Former F.B.I. agent who led 2002 child protection efforts says bishops “can’t police their own”

Swiss Guards salute as Cardinals Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston leave a meeting of cardinals with Pope Francis in the synod hall at the Vatican Feb. 21, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) Swiss Guards salute as Cardinals Timothy M. Dolan of New York and Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston leave a meeting of cardinals with Pope Francis in the synod hall at the Vatican Feb. 21, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring) 

Retired F.B.I. agent Kathleen McChesney was chosen by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops to establish and lead its Office of Child and Youth Protection in 2002. In that office, she developed and administered the mechanisms used to ensure that every diocese complies with civil law related to the sexual abuse of minors. Ms. McChesney continues to work as a consultant to dioceses, religious organizations and others around the world in the area of child protection, ministerial misconduct and abuse.

Conducted by phone, this interview has been condensed and edited. This is the second of three interviews Jim McDermott, S.J., is conducting on the sex abuse crisis.

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What was your reaction to the revelations of the last month?

I wasn’t surprised by the Pennsylvania information because I’ve been working in this area a long time, have met with many survivors of clergy abuse and read thousands of misconduct files. Also, a large percentage of the offenders named by the grand jury had already been posted on the website, BishopAccountability.org or could be easily located in open-source materials.

I think what was most surprising to people is that it was possible for an offender [like Archbishop Theodore McCarrick] to manage to rise to the very highest levels in the church and that other members of the church hierarchy may have been aware of his offenses. If proven, it is reprehensible. How does that happen? Has it happened with others? Have other clerics ignored or protected such secrets and crimes?

What was most surprising to people is that it was possible for an offender to manage to rise to the very highest levels in the church.

In hindsight, those Pennsylvania dioceses that were investigated should have been proactive. They knew the grand jury was going on, they could have conducted their own internal reviews and released the names of known offenders, including the names of their enablers and protectors, years ago. But they waited until the 11th hour. It is a lesson to other dioceses and religious communities as to the importance of openness and accountability.

What would you say are the next steps the bishops need to take?

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo laid out a plan for an apostolic visitation. But in order to make such a “visit” credible in the eyes of the faithful and with civil authorities, it will be necessary to cede the inquiry to independent, investigative professionals. At this point, the church has lost credibility in investigating itself, not unlike law enforcement agencies who were forced to implement citizen review boards years ago when they lost the trust of the public to “police their own.”

There also need to be new practices for responding to allegations of abuse by church leaders. There is not a clear process for making such reports or a mechanism that provides for accountability, transparency and feedback. For example, if a person wants to report misconduct by a bishop, it is very difficult to determine how and to whom the complaint should be made. The technology exists to not only make a report but to connect reporters to the support services they need.

At this point, the church has lost credibility in investigating itself.

I am not certain that the current structures within the Holy See are the appropriate place for receiving complaints against high-level clerics. Maybe there needs to be a parallel entity like an inspector general’s office, led by lay professionals, that bring a more expeditious and trustworthy approach to the process. I am not suggesting eliminating important canonical procedures but rather to use such an independent entity to respond with care and concern to those who have been harmed, to gather the necessary information about their abuse with the assistance of experienced investigators and to refer the cases to the appropriate dicastery for a timely judgment.

Finally, the Holy See should work with the various episcopal conferences around the world to identify all known offenders, cleric and lay. Similarly, there should be a publicly accessible list of clergy, religious and consecrated lay persons who are in good standing with the church. Such systems, if properly managed and protected, would be a great service to faith communities worldwide.

The accusations around Archbishop McCarrick seem to open another front in the conversation on safety and abuse.

The focus of bishops and major superiors has been on the abuse of minors and that is appropriate. As you look at the statistics of reported cases of abuse, the numbers have gone down substantially in the last 15 years, as have the opportunities for clerics to be alone with minors.

But with regard to vulnerable adults and older persons, the church has really looked the other way. For years and years and years, experts have been saying you have to look at that. The church needs a broader view that would also focus on vulnerable adults, older persons, young adults who have been groomed by their perpetrators and persons who are in subordinate positions of power to the clergy—including seminarians.

With regard to vulnerable adults and older persons, the church has really looked the other way.

Richard Sipe provided an honest narrative of what he experienced and learned regarding seminaries, homosexuality and clerical misconduct. There’s literature out there that’s well researched that indicates that there have been certain subcultures [in the seminaries]. I don’t think church leadership has wanted to look at that.

While there is no doubt that 85 percent of the children who were abused were boys, the research does not support the notion that homosexuality is the cause of the abuse, any more than the fact that heterosexuality is the cause of the other 15 percent of the abuse. In other words, the fact that the vast majority of boys were victims is more likely because boys were allowed to be alone with clerics and girls were not. Furthermore, the majority of homosexuals, like the majority of heterosexuals, are not interested in children or even adolescents.

What do you think the church should do with regard to issues with adults?

When it comes to inappropriate clergy relationships with adults and seminarians, the church has not been transparent or accountable. The church needs to explore the reasons why this type of “misconduct” occurs and to be candid about human needs for age-appropriate, power-equitable relationships and intimacy.

I think you could eliminate a lot of this abuse by changing things structurally within the church. When I look at these cases, and I look at them all the time, I see many people who are lonely, I see people who are not mature sexually, or they are experimenting; but by and large, they are just seeking contact with other people in a very natural and intimate way.

Maintaining a celibate lifestyle is easy for some men, challenging for others and impossible for some. Does that mean the man cannot be a good priest? This is a question that needs to be discussed within the framework of how to prevent future misconduct. This is not to say that eliminating the celibacy mandate will prevent all future abuse. But for many of these priests, their human needs are not being met. And that leaves them to fill the loneliness with stupid behavior that I see so often. 

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Some are wondering if the bigger question today isn’t about church culture. Even where you have an outstanding bishop who is transparent and safeguarding children, there are these stories of the ecclesial culture still undermining that effort.

I think it is natural that people in organizations will do what they can to protect from scandal. Where this is made worse is when the prevention of scandal results in harm to a child or vulnerable adult. That is what is so unique about the church and scandal. In the corporate sector, for example, leaders try to keep their business running by not reporting a dangerous product, or they may not disclose financial mismanagement from their stockholders. But, it is different in the church and its ministries because misconduct and cover-up can negatively and permanently impact a person’s faith.

In the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, there was more of a focus on self-preservation and, thus, more hiding information in the church. I think the tide has turned, and now newer leaders view transparency as the means of protecting the church rather than a transfer of power to the laity. Many bishops now understand their responsibility for their clerics who are in prayer and penance status and are reviewing their records to ensure the poor decisions or deceitful actions by their predecessors have not left minors and vulnerable adults at risk.

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A Fielder
3 weeks 6 days ago

"Maintaining a celibate lifestyle is easy for some men, challenging for others and impossible for some. Does that mean the man cannot be a good priest? This is a question that needs to be discussed within the framework of how to prevent future misconduct. This is not to say that eliminating the celibacy mandate will prevent all future abuse. But for many of these priests, their human needs are not being met. And that leaves them to fill the loneliness with stupid behavior that I see so often."

I agree this is an important question which must be considered. I imagine that most bishops know that priests have unmet intimacy needs, and because they are unable to permit or discuss married priests, as a condition of their career advancement, they agree to look the other way when misconduct appears consensual. This is part of our cultural problem. Complicity with dishonest and secretive sexual relationships causes problems for everyone. Bishops have a conflict of interest in making this decision, supporting the priest's family will be expensive. Lay people, who care about being just to our priests, might need to force this issue.

Michael Barberi
3 weeks 6 days ago

Excellent article. It supports many of what already has been recommended by bloggers as follows:

1. Mandatory transparency with appropriate and defined guidelines with respect to accusations, investigations, findings, recommendations, et al, with respect to sexual abuse, coverup, et al.
2. An official and defined process for reporting, investigating and punishing sexual abuse, coverup, turning a blind eye to evidence of immoral sexual behavior, et al, by priests/bishops/cardinals and popes.
> This could be a permanent independent lay-lead investigative committee for each country and/or a permanent lay-lead inspector general-type Curia department with impartial hierarchy participation reporting to the Pope.
3. Defined punishments for sexual abusive crimes, coverup and immoral sexual behavior, et al..
4. The honest and accurate root cause of the sexual abuse scandal.
> IMO, the issue is moral corruption in a cultural of clericalism, not homosexuality.
5. A rethinking of voluntary celibacy and a married priesthood.
6. Significant and effective structural, process and juridical reforms, not window-dressing changes or a few resignations and promises of a rigorous zero tolerance policy of sexual abuse.
7. The mandatory and immediate reporting of all formal and legitimate accusations of sexual abuse by clergy, including all evidence, emails, meetings, interviews, documents, etc., to local civil law enforcement authorities.
8. The Grand Jury Report, Vigano letter and the McCarrick scandal must be thoroughly investigated by a national or international lay-lead committee with Vatical participation with access to all documents, emails, reports, et al, and the ability to question bishops, cardinals and Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI.

J. Calpezzo
3 weeks 6 days ago

A blind man can see that the church cannot police itself.

Jorge Luis Luaces Rabaza
3 weeks 6 days ago

Good call

Dennis Doyle
3 weeks 6 days ago

I found McChesney’s comments generally reasonable and actionable. There were two aspects to her reported comments that jumped off the page . She said:
. “This is not to say that eliminating the celibacy mandate will prevent all future abuse. But for many of these priests, their human needs are not being met. And that leaves them to fill the loneliness with stupid behavior that I see so often. “
What in the world does this mean? Of course any man, who has sexual drives, homo or hetro, who intentionally take the vow of celibacy and Chasitisy , is going to have “ needs” that are unmet . The requirement of celibacy requires your needs to be unmet. I am not arguing for celibacy,I am only saying it is an extraordinary relinquishment of one’s personhood, and I assume that seminary formation drills that into the the seminarians consciousness , so they understand , what they will be giving up. McChesney says some will find celibacy acceptable , some challenging and others impossible. Yea, but how and when do you separate out the 3 groups . If you let them self select, then you have Abuse.
Second , she says that because they have unmet needs of intimacy , they do “ stupid “ things. Is having sex to gain intimacy “stupid”? If so we have a couple Billion stupid people. perhaps she means she wasn’t talking about the sex being stupid, she was only speaking to who they chose as sex partners as being “ stupid” This leads to the conclusion that as long as they choose adult partners every thing is good. But are they ? Let’s face it . A priest is going to meet most sex partners in connection with his ministry. Few hire prostitutes. Thus, any sex with a person met in ministry is going to be a breach of his obligation to not use his ministry as a lever to have sex.

Tim O'Leary
3 weeks 6 days ago

1) "a publicly accessible list of clergy, religious and consecrated lay persons who are in good standing with the church." This will be a very big database, over 96% of priests from the John Jay College Report. However, wouldn't anybody not on this list be removed? The Bishops Accountability database managers don't seem to have the manpower or inclination to keep it up-to-date and accused and exonerated clergy are still there.
2) An inspector's General office seems like a great idea. For the sake of the falsely accused and the rightly accused, this has to be efficient, with rapid investigations and conclusions to convict or exonerate faster than in the past. Any exonerated priest should have legal protection against any attacks from Grand Juries or other organizations with an agenda beyond honesty. I would like to see such an office set up quickly by the Church, led by a professional investigator, a Catholic well-known to be faithful, with no doctrinal distortion bias.
3) "As you look at the statistics of reported cases of abuse, the numbers have gone down substantially in the last 15 years." The secular media won't tell this part of the story, while they minimize the next one.
4) "I think what was most surprising to people is that it was possible for an offender [like Archbishop Theodore McCarrick] to manage to rise to the very highest levels in the church and that other members of the church hierarchy may have been aware of his offenses." This is the new crisis that has revealed a fifth column in the Church that defends its members and hides grave sins/crimes.
5) Some NRB members were fired/resigned when an exculpatory paragraph was put in by McCarrick and his allies, hiding the same-sex aspect of the crisis. Gov. Frank Keating, speaking to Rod Dreher: "Keating told me that he concluded during his time on the Review Board that the bishops did not grasp that the problem in the Church was not just child molesters, “but also actively practicing homosexuals who simply couldn’t stop going after people. If you want to be a priest, you have to be celibate. I’m sure many, many good men were celibate and saintly, but a lot of them weren’t.” With McCarrick, O'Brien, Bransfield, the Chileans and Hondurans, the chickens have come home to roost.

Jim Jackson
3 weeks 6 days ago

I find the picture at the top of this article quite interesting as a lead in to this discussion and other recent ones on clericalism. Why is the Swiss guard saluting or why does the Swiss guard have to salute as part of their job? And look at all the parts of a cardinals garb. What is the need for all this dressing up? Does it make one more pastoral? Does it make one seem special, more worthy, more deserving of respect to the point of requiring the guards to salute you? I don’t know but it seems likely to me a culture that would create it and a culture that doesn’t seem to question it must feel it is important to keep in place. I wonder how that sense of importance plays out in their work?

I also wonder what it would be like for all these men to continue to wear the priest gear they started their clerical life with and just have different roles like a pastor and a associate pastor do out here in the hinterlands in the parishes. Maybe that would lead someone to change the Swiss guards rule and not have them salute every passing priest dressed in the basic blacks.

Just a thought

Will Niermeyer
3 weeks 6 days ago

This is something that will never come to an end I am afraid.

Danny Collins
3 weeks 6 days ago

Who are pope Francis' special appointments to the council on abuse? Tobin and Cupich: two people who would make sure nobody who covered for McCarrick would ever have to resign (since they themselves are guilty).

You don't have to be a former FBI agent to see that the Church refuses to police itself. All you have to do is read a few articles about the people leading the US Church (Wuerl, Cupich, Dolan and Tobin) and Francis' closest advisers (e.g., Maradiaga, Palmerio, Paglia, Farrell, Daneels). None of these men will out any others who knew about sexual abuse. Their closest friends are some of the worst offenders.

John Mack
3 weeks 6 days ago

The church has no right to take on the powers that properly belong to the police. This contempt for the US Constitution has finally ended.

Dennis Hayes
3 weeks 5 days ago

can't? won't.

Jorge Luis Luaces Rabaza
3 weeks 3 days ago

Still no word on the sin of Cardinal Dinardo: the police arrested one of his Catholic priests who had a history of abuse dating back to 2002!
DiNardo needs to face the legal authorities and be stripped of his princely titles...laicize him

Louis Devault
2 weeks 5 days ago

I wonder whatbthey said in the cases prior to this about Jerry Sandusky, the former ceo of the second mile trust ...Since He was the biggest subcontractor of juvenile services in pa, second only to the catholic church what the take was on the many allegations that were made against him...Or Mubarak Awad a greek orthodox arab who founded the privatization of youth services in the 1980s and 1990s I understood he achieved his masters at Saint Josephs college and went on to recieve his doctorate at a Jesuit school near St.louis...All these folks participated and orchestrated a lot of money from the fed and various states to advocate for the children in what is now clearly a quest for the cash and not the mission...Just sayin what was done in secret is now being shouted from the mountain tops Ironic how the powerful would say to the mountains and hills please cover us from God's wroth. This I believe goes much deeper into a sense of entitlement to sin because your a good earner...The communities by and large offered support to the ones who carried the mission with little to no accountability as to the quality of the mission. Each of these children often came with a gross tax subsidy of 300k per child per year with that kind of tax revenue overshadowing each child"s quest for decent treatment...one can easily see and understand why the mistakes were covered up instead of pursued...That is what makes many of these crimes so horrendous...

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