Thomas J. Reese, SJ, on Sex Abuse

Thomas J. Reese, SJ, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Georgetown and former editor in chief of America has sent us his keynote address to the Clergy Abuse Conference in Santa Clara University today:

I am not an expert on the crisis, but rather a journalist, commentator and priest. Perhaps my contribution can be first to congratulate and thank Kathleen and Tom and all of the contributors to the book, Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis 2002-2012 (Praeger, 2012). The book makes a genuine contribution to a better understanding of the crisis.  The church should be very grateful for your work.


For the rest of my talk, I would like to concentrate on what I think is the unfinished work of responding to the sexual abuse crisis. Needless to say, I cannot list all of the unfinished work, but the items I will highlight strike me as being important.

First, I think the church—and by church I mean both the clergy and the people of God—needs to re-envision its attitude toward the survivors of sexual abuse. In Latin America, liberation theologians developed the concept of the preferential option for the poor. The American Catholic Church needs to embrace a preferential option for the survivors of sexual abuse. 

Nor should we look at the victims of abuse simply as clients or problems to be dealt with. Just as people in the church have learned not to look on the poor as a problem to be solved, but to recognize their contribution to the church, so too we need to see the survivors of abuse as persons who can teach us what it means to be Christians, what it means to be church. No one who listens to their stories can fail to be touched by them.

This means that we cannot respond to every new victim who comes forward with “O God, not another one.” Rather we have to see them as integral to our community, persons who must be welcomed. Such an attitude would encourage the church to reach out to the thousands of victims of sexual abuse who have not come forward. We want them to come forward; the church needs them.

Second, we need a better system for investigating accusations of sexual abuse. Obviously, all accusations must be reported to the police, but if the statute of limitations precludes prosecution, the police will not investigate. Or the prosecutor may judge there is insufficient evidence to prosecute. Under these circumstances, the church still has an obligation to investigate and determine whether a priest is guilty or innocent, whether he must be permanently removed from ministry or returned to ministry.

The charter calls for an investigation of the allegations, but there is no standard operating procedure. Each diocese is on its own, with the result that some do better than others. The American criminal justice system sometimes fails even though it has police, prosecutors, grand juries, judges and juries. The church has not had anything like this since the inquisition. Not surprisingly, the church has a hard time getting this right.

It is essential that the church get this right. The victims deserve justice and children must be protected from future abuse. Innocent priests also deserve justice and a way to clear their names. And the process must have credibility to the public at large.

We need more research on this topic. We need to find out what are best practices and help dioceses to adopt them. We don’t even know how many priests are suspended or how long their suspensions last. Many priests fear that if they are falsely accused they will be suspended indefinitely because the bishop is afraid to return them to ministry.

In too many instances the investigative process appears suspect because it is under the control of the bishop. Episcopal credibility here is nil. The process will only have credibility to the extent that it is seen as truly independent of the bishop. Only an independent process will have the credibility to say that, “Yes, this priest can return to ministry.”

Third, we still do not have a system for bringing bishops to account. It is a disgrace that only one bishop (Cardinal Law) resigned because of his failure to deal with the sexual abuse crisis. The church would be in a much better place today if 30 or more bishops had stood up, acknowledged their mistakes, taken full responsibility, apologized and resigned. A shepherd is supposed to lay down his life for his sheep; these men were unwilling to lay down their croziers for the good of the church.

The bishops also have to step up and supervise their own. I know, “only the pope can judge a bishop under canon law,” but there are lots of things the bishops can do anyway. First, they must speak out and publicly criticize those bishops that are not observing the charter or are failing in their responsibilities. Bishops, including the president of the bishops conference, need to say, “Shame on you bishop, get your house in order.” This is not a canonical judgment; this is fraternal correction.

The Vatican also needs to do its job. It appears to have no problem investigating nuns and theologians, but investigating mismanagement by a bishop is not a priority. A bishop can be quickly removed in Australia for hinting that women and married priests might need to be discussed, but bishops who failed children are not removed.  Only in Ireland were a few bishops removed because of their failure to protect children, and that took a brave archbishop and the full force of the Prime Minister and the government.

Even when a bishop is indicted, no one has the sense to tell him to take a leave of absence until the case is over.

Finally, the sexual abuse crisis has to be seen in the context of clerical culture in the church. I agree with those who say that celibacy did not cause the sexual abuse crisis, but when a group of men sit around a table discussing what to do with one of their colleagues who abused a child, it makes a big difference whether the men at the table have children. The first question in a parent’s mind is “How would I feel if my child was abused?”  The inability of celibate men to ask that question blinded them to the consequences of their decisions. They focused on the priest, not the victim.

A culture of fear and dependency also contributed to the crisis. I don’t know whether Monsignor Lynn broke the laws of Pennsylvania, but he was certainly no hero. Too few priests stood up to those in authority and said, “No, you can’t do that.” Speaking truth to power is not welcomed in the Catholic Church. Diocesan priests are totally dependent on the good will of their bishop for assignments and promotions. If a 60 year old bishop is appointed to your diocese, he is going to be your boss for the next 15 years. In practice, there is no appealing his decisions toward you nor can you escape by moving to another diocese. You are stuck.

In this corporate culture, few are going to tell the bishop “no.” The one pastor in Philadelphia, who refused to accept an abusive priest, got reprimanded and punished for challenging the archbishop. This is what happens when you speak truth to power in the Catholic Church.

The problem in the Catholic Church today is that the hierarchy has so focused on obedience and control that it has lost its ability to be a self-correcting institution. Creative theologians are attacked, sisters are investigated, Catholic publications are censored and loyalty is the most important virtue. These actions are defended by the hierarchy because of fears of “scandalizing the faithful,” when in fact it is the hierarchy who have scandalized the faithful.

Is there any hope. The data in the John Jay report shows that the cases of abuse fell dramatically during the 1980’s. The problem of abuse is probably worse in other parts of American society than it is in the church, but that is still damning with faint praise. It can never be an excuse for doing less than is required. But I dream of the day when the church becomes part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We are not there yet. But hopefully someday what we learn about the detection, prevention and healing of abuse in the church may be of help in responding to abuse in American society. 

 --Thomas J. Reese, SJ


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Rick Fueyo
5 years 10 months ago
I really like this, which is not surprising, given the respect I have for Fr. Reese.  That said, since I stated in comments on another thread that politics is the “art of the possible", I must note that his suggestion for uniform diocesan standards across the Conference, and some separation from Episcopal control, is likely a nonstarter with certain bishops. That has already been proven. They just assert that their dioceses have not had the problems, and to my knowledge, they are correct, at least to date.
I do especially like his suggestion about reaching out to the victims. However, again I worry that the current political zeitgeist among the American Bishops may not be conducive to such a mindset. I was very disappointed that Cardinal Dolan seem to implicitly embrace and confirm Bill Donohue's "reporting" that the Church was finally going to get “tough” with lawyers and SNAP.  No doubt litigation is a blunt instrument, and many wrongs have been committed, but it was also the only mechanism that motivated a change in ways which was sorely needed.  The victims remain the victims, and unless we really understand the harm they were done, and incorporate that understanding is part of our past, we will never heal as a Church.
I certainly agree with his comments regarding the emphasis on control and what actions have truly "scandalized the faithful." Unfortunately, I think the Fr. Reese and those that agree with him may be talking past each other when they address those that disagree.  I think that those that disagree with Fr. Reese define "the faithful" in terms of those that are unquestioningly obedient to authority.  To be crude, I believe yhey view the center of our faith as submission to hierarchal authority.

That is why they view any form of disobedience as the source of scandal.  Because this same definition of "the faithful" also tends to encompass most of the individuals who exhibit the other traditional indicia of piety in their parish, the Bishops believe that those that disagree with them are beyond being salvaged as Catholic.  I don't think they appreciate how many people that could bring their talents to God's church do not do so because of the authoritarian mindset and the type of true "scandal" it leads to, such as the abuse.
Mary Fischer
5 years 10 months ago
As a survivor of clergy sexual abuse, I applaud Fr. Reese on his willingness and courage to speak out.  There is one reflection that, as a survivor, I would like to add.  When confronted with the potential of going before the Review Board in my diocese, I refused.  The reason I did this is that the whole review process, as it now stands, is in reality, a replication of what my abuser said, "If you tell anyone, no one will believe you."  Too many victims that I know personally have been put in this position where they accusations are not considered "credible" because of some details that don't match in their "story."  I do not have a "story" and I don't remember all the details, but I do know that I was raped, where I was raped, and an idea of the time frame.  I don't know or remember if I told anyone, or if my parents did anything.  I am 61 years old; I was 9 years old when I was raped.  There is no way that I will remember everything before and after the rape, but I do remember the rape in vivid detail.  And no priests or bishops wearing the Roman collar are going to be allowed to pass judgement on whether they think I am telling the truth or not!  I think that an independent investigating committee with professionals that can work with the victim over a period of time, can determine if abuse has occurred, whether all the details are correct.  This is the only way that I would come forward to church authorities.
Jack Barry
5 years 10 months ago
Thank you for an excellent summary.   One more essential  -  prepare for a long haul.   If the necessities you identify were implemented today, expect decades to pass before trustworthiness and credibility of the community of bishops might be restored.   Similarly to the Humanae Vitae problem, the current shattered standing of the hierarchy extends far beyond the one specific subject, abuse coverup, that has fueled 10 years of reactions while planting long-term memories in the Faithful and in church history.   
As for bishops resigning, my understanding is that they do so only with the permission of the pope.  In Ireland, some bishops offered resignations because their association with abuse had been exposed, and Benedict XVI did not accept them.  If such papal values continue, could we look forward to a day when a bishop would find enough virtue and courage to walk out, were that to happen to him?  What becomes most important?   
Beyond the bishops, the first Philadelphia Grand Jury (2001-2003) noted the "non-offenders" who have been part of the coverup, although they did not personally abuse.   What will it take to unblind these celibate men you mention so they are able to understand sin and crime in front of them?   They are already beneficiaries of more education than most ordinary people except for the profound lessons celibacy excludes.   
"[p.8] Finding 10.  Many non-offender priests have remained silent in the face of clear evidence that a brother priest is sexually molesting a minor, and in some cases have actually covered up the abuse. The Archbishop and his appointed administrative managers foster this silence in order to avoid scandal in the Church and do not encourage priests to report suspected abusers."  
Jonathan West
5 years 10 months ago
There's a fourth thing which must be done in addition to the three you have mentioned. The church, including all the institutions it runs (such as schools), has to get really serious about implementing thoroughly effective procedures for child protection.

Central to this is a a change in culture such that if an allegation is made against a priest (or a teacher or any other employee supervising children), it must be immediately reported to the civil authorities. No exceptions for any reason whatsoever. It must become completely unthinkable for abuse not to be reported.

It is all too easy to fall into the trap of believing that children can be protected by handling the matter quietly in-house. Then when the same person abuses again, the authorities are compromised - they dare not report the second incident lest their previous bad decision also come to light. Once one abuser has been protected in the way, others will know they will be protected as well. You might as well hang a notice at the entrance to the school saying ''paedophiles welcome here''.

One last thing. I've read the John Jay report in detail, and it is very easy to engage in a lot of wishful thinking about it. The report does not state that incidents tailed off during the 1980s, it states that reports of incidents have tailed off since the huge spikes in reporting that occurred in the 1990s and 2000s. But those spikes were driven by publicity, and it can often happen that 30 years or so will pass before somebody summons the courage to come forward and report abuse that they suffered as a child. Quite simply, there is no way of estimating trends in unreported abuse, and if you read the John Jay report carefully, you will see that they say this. Actual incidents might have tailed off, they might not. There's insufficient data to say.
William Bendzick
5 years 10 months ago
As a survivor of childhood sex abuse and clergy sexual misconduct, I find Father Reese's comments to be OK, but not to go far enough.  At other times in Church history, bishops have ousted fellow misbehaving bishops.  Some of the bishops so removed have been bishops of Rome-popes.  The Vatican does not have a modern checks and balances constitution, and there is no theological reason that it cannot develop one.  In fact there is no theological reason that the whole Church cannot force a new checks and balances administative structure on the Vatican whether it wants one or not.    We are not talking about faith or morals here, we are talking about competent or incompetent leadership.  The whole Church can demand a new constitution for the Vatican that makes it possible to retire from service incompetent bishops, up to and including the pope.  We can also institute term limits for all bishops, including the pope.  And finally, we can institute periodic votes of confidence by the people regarding bishops, and even the pope, which they must pass to continue to finish out their terms.


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