support for survivors of abuse, it is critical that survivors are recognized, heard and receive sincere apologies from those who have harmed them or allowed them to be harmed.

19. How has Pope Francis been doing in dealing with this challenge? What are your expectations of the commission he has appointed to protect children from sexual abuse?

Pope Francis’s recent efforts to deal with the many issues of clergy sexual abuse are a cause for hope in the universal Church. I expect that the Pontifical Commission and its staff will be able to create the transparency and accountability needed to help survivors heal, to bring timely justice to those who were harmed and to those who caused the harm, and to address the root causes of offending rather than merely addressing the outcome.

Mary Ann Walsh, R.S.M., is a member of the Northeast Community of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas and U.S. Church correspondent for America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
John Fitzgerald
2 years 11 months ago
I appreciate the article. Also, I am surprised at how cold and bloodless so many of the answers seem. Have the bishops and dioceses that have not complied fully with the Charter been publicized? Can they be?

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