When the clergy sexual abuse crisis exploded in the United States, most Vatican officials and European churchmen considered it an American problem. Then when Canada and Ireland experienced a similar crisis, it became an “English speaking” problem. Rather than seeing the crisis in the United States as a warning to put their own houses in order, too many European bishops continued with business as usual, believing that the crisis would not touch them.
Now that the crisis has arrived in Europe, what can the European bishops and the Vatican learn from the U.S. experience?
Begin with the context. The sexual abuse crisis did not start in Boston; it first came to public attention in the mid-1980s with a court case in Lafayette, La. The crisis was covered by the National Catholic Reporter long before the Boston Globe noticed it. It was in the mid-80s that insurance companies told bishops such cases would no longer be covered in their liability insurance. This should have gotten the attention of any prudent C.E.O.
A Long Learning Curve
Before 1985, few bishops handled these cases well. The tendency was to believe the priest when he said he would never do it again and to believe psychologists who said the priest could safely return to ministry. The bishops were compassionate and pastoral toward their priests, while forgetting their responsibility to be pastoral and protective of their flock. They tried to keep everything secret so as not to scandalize the faithful.
Between 1985 and 1992, the bishops began to learn more about the problem. They held closed-door sessions with experts at their semiannual meetings. At one closed meeting, at least one bishop told his brother bishops of the mistakes he had made and urged them not to do the same. The number of abuses declined during this period.
In 1992, under the leadership of Archbishop Daniel Pilarcyzk, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a series of guidelines on dealing with sexual abuse. Data collected by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice show that the number of abuse cases plummeted in the 1990s, indicating that by that time most bishops “got it.” The guidelines were opposed by Cardinal Bernard Law, however, and ignored by other bishops who still did not get it. The guidelines were not binding on the bishops, and they continued to leave open the possibility that an abusive priest could return to the ministry. And at a meeting in St. Louis that same year, a group of psychologists who were treating priests urged the bishops to keep open the possibility of returning the priests to ministry.
The scandal in Boston showed that voluntary guidelines were insufficient. It also showed that no one trusted the bishops (or their advisors) to decide who could safely be returned to ministry. As a result, in 2002 the bishops, with the consent of Rome, imposed binding rules requiring zero tolerance of abuse, reporting of accusations to the police, and mandatory child protection programs in every diocese. Under the zero tolerance rule adopted at their meeting in Dallas, any priest involved in abuse will never be able to return to ministry. In most cases, he would be expelled from the priesthood with possible exceptions if he is elderly and retired or infirm. The Dallas rules also required a lay committee in each diocese to review accusations against priests who are suspended from ministry while an investigation takes place. The rules were controversial in that many priests saw the zero tolerance law as draconian. They also feared false accusations and that the rules made them guilty until proven innocent. They objected that Dallas dealt only with priests, not with the bishops who are guilty of negligence.
In any case, it took the American bishops 17 years to figure out how to proceed, from the 1985 lawsuit against the diocese of Lafayette, La., to the establishment of the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002. The European bishops need to travel the same ground very quickly, and the Vatican needs to make zero tolerance the law for the universal church.
What Not to Do
While the Europeans can learn from what the American bishops got right at Dallas, they can also learn from the mistakes the Americans made during the crisis.
From the beginning, the American bishops underestimated the size and gravity of the problem. Prior to 1993, only one-third of the victims had come forward to report the abuse to their dioceses, so not even the church knew how bad the crisis was. Most victims do not want others to know they were abused, especially their parents, spouses, children and friends. Media coverage of clergy abuse encouraged and empowered victims to come forward as they recognized they were not alone.
Today, Europeans are shocked by the hundreds of cases that are being reported. They should get ready for thousands more. In the United States over 5,000 priests, or 4 percent of the clergy, were responsible for 13,000 accusations over a 50-year period. There is no reason to think Europe is different. Hope for the best, but do the math and be prepared.
The biggest miscalculation the American bishops made was to think that the crisis would pass in a few months.
Hunkering down and waiting for the storm to pass is a failed strategy. Unless they want this crisis to go on for years as it did in the United States, the European bishops need to be transparent and encourage victims to come forward now. Better to get all the bad news out as soon as possible than to give the appearance of attempting a cover-up.
One school in Berlin, a Jesuit school, did the right thing. It knew of seven cases of abuse, went public, hired a female lawyer to go through their files and deal with victims, and then wrote to the alumni asking victims to come forward. When at least 120 victims did come forward saying they were abused at Jesuit schools in Germany, the foolish concluded that the school had been crazy to issue the invitation. But not only was it the Christian thing to do, it was also smart public relations. No one is accusing the current school administration of covering up. In addition, rather than have three to five years of bad publicity as one victim after another comes forward, they will have a few months of bad publicity before the media moves on to something else.
American bishops also made the mistake of blaming the media, blaming the permissive culture and trying to down play clerical abuse by pointing out that there are 90,000 to 150,000 reported cases of child sexual abuse each year in the United States. While there is truth in all this, it is counterproductive for the bishops to make these arguments, which come across as excuses. Rather the bishops should condemn the abuse, apologize and put in place policies to make sure that children are safe. Nor is one apology enough. Like a husband who has been unfaithful to his wife, they must apologize, apologize, apologize.
Finally, the American bishops excused themselves by saying they made mistakes but were not culpable because of their ignorance. Sorry, this won’t wash. American Catholics wanted some bishops to stand up and say: “I made a mistake, I moved this priest to another parish, I did not think he would abuse again, I got bad advice, but I take full responsibility. I am sorry and I resign.”
If 30 bishops in the United States had done this, the crisis would not have gone on as long as it did. People would have said, “Good, that is what leaders are supposed to do. They get it. With a new bishop we can have healing and move on.”
Bishops have to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the whole church. It is a scandal that Cardinal Law was the only U.S. bishop to resign because of this crisis. It is encouraging that four Irish bishops have submitted their resignations. Unless the church wants this crisis to go on for years in Europe as it did in the United States, some bishops will have to resign for the good of the church.
Will the European bishops learn from the U.S. experience? I hope so.