On May 18 the National Review Board released a report titled The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010, prepared by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The mere mention of these two groups, the board and the school, working independently of the hierarchy to produce this report, is a ready admission that when it came to fully understanding and responding to the sexual abuse crisis in the U.S. Catholic Church, we bishops needed the help and assistance of others.
It is true that the report documents a very large drop in the number of cases of abuse in the mid-1980s, demonstrating that once we bishops realized what was happening, though tragically quite late, we could and did adopt strong and effective measures. Education about the problem and the establishment of safe environments to eliminate opportunities for abuse to occur have proven effective.
Yet just as the report reinforces what we have done and are doing right in facing the problem, it also calls for additional initiatives to address shortcomings so that the abuse of minors does not happen again in the Catholic Church.
While the bishops will have to give their attention over the next months and years to fully explore the implications of the report, there are several priorities that we cannot neglect. These include:
1. Keep potential abusers out of the priesthood. Rigorous screening of seminary candidates must continue. This means background checks and thorough psychological testing to uncover emotional deficiencies that could lead to abuse. Presently, the Program of Priestly Formation states that “any credible evidence in the candidate of a sexual attraction to children necessitates an immediate dismissal from the seminary.” But now should be given to updating it to require training in safe environment with an emphasis on defining and maintaining appropriate boundaries between members of the clergy and children. There can be no exceptions to the rule that anyone who has not undergone safe environment training will not be allowed to work with children and surely should not be ordained a priest.
2. Revise the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People as needed. The bishops have routinely reviewed the charter for needed updates. The task now will be to improve it further in light of this report. In revising the charter the bishops must look to any elements that need strengthening or clarification to guarantee that in every diocese any priest with an admitted or canonically proven allegation of abuse against him is no longer in ministry. Similarly, the charter's mandate that the diocesan review board is to advise the “ bishop in his assessment of allegations of sexual abuse of minors and in his determination of a cleric's suitability for ministry” needs clarification, as does the significance of our “Statement of Episcopal Commitment,” so that there is uniformity in complying with the principles of the charter.
3. Require annual ongoing professional education of priests. The John Jay researchers found that there is no surefire way to predict who will be an abuser, but they did find that people who abused the young were under stress, often lonely and also frequently abused alcohol. Continuing education on how to implement safe environment programs effectively must be mandatory for priests, but so should ongoing professional development aimed at reducing, if not eliminating, the stressors. Particular attention needs to be given to the spiritual growth of our priests, since evidence shows that a sound prayer life is an important resource for dealing with stress in a healthy and mature way. Priests deserve this investment and the assistance they need to develop coping skills and outlets that do not include drugs, alcohol and sexual exploitation.
4. Educate parishioners. Right now, the charter requires background evaluations and safe environment training for anyone who has ongoing, unsupervised contact with minors. We need to expand the circle of those trained to maintain safe environments. All of our people should learn how to recognize and report abuse of minors. The simplest and most efficient way to educate churchgoing Catholics is through parish bulletins and Web sites. In addition to regularly publishing information about how to report abuse, parishes, with the help of our Secretariat for Child Protection, should routinely give updates on how best to maintain and improve their safe environment programs.
5. Emphasize the boundaries that should exist between an adult and a minor. In recent years we have seen reports to dioceses and civil authorities of boundary violations, like placing a hand on a child’s knee, wrestling with a child or sharing alcohol with a minor. Professionals recognize that such touching and interaction often are first steps in grooming, a process by which sexual abusers test how far they can go in breaking down natural barriers between an adult and a child. Today’s young people are appropriately trained to report any interactions that make them uncomfortable. Whether or not these actions are associated directly with or lead to sexual abuse of minors, such violations of their personal space disconcert them and are not harmless. Clear and specific codes of conduct about adult-minor interaction, banning such boundary violations, should be an integral part of the life and activity of every parish.
6. Recognize the extent of the problem of sexual abuse of children. The John Jay study points out that sexual abuse of minors occurs in virtually every organization where adults are in a mentoring relationship with children. Saying this should in no way divert attention from the problem of abuse in the church, as the church should be held to a higher standard. But the church should care about what happens in all schools, sports teams and youth organizations because they too are vulnerable to abusers in their ranks. The point is that in face of the overwhelming evidence that sexual abuse occurs in all groups serving youth, the entire adult population in this country must address the challenge of protecting children in a collaborative and unified way.
7. Monitor one another. It is tragic that so many abusers molested children over the years without others suspecting it. Perhaps members of the clergy and other adults who suspected that something was wrong decided to mind their own business. All who observe untoward behavior need to take their concerns to people in authority. This is not a matter of “ratting someone out” or getting someone in trouble; it is a matter of child safety.
8. Listen intently, respond forthrightly. Too often the first response of administrators when they hear of a problem is to hope it goes away. This approach cannot guide the handling of suspected sexual abuse of children. Reports of suspicions need to be addressed immediately and directly. Waiting for a few more reports or incidents to surface is like not dealing with a serious contagious illness until a whole classroom full of children comes down with it. Leaders also need to recognize that in many cases it takes a long time for a person to articulate anything about such a sensitive topic as sexual activity. Leaders need to listen not just to the words people speak but for the emotions behind the words and the body language that communicates what is not said. Church leaders need to send clear messages, especially to children, that they will listen sympathetically and act decisively when faced with sexual abuse of a child.
9. Place this crisis in perspective. Given that the existence of abuse of just one child is horrific, it is hard to feel that there has been progress in U.S. society in this matter. But there has been. John Jay statistics show a decline in sexual abuse of young people in recent decades, especially in the church. It is arguable that the church is doing better in this regard because of the intense emphasis on practical education through safe environment programs for both young people and adults. The media’s scrutiny of the church has probably kept leaders from regressing and yielding to “charter fatigue.” However one characterizes what we have accomplished, the fact remains that the church cannot stop taking precautions.
Perspective also is needed when priests are falsely accused and then exonerated. The charter calls for efforts to restore the reputation of priests falsely accused. Admittedly, the percentage of those falsely accused is small, but any false accusation is damning in the public eye. If a bishop and diocesan structures, like review boards and victim assistance offices, have been evenhanded in dealing with victim/survivors and the public, the bishop is more apt to be judged credible when he states that an accused cleric has been found not guilty and is worthy of an assignment in a diocese.
10. Watch for and correct distorted attitudes about the priesthood. Clericalism is a form of elitism, in which some are viewed as having special rights and privileges. It spawns an arrogance that results in some people receiving less respect than others; that lets some people be objectified and used and, soon, tragically abused. We Catholics have been in the forefront in defending the dignity of the human person. Clericalism is a direct violation of human dignity. In the case of child abuse, it is an attitude that has grown deaf to what the Scriptures tell us about the special place children have in God’s kingdom. They are called to the front of the line as Jesus did when he said, “Let the little children come to me” and warned that it would be better to have a millstone strung around one’s neck and be thrown into the sea than to be guilty of harming a child. When we realize how highly God holds children, it is hard to do anything but respect and cherish them and to abhor anything that uses and abuses them.
The release of the John Jay study is a marker. It is a jumping-off point from which the Catholic Church and especially its leadership must continue to take steps to show that it will be steadfast in addressing the sexual abuse of minors. This is not a time for the bishops to sit back and applaud themselves for getting a handle on a shameful moment in church history. If anything, the church“s leadership must now step forward and give new vitality to its promise to protect and its pledge to heal. This will require on the part of the bishops a great deal of humility, the kind required to admit that we needed the help provided by the National Review Board, John Jay College and so many others. It is also the kind of humility expressed in the confession of faults nearly a decade ago by Bishop Wilton Gregory, then president of the bishop’s conference:
Our God-given duty as shepherds of the Lord’s people holds us responsible and accountable to God and to the church for the spiritual and moral health of all of God’s children, especially those who are weak and most vulnerable. It is we who need to confess, and so we do.
We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance or, God forbid, with knowledge, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them to communities where they continued to abuse.
We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities, because the law did not require this. We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse.
And we are the ones who, at times, responded to victims and their families as adversaries and not as suffering members of the church.
We should keep close to our hearts the humility and deep remorse expressed in these words nearly a decade ago. The children deserve no less.