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.
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.
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.