What the Army can teach the Catholic Church about responding to sexual abuse

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When Pope Francis said in a 2015 interview, “I am a sinner,” he reminded us of a fundamental truth: We are all imperfect. Even those striving for both moral and spiritual perfection are prone to mistakes, errors in judgment, blindnesses and biases. As human beings, we cannot be otherwise, and the organizations we create to govern ourselves—whether for business, political, security, social or religious purposes—reflect these imperfections. The Catholic Church is facing twin crises that prove this point exactly: a sexual abuse crisis and a crisis of confidence in leadership practices that allowed, then covered up, the abuse.

The issue now is how to restore trust in church leadership. My experience in the United States Army—over 37 years, 11 as a general officer—suggests that the path of “I’m sorry, trust me this time” won’t work. Rather, the church must become trustworthy, and that means taking comprehensive corrective action.

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Addressing scandal in the ranks

At one point in my career, I witnessed how then-Chief of Staff of the Army, General (now retired) Dennis J. Reimer, and the rest of the senior Army leadership dealt with the 1996 Aberdeen sexual abuse scandal. I was a colonel then, General Reimer’s executive officer. This scandal broke when Major General (now retired) Robert Shadley discovered, reported and began an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse involving the Army drill instructors responsible for training new recruits at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, Md.

In the end, 12 sergeants were charged with sexual crimes. Four were sentenced to prison. Four senior officers received letters of reprimand that de facto ended their careers, one of whom was a commanding general. The Army’s investigation found that some senior officers covered up the abuse under the false presumption that they were “protecting the image of the Army.” To the contrary, General Reimer and the other senior leaders saw that the crisis they faced was one of trust. “The American people gave us their most important assets—their sons and daughters—and we messed it up,” General Reimer said to me recently. “Who is going to send their daughters to the Army if we can’t guarantee them that they will be treated with dignity and respect and not have to submit to sexual harassment?”

In sum, the Army had to demonstrate that it was a trustworthy institution.

My experience in the United States Army—over 37 years, 11 as a general officer—suggests that the path of “I’m sorry, trust me this time” won’t work. Rather, the church must become trustworthy, and that means taking comprehensive corrective action.

So General Reimer formed a special task force to conduct sensing sessions and gather data from all training bases, not just the one at Aberdeen. The task force found that problems initially uncovered at Aberdeen were not isolated incidents. In addition to exposing and punishing those found guilty of sexual abuse or coverup, the Army translated this crisis into an opportunity, an opportunity to not only address the sexual abuse crisis but also to address the root causes for the crisis: the way the Army formed its leaders and the climate leaders create in their units.

Using the information gained by the special task force, the senior Army leaders created its “zero tolerance” policy, updated regulations, established a sexual abuse hotline and re-emphasized the roles of both the chain of command as well as the uses of the independent Department of the Army Inspector General system and the Criminal Investigations Command. Further, recognizing that the scandal was the product of leadership practices and unit climates, General Reimer led senior leaders in a prolonged discussion about Army values.

The result was to explicitly commit the Army to living a set of values that remain part of current in-unit leader development programs: the Army’s pre-commissioning education at West Point, throughout the nation’s R.O.T.C. programs and at the Officer Candidate School; the professional education system for officers and sergeants; and the pre-command courses for those officers and Command Sergeants Major who are about to assume significant command positions. Army values are also taught in Army basic training so that all enlisted soldiers understand the kind of treatment they should expect and demand from their leaders. The Army ultimately created a Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) academy at which it educates and trains sexual assault and harassment specialists now embedded throughout the Army.

To restore trust, the Army had to expose the abuses, bringing both the abusers and those who covered up the abuse to justice, committing to short-term and long-term actions to prevent abuse from happening again—and doing all of this in a public and transparent way. The Army combined short- and long-term actions into a comprehensive approach that reestablished the Army’s expectation (1) that leaders are personally responsible for what they do or fail to do, (2) that, while leaders establish the climate in the units for which they are responsible, all in the unit share responsibility in identifying deviant behavior—that is, behavior contrary to Army values and (3) that the institution’s formal reporting, investigation and adjudication procedures act as a check, helping to ensure negative behaviors are discovered and dealt with. In sum, the Army rededicated itself to a set of personal, communal and institutional standards and the mechanisms necessary to enforce those standards.

In its response to sexual abuse, the Army rededicated itself to a set of personal, communal and institutional standards and the mechanisms necessary to enforce those standards.

None of these actions, either individually or collectively, stopped all instances of sexual assault or harassment. The Army still struggles with this issue. Problems like these do not submit to a “once and for all” solution. Continual vigilance is what is needed—that is why all three levels of standards are needed. Nor did the Army’s response to the Aberdeen scandal reflect perfect leadership, for in a prolonged crisis like this one can expect mixed motives, missteps and blunders. Some senior leaders advocated full disclosure, others did not. Some acted out of self-interest, others for the good of soldiers and the country. These kinds of situations are dynamic and complex, and involve a strong level of unpredictability.

In the end, however, the Army’s senior leaders clearly and unambiguously established what the Army expected of its leaders, the values and standards to which leaders would be held accountable and the kind of climate leaders were expected to establish within the portions of the Army for which they were responsible. Furthermore, the Army changed the instruction in its professional military education programs, its command preparation programs and its in-unit professional development programs.

Bishops can do the same.

Uncomfortable questions

The U.S. Catholix bishops are right to revisit the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the 2005, 2011 and 2018 revisions. The revisions discussed in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ November assembly would expand the charter to include standards applicable to bishops and procedures to report and handle episcopal misconduct, including a special lay commission of independent law enforcement and investigators as well as social service experts to pursue allegations. This approach of blending standards with external analysis and enforcement authority confirms what most people understand: that no one of us is the best judge of our own actions. All of us are subject to biases and pressures when making practical judgements in complex situations—whether concerning our own actions, those of close associates or others with whom we are in relationships. That is, each of us and the organizations we create are imperfect.

This is why Thomas Merton, in Love and Living (1979), reminds us that a mature conscience is one that recognizes it is fallible, that it must be humble and acknowledge it needs others who have knowledge and experience of the problems at hand, as well as prayer, faith and trust in God.

The policies and administrative standards as well as the mechanisms for investigation and enforcement are necessary steps in restoring trust in the Catholic Church in the United States. Everyone expects institutions—religious or otherwise—not only to be self-policing but also to use the appropriate mix of laws, administrative policies and “watchdog” organizations to ensure that the institutions remain true to their core purposes and values. However necessary, these steps are not sufficient.

Creating a trustworthy institution is a matter of organizational integrity—an organization willing to walk its talk.

Just as restoring trust in the Army involved more than mere updating of regulations and inspection/enforcement regimes, restoring trust in the church also requires more. The bishops must ask some uncomfortable questions—the kind the senior leaders of the Army had to ask in the wake of the Aberdeen scandal. These questions are uncomfortable because they cut to the core of an organization’s trustworthiness; they form a kind of examination of an organization’s collective conscience. A sampling of the kind of questions the bishops must ask of themselves and the church is included in the following:

  • What is it about the way we form priests and select bishops that allowed decades of abuse to continue and to be covered up across such a wide portion of the church?
  • What is it about our conception of leadership that, in the eyes of many, position and perception seem to be more important than people?
  • How could we ignore the number of lay and ordained warnings about and objections to sustained abuse and coverup for so long and in so many disparate places?
  • What is it about the way we characterize ordained leaders that more than a few develop an oversized sense of entitlement?
  • What is it about our expectations of the laity that has reduced many to “passive recipients of the holy actions of the ordained”?
  • What has caused many to have a distorted understanding of the virtue of obedience?
  • Are there gaps between the church’s espoused values and its operant values? If so, where are the gaps, and why do they develop?
  • How can we develop a stronger sense of personal and communal stewardship in parishes and dioceses so as to create an immune system against abusive actions, abuses of power and attempts to cover up actions that violate espoused values and purposes?
  • Do our priests and bishops listen enough, not only to victims of abuse but also to the set of professionals available and knowledgeable about the root causes of sexual abuse and abuse of power?
  • When leading parishes and dioceses, do our pastors and bishops create or assume followers?
  • How do we routinely check the pastoral climate in our parishes and dioceses?

Asking these questions, and others like them, as well as processing the answers and deriving an action plan, will demonstrate that church leaders are serious about resolving the twin crises they face. This is the kind of sustained, transparent action that moves an institution from an “I’m sorry; you can trust me now” approach to one that will forge a trustworthy institution.

Such an approach is also illuminating, for it shows that creating a trustworthy institution is a matter of organizational integrity—an organization willing to walk its talk. General Reimer and the other senior Army leaders knew from experience that soldiers and subordinate leaders trust commanders of integrity. They also knew that institutions can have, or lack, integrity. This knowledge led them to conclude that to protect the Army, they had to expose the full dimension of the scandalous behavior and hold accountable those responsible for it. Trust, they knew, does not flow from hiding the truth but from living according to it.

Becoming a trustworthy organization means reestablishing an organization’s integrity, and that takes—as the Army found out—combining action at the personal, communal and institutional levels.

Integrity—and opportunity

The Aberdeen scandal showed that the Army’s institutional behavior lacked integrity, for its actions did not match its espoused values. All Army leaders, whether sergeants or officers, are expected to treat the soldiers under their care with dignity and respect. In every school, leaders are told that they are responsible for the “health, welfare, morale, well-being, and lives” of the soldiers in their units. This is one of the “prime directives” of Army leadership. The Aberdeen scandal made clear that, at least in some parts of the Army, leaders said one thing but did another. Such behavior is the physical manifestation of an institution that lacks integrity and is one that, in the Army, is judged unworthy of a soldier’s or leader’s trust. And when an organization or an institution becomes untrustworthy, all kinds of negative dynamics begin to play out. Becoming a trustworthy organization means reestablishing an organization’s integrity, and that takes—as the Army found out—combining action at the personal, communal and institutional levels.

There is opportunity amid the twin crises facing the Catholic Church in the U.S., just as there was for the Army amid the Aberdeen scandal. However, ordained and lay leaders of the church, especially bishops, must seize that opportunity. God has given skills and experiences to each of us individually and all of us collectively so that we advance the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. As we give of ourselves, we will help manifest God’s word and work in our individual, communal and institutional lives. Manifesting God’s presence is the opportunity the twin crises have opened for the Church.

The two proposals discussed at the November assembly of the bishops—establishing (1) standards applicable to bishops and (2) procedures for reporting and handling episcopal misconduct that include a special lay commission of independent law enforcement and investigators as well as social service experts to pursue allegations—however necessary, are insufficient. By enacting the two proposals, the bishops will take the strong step forward at the institutional level. Other steps must follow: steps at the personal and communal levels.

There is opportunity amid the twin crises facing the Catholic Church in the U.S. However, ordained and lay leaders of the church, especially bishops, must seize that opportunity.

These steps will require gathering data from asking the right set of questions of a variety of Catholics across the U.S., analyzing that data, then acting by transforming leadership and management practices with the end of reviving and reinvigorating the trustworthiness of the Catholic Church in the U.S. In taking these steps, the bishops must engage with leadership and management experts, like the Leadership Roundtable. Some bishops are already seeking out this kind of advice, but a more comprehensive and structured dialogue is necessary.

Matthew 25: 16-18 talks about three servants to whom a master entrusted his property: “He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them; and he made five talents more. So also, he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money.” The first two servants took risk on behalf of their master. Now is the time for all of us—lay and ordained—to take a similar risk on behalf of our Lord and his Church.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Dionys Murphy
8 months ago

You might reach out to current recruits and soldiers. Women (and Men) are still unlikely to report rape or abuse because the reality on the ground is that they still suffer the fate of "snitches get stitches" in reporting, sometimes literally.

Mark Scibilia-Carver
8 months ago

Since extreme forms of child abuse, not to mention mass abortions, are an inevitable consequence of modern war, one must question a Lt. General's response (or non-response) to this abuse.

Phillip Stone
8 months ago

This man must be appointed to attend and address the what promises to be a gab-fest generating a motherhood and apple pie communiqué.

arthur mccaffrey
8 months ago

I don't think Senator Gillibrand would agree with this sanitised version of the Army's response to sexual harassment and coverups in its own ranks which get closed very quickly whenever whistle blowers try to expose chronic problems of harassment. The US Army and RCC are both top-down command and control institutions where the company gets protection first, last and always, leaving victims to stew in their own misery. Hope America publishes some stories from women recruits to balance this eulogy.

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
8 months ago

Fabulous article! Lieutenant General Dubik (Ret.) makes some excellent points, a few of which are that training is needed, which I think is partially addressed as the Church has made an excellent start with the VIRTUS program. As well, he notes that the leaders who allowed the abuse to go on at Aberdeen were punished and had their careers terminated, including a general. My observation is that the Pope and many of the bishops (including a number of the cardinals) need to either resign or be removed. Just as the army removed people who failed to lead properly, so the Church must remove people, even the Vicar of Christ, for failing to exercise their offices in a just and charitable manner. [McCarrick, O'Connor-Murphy, Maradiaga, Zanchetto, Barros, Grassi, the new Carmelengo who is himself under investigation (Does this sound like L.A. with Bishop Salazar in 2002-2004?), and who knows how many more relative to the Pope. As well, the bishops must take responsibility for their failures to deal with these situations in the countries each of these episcopal and clerical miscreants purveyed sexual depravity and other misconduct.]

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