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Kathleen McChesneyJune 24, 2015
PORTRAITS OF GRIEF. Quilts bearing photos of victims of sexual abuse by priests of the Los Angeles archdiocese, Feb. 2013 (CNS photo/David McNew, Reuters)

A survivor of sexual abuse perpetrated by a Catholic priest hesitates to report his abuse, thinking that he will not be believed. Another survivor knows that she was not the cleric’s only victim but worries that she will be the only person to report his behavior. And many Catholics complain that their church has allowed the media and survivors’ organizations to control, and even manipulate, information in order to make all clergy seem suspect and all bishops seem insensitive.

Would full disclosure of the names of clergy offenders help these survivors and the countless other men and women who have still not reported their abuse to come forward? Would such disclosures provide comfort to those survivors who were not believed by church officials when they reported these incidents years ago?

For the past decade, arguments have been made for and against mandated disclosures, and there have been disclosures made and disclosures withheld. Nonetheless, the debate continues.

The Case for Disclosure

Thirty-four dioceses and six religious institutes in the United States have already published full or partial lists of clerics credibly accused of the sexual abuse of minors. While some of these disclosures were made voluntarily, others occurred only upon a court order or as the result of a nonmonetary settlement agreement with a survivor.

Proponents argue that full disclosure is necessary to prove that the offenders, as well as the leaders of the Catholic Church, are truly accountable for their actions. They also often characterize the bishops’ pledge to be open and transparent about the issues of clergy sexual abuse—a key component of the bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People—as an unkept promise to the faithful and part of an ongoing concealment of misconduct and mismanagement.

Through disclosure survivors learn that they are not the only person that their perpetrator has abused, thereby giving them the additional courage and confidence they may need to come forward.

More important, however, is that through disclosure survivors learn that they are not the only person that their perpetrator has abused, thereby giving them the additional courage and confidence they may need to come forward. For those who do report their abuse, seeing their offender’s name on a public list affirms their decision to reveal what occurred and reinforces the fact that they were believed by church leaders. And, for many, recounting the details of what occurred can be a significant first step in the process of reconciliation and healing.

Disclosing the names of abusers can serve as a deterrent, a preventative measure. The possibility of being named publicly as an abuser sometimes deters individuals from acting on their impulses to abuse, to violate boundaries or even to seek out child pornography. As has been shown by the impact of sex-offender registries, making the existence of a child abuser known to the public is helpful to parents and caregivers in determining if a particular person may pose a threat to a child.

[Explore America's in-depth coverage of Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church.]

Regardless of the impetus for disclosing the names of clergy abusers, church leaders have been able to use the lists to provide important information to the public in an accurate, timely and unfiltered manner. Dioceses and religious institutes, such as the Archdiocese of Detroit and the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph, have also issued statements that provide the appropriate context of the allegations and explain the actions taken in response to them. Where the media or other entities are the default or only publishers of offender lists, the proactive and protective work done by the church is often ignored.

Concerns about Disclosure

Thoughtful opponents of disclosing the names of abusers express concern that survivors who see the name of their abuser on a public list could experience additional emotional or psychological harm. However, there is no evidence to support that notion. More often, opponents simply believe that disclosure is a flawed idea that will unquestionably be the catalyst for false reports and spurious litigation.

Other important arguments against disclosure include the need to restore a cleric’s good name if it is later determined that he did not offend or was mistaken for another man who actually committed the act. In addition, if the alleged abuser is deceased, as many are, the case might be made that because he is unable to refute the allegation his name should not be disclosed—notwithstanding the strength of testimony that may exist against him.

For many, recounting the details of what occurred can be a significant first step in the process of reconciliation and healing.

While many names of clergy offenders are already included in public forums, for example on the internet, survivor websites, sex-offender registries and in court documents and press releases, there are no requirements or guidelines for dioceses and religious institutes regarding disclosing names. Without requirements or guidelines, the decision to disclose and the subsequent process can be a challenging, time consuming and even costly process for bishops and religious superiors.

These concerns existed—especially that of restoring the good name of a cleric who has been wrongly or falsely accused—long before the onslaught of allegations of abuse cases that began in 2002 and the first disclosures were made. It is not surprising that there have been sex-abuse allegations against Catholic clergy that are untrue, given that people have borne false witness against one another for centuries. Annual reports indicate that many of the accused men are deceased at the time an allegation is made against them, but experienced investigators can often find witnesses and evidence to support or refute these claims. 

All of these men and women were children or teenagers at the time of their abuse by a trusted member of the clergy. The tragic assaults they endured devastated their young lives, tore their psyches and spirits and forever changed their relationship with the church.

There are no data available on whether or not a survivor of sexual abuse suffers additional psychological harm if they see their perpetrator’s name on a list. However, there is strong anecdotal support for the emotional benefits to survivors of publishing such lists.

Developing and Implementing a Disclosure Plan

The inherent difficulties in disclosing the names of clergy offenders can be overcome by emulating some of the effective procedures that have been used by other dioceses and religious institutes. For instance, once a bishop or religious superior approves the disclosure of names, he should involve pertinent staff, consultors and/or his respective review board. He should also:

  • Establish criteria for the type of offenders and offenses that will be included in the list. For example, should the list include ordained men only? Should the list include deceased clergy? Should both substantiated offenses and credible allegations be included, or perhaps only those that occurred after a certain date?
  • Examine the known facts about the allegations against the men, preferably using a professional third-party reviewer.  Discuss the results with the diocesan/provincial review board and civil and canonical counsel.
  • Develop a communications plan that includes coordination with a survivor assistance coordinator, other affected bishops and religious superiors and providing timely notifications to the presbyterate, diocesan employees and the faith community.

17,000 Reasons to Disclose

The newly established Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Children plans to establish a process that will ensure that bishops and other church leaders are held publicly accountable for their actions (or inactions) with regard to clergy and lay religious who sexually abuse minors. Requiring all dioceses and religious institutes to disclose the names of known abusers could be an effective component of that process. Furthermore, revealing the names of these men will reinforce the reality that the church acknowledges the dignity, sacredness and human value of abuse survivors.

It is known that at least 17,000 men and women have reported abuse by Catholic priests and deacons since 1950 from the data gathered by the The Nature and Scope Study of Sexual Abuse of Minors conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004 and the annual reporting of allegations of abuse by dioceses and religious institutes to Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA).

All of these men and women were children or teenagers at the time of their abuse by a trusted member of the clergy. The tragic assaults they endured devastated their young lives, tore their psyches and spirits and forever changed their relationship with the church.

The crucial debate about disclosing the names of clergy abusers has shamefully persisted for over a decade and needs to end. All of the wounded boys and girls deserve to have their perpetrator named.

There are at least 17,000 reasons to do this now.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Mary Kambic
9 years ago
This article states: "Thirty-four dioceses and six religious institutes in the United States have already published full or partial lists of clerics credibly accused of the sexual abuse of minors." I notice the word "credibly accused." Years ago, Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore was quick to publicize the names of anyone accused of impropriety or abuse. The list included dead religious and others who had no chance to confront the accusers or any authority. Some of us saw this as a frantic attempt to throw anyone to the wolves who might question the newfound "concern for children." In truth, until victims began to sue, there was little concern for victims. The hypocrisy is still present and for this reason I will never volunteer in any capacity in a parish that requires the silly sexual abuse training for employees. It's insulting!
Carolyn Disco
9 years ago
Amen, yes, yes, yes. At long last, McChesney is speaking out like this. Because I am known in my area as a survivor advocate, survivors have told me the names of their abusers, and asked me to report on their behalf. They want to remain anonymous for strong personal reasons, but want the perpetrator named. I reported to the state attorney general's office without the names of the victim/survivors, and passed the same information afterwards to the diocese. The most difficult part of this effort is when the perpetrator has not been named publicly before. Because the survivor wants complete privacy and does not file a civil suit naming his or her abuser, the perpetrator's name is never released to the public. The survivor, or in one case the survivor's family member who contacted me, speaks of others they know who were similarly abused. I believe the more dioceses release the names of all credibly accused priests, the more some victims would feel in a position to come forward. I understand www.bishop-accountability.org has a private list of several thousand accused priests they cannot include in their extensive database because there is no public record to draw from - like the diocese releasing names or a civil lawsuit. The statutes of limitation for criminal prosecution have inevitably long passed. The most frustrating example of my passing on a name where outreach was not publicly possible is where the abuser priest left the priesthood and married a divorced woman with sons. Even though I heard of the abuse decades after it occurred, imagine what it means that because no civil lawsuit was filed, that woman and her sons remain ignorant of the former priest’s record. What happened to those sons is a forever haunting question. The USCCB audits release the number of accusations each year, but never the names. The affected dioceses could, I believe, if they so chose. Any diocese has the opportunity to release all the names of those credibly accused, no matter when the abuse is reported, even if no lawsuit is filed, and even if the priest is dead. I have those accused names in my head and can never see them posted anywhere.
William Atkinson
9 years ago
All these years and still the abuse goes on. The needs of a MAN are not met by the church, Celibacy needs to go away. Additionally: the root causes needs to be dealt with, from seminary to ordination, to leadership and management, to magisterium, the mental, bad habits, to the evil itself needs to be addressed. Especially the proliferation of the evil by those in charge (A far more sin and crime than the actual activity). Also there have been now over 1000 falsely accused religious who, because of the leadership denial of their part in this evil, have been hung out to dry, and millions paid out to accusers who are in it for the money, and have later in one way or the other recanted. The whole system, not only in the churches (plural, catholic is not only one dealing with child abuse, or even all abuses) in other systems, (boy scouts, military, halls of congress, universities for example) as management in its drive to protect it's institutions and their leaders cover up and even accuse the innocent abused as if their at fault. Just listen to the State Senator of the Charleston Church shooting blame the victims. It's horrifying that this Nazi/KKK mentality still exist in our day and times. Maybe it's time like the president or popes; for term and age limits to be placed on all management fields, politicians and church leaders, so that attitudes and ideas of past don't re-creep into the changes made for better civilizations and religious circles. Mandatory retirement at 65 would be good idea,and stop promoting to leadership, just because someone has time in office.
Henry George
9 years ago
Perhaps there can be a neutral Investigator who can look at the charges and check to see if previous credible charges have been made. Then the matter may proceed. To just give creedance to any charges and to post the persons name and remove them from ministry and salary, medical benefits and housing is unjust.
Amusing Pilgrim
9 years ago
There is some value in disclosure, but to insist that all of those who are "accused" be named is a mistake. Once they have been charged AND convicted, then is the time to reveal their names. There is a case in British Columbia, Canada at the moment where an over zealous reporter went overboard in listing accusations against a very well known member of the community. It was later discovered that his accusers had been nowhere near him and their accusations were based in what they saw as a chance to make a buck. When it comes to the already fragile reputation of priests, let's be aware there are sick parishioners with mental health issues who may have NO valid complaint.
Carolyn Disco
9 years ago
Only 2% of all priests charged have been criminally convicted. Does anyone really think only 2% of the names released by dioceses or released through lawsuits are guilty? The standard for dioceses is credibly accused, and admitted perpetrators. The percentage is so small for a number of reasons: - survivors are not able to come forward within what are highly restrictive criminal and civil statutes of limitation, as experience well shows. - bishops also fight statute reform tooth and nail in state legislatures, preventing the search for justice. Often, the bishops kept the secrets long enough to time-bar prosecutions, stringing out cases until the limit is exhausted. Likely, the first question in a chancery is if the statute of limitations has been reached, whether criminal or civil. - only dioceses in states with mandatory reporting laws (fewer than half, I believe) are required under the Dallas Charter to report allegations to police. The number of false charges is miniscule, though every one is tragic and needs to be followed up. When California opened a window for past survivors to file lawsuits, 300 additional perpetrators were identified. It is only because of window legislation in Minnesota now, that the documentation behind the current criminal charges against the archdiocese of Minneapolis/St. Paul could be pursued --- which lead to the resignations of Archbishop John Nienstedt and auxiliary Bishop Lee Piche last week. It was survivor lawsuits that brought those archives to public disclosure, where the prosecutor could access the evidence that led to an indictment. So much is still hidden.
Amusing Pilgrim
9 years ago
Carolyn, if YOU were one of the "miniscule" number who are falsely accused, I'm certain YOU would have an entirely different comment.
Carolyn Disco
9 years ago
That was your total take-away?? Remember, ..."every one is tragic and needs to be followed up." To say that only those criminally convicted should ever be named goes well beyond even what the church itself holds. Investigations are done by dioceses (many hire former law enforcement personnel) and examined by review boards --- but there is not always full disclosure, which is a problem of a different sort. If YOUR child was abused by a priest and his or her life filled with trauma, YOU would want that perpetrator named so that others would be spared the same fate, or helped to come forward. Our interest is in justice and the truth; no more, no less.

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