Feb. 27, 2004, was a bad day for the bishops of the United States. They received little credit from the media or victims’ groups for the study conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the prevalence and incidence of sexual abuse of children by members of the Catholic clergy during the last half-century. The bishops’ own National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People issued a scathing report on the Causes and Context of the Current Crisis that placed the problem squarely in the hierarchial culture that created it—where it belongs.
The John Jay report was an objective and professional effort to get at the facts of the abuse. Despite the possibility of underreporting by certain dioceses and the chance that more abuse cases may yet emerge, there is little to fault in the John Jay report. It is shocking that more than 10,000 young people have been abused by over 4,000 priests during the last half-century. Yet, given the phenomenon of sexual abuse worldwide and in contemporary U.S. culture, an offense rate of 4 percent among priests may not be statistically excessive when compared with other groups that work with children and young people. Edward Laumann, Robert Michael and others, in Sex in America: A Definitive Survey (1994), report that 17 percent of Americans (equal for both genders) were abused before puberty, by men and women equally. (In a lapse of professionalism, the John Jay report did not cite the Laumann-Michael study.)
Those who have blamed the abuse on celibacy now must face the fact that most celibates are not abusers. Those who blame it on homosexuality must face the fact that most gay priests are not abusers either. Neither hysterical faction, however, is likely to change its mind simply because of facts.
The church has been forced to this public accounting because of the reassignment of abusing priests to parishes and its harsh treatment of victims. Sexual abuse will occur despite every effort to prevent it. The added crime is to encourage it by sending the abusers back into situations where they will have access to children, and it is an even worse crime to beat victims into the ground by the use of harsh legal tactics.
This behavior has created the worst crisis in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, a crisis that will not go away for a long time. The National Review Board report analyzes in rich detail the chancery office culture that caused the crisis—avoid scandal, protect fellow priests, give erring brothers another chance, forgive sin, protect the church from scandal, avoid costly litigation, punish those who claim that abuse has occurred, cite reports from psychiatrists that the abuser can safely be reassigned, establish procedures that priests on your staff can control, deny even to yourself that any abuse has occurred.
Those of us who have fought the chancery office culture know it all too well, and are familiar with its arrogant assumption that it knows the truth and is doing the right thing, when patently it is not. Yet it is good to see it revealed as the sinful environment it was, and perhaps still is. The National Review Board is devastating in its critique of the advice provided to bishops by lawyers (both canon and civil), psychiatrists and psychiatric institutions, especially the last-named, which assured bishops that recidivism could be controlled. All of these co-conspirators surrounded the bishop with the advice he wanted to hear and not the warnings he did not want to hear. “The shrinks and the lawyers and the cops cleared them,” was the mantra of many priests who were in denial about the abuse problem. (Many of them still are.)
The National Review Board suggested that there must be “consequences” for bishops who engaged in these criminal and sinful acts. I would add that there must be consequences too for their staff members who supported such crimes. It is simply unacceptable that lawyers who engaged in hardball tactics against victims and their families should still serve in chancery offices. I would also add that those men who were appointed as bishops or promoted to higher office after sanctioning reassignment and tough legal stands (although the Vatican should have known about their past), ought to be replaced. Unless the hierarchy cleans its own house, it will never again achieve credibility.
Among the solutions the National Review Board recommends is that the laity participate in the selection of bishops. Such a strategy would restore the norms of Pope Leo the Great and Pope Gregory the Great, who ordered that bishops should be selected by the priests of a diocese and accepted by its people. As long as a bishop can be imposed without the consent of the priests and people, thus promoting the kind of bishop who created the abuse crisis, I do not see how credibility can be restored.
The National Review Board is a group of very tough men and women. Normally when bishops select laypeople to serve on committees, they choose their own, the kind of people who will be docile and respectful. Bishop Wilton Gregory, in my judgment the hero of this story, broke the rules and chose the members of the board, for which many of his colleagues will never forgive him. I have to wonder whether the board has a future. Its honesty and integrity have won it few friends among the bishops. I expect we will see attempts to abolish it or to replace it with more compliant members.
Despite the usefulness of the John Jay report and the candor of the National Review Board, I am troubled about the future. Rome is reportedly uneasy about the “zero tolerance” policy (which is essential to reassure the laity). The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has yet to act on most of the cases sent to it. In one instance it ordered a priest reassigned. It is not clear to me that Rome “gets it” even now. The three smooth, polished archbishops on the podium at the National Press Club the day the reports were released did not seem to get it either. They did not appear to realize how deep the crisis of credibility is or to display either guilt or grief over what has happened.
Other members of the hierarchy apparently do not understand that they must be silent for a long time and listen. Those who think they can now “move beyond” the sexual abuse crisis deceive themselves, a tendency that seems to come with the purple buttons. I see no likelihood that the bishops responsible for the problem and their loyal staff members will resign or be removed. The notion that laypeople should participate in the selection of their bishops (despite Gregory and Leo the Great) is no more likely to become practice than that the Cubs will win the World Series.
The crisis goes on, and the credibility of our leaders—a precious resource for all Catholics—will, I fear, continue to decline.