Vatican: Church Must Work with Scientific Experts to Prevent Abuse

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
February 18, 2004

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- In confronting the clerical sex abuse crisis, the Catholic Church needs to work more closely with scientific experts to identify potential perpetrators and make sure they cannot harm the young, a soon-to-be-published Vatican report says.

The 220-page report, "Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: Scientific and Legal Perspectives," represents the Vatican's first comprehensive effort to examine recent research into the psychological causes and types of abuse, screening procedures, recidivism rates, effects on child victims and the possibility of successful therapy for abusers.

Although cautioning that each case of sexual abuse against minors is unique, it sketched general characteristics of priest-abusers and identified a wide range of possible "risk factors," including sexual immaturity, narcissistic traits, alcohol and drug abuse, hormonal abnormalities and endocrine disorders.

While drawing on the experience of U.S. bishops in confronting sexual abuse, the report made a case against the U.S. policy of "zero tolerance" for clerical abusers. It suggested that the church and society are better off when abusive priests are kept in the priesthood but away from children.

The report, to be published by the Pontifical Academy for Life, was based on a Vatican-sponsored symposium of scientific experts held last April. It includes the papers delivered at the symposium, summaries of follow-up discussions involving Vatican officials and the experts, and introductory and conclusive chapters.

Catholic News Service obtained a preliminary copy of the report, which was expected to undergo minor editing changes before being sent out to bishops' conferences in early March.

The report said that while the church has been rocked by the "terrible phenomenon" of sexual abuse it also has some unique advantages when it comes to preventing future abuse -- particularly in using psychological techniques more carefully during the long period of seminary training.

It said that in facing the problem church leaders need more contact with scientific experts in the field.

"This is only a first step. For the benefit of all those who have suffered due to sexual abuse and for the common good, other steps must be taken," said an introduction by Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the pontifical academy.

Bishop Sgreccia said some of the data already could be put to good use in the selection and training of seminarians and in the ongoing formation of priests.

The report was highly unusual at the Vatican for its unflinching examination of the clinical aspects of the problem of sexual abuse and for its stated aim of reaching a wide audience. The volume is intended for "all those concerned with preventing and responding to sexual abuse" and was written for nonspecialists, the editors said.

In several aspects, the report confirmed the approach taken by U.S. bishops as they have grappled with the problem of sex abuse in recent years. The consensus of the experts was that sexual abuse of minors is a bigger problem than previously believed, in the church and in the wider society.

They emphasized improved tools to recognize abuse when it occurs, more careful screening, clear policies of disclosure, and cooperation with civil authorities when a crime has been committed.

But in an important divergence, the report took issue with the U.S. bishops' "zero tolerance" policy of dismissing priests from ministry for even one act of abuse.

The scientific experts, all of them non-Catholics working in the fields of psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy, appeared to agree unanimously that "zero tolerance" goes too far. They said it effectively prevents troubled priests from seeking help before they commit abuse, removes leverage with abusive priests to accept treatment, can leave priests emotionally devastated, and effectively passes responsibility for an abusive priest on to the larger society -- where there is less monitoring and supervision of his behavior.

Several of the experts said they understood why U.S. bishops felt pressed to adopt "zero tolerance," but called the policy ultimately counterproductive. The issue was explored repeatedly in discussions with the Vatican participants.

One German expert in child psychiatry, Dr. Jorg Fegert, suggested a revision of the U.S. policy in light of the Vatican conference and adoption of a uniform policy for the church throughout the world. That idea has been echoed privately by some Vatican officials in recent months.

The experts said the typical priest-abuser often shows characteristics of other child abusers, which may include sexual and personality disorders, substance abuse, and neurological or brain impairment. In general, they said, clerical abusers were better educated, less antisocial and somewhat less likely to be repeat offenders than nonclerical abusers.

One key issue in the report is treatment and rehabilitation of abusers. Treatment options range from drugs to psychoanalysis, but several of the experts recommended a combination of cognitive behavioral techniques combined with spiritual counseling in treating abusive priests.

But, in response to questions from church officials, most of the experts said the sexual deviancy at the root of sexual abuse is a permanent condition that cannot be "cured." Treatment is considered successful when the person can achieve control over such urges, but that will never be a risk-free situation, they said. The more successful cognitive methods have had reduced recidivism, or repeat offenses, from 17 percent to 10 percent, according to recent studies.

The experts were queried directly on one of the most controversial questions being debated inside the Vatican in the wake of the sex abuse crisis: whether a homosexual inclination alone should disqualify someone for acceptance in a seminary.

Dr. Martin Kafka, a psychiatry professor at Harvard Medical School, said he thought homosexuality was not a cause of sex abuse but a "likely risk factor" that deserves further study. He said that in comparison with the general population abuse cases in the church are disproportionately those of homosexual male adults who molest adolescent males.

But another expert, Canadian Dr. William Marshall, said it would be unrealistic for seminaries to expect homosexual candidates to identify themselves as such. He questioned how many men preparing to enter the seminary have clarity about their sexuality.

Kafka also wondered whether celibacy could be considered a "risk factor" in sexual abuse. That view apparently was not shared by most of the other experts or by Vatican officials, who defended celibacy and said it was often wrongly assumed to be part of the problem.

Some participants said successful celibacy was one key to avoiding clergy sex abuse and that the church should make sure priests have the spiritual strength to live celibate lives. Vatican officials picked up on that; according to one participant, the Vatican plans to make an improved understanding of celibacy the central focus of its response to sex abuse, as opposed to blanket screening measures or identification of homosexual inclinations among candidates to the priesthood.

In terms of prevention, Vatican officials were cautioned that there is no fail-safe method of screening potential sex abusers. Some organizations, however, have used psychological tools to identify "markers" for sexual deviancy. In one sense, the experts said, the closed seminary environment offers an unparalleled opportunity to monitor and identify risk factors through direct observation.

But the experts said the church, and in particular local bishops, must determine the level of risk they are willing to accept in a seminarian before showing him the door. They said that once the person is ordained the church's responsibility to him increases; especially for those in the first years of priesthood, they said, the church needs a system that makes it possible for priests to talk about their problems without fear of recrimination.

One expert suggested setting up support groups for newly ordained clergy, who face a difficult period of adjustment and sometimes seek comfort in relationships with adolescents.

The Vatican report included a review of the devastating effects of sexual abuse on children, including depression, abnormal sexual development, stress disorder, guilty feelings and suicide. Many young Catholics are so wounded that they struggle their whole lives to rediscover faith in God, it said.

Because those abused typically must present their stories several times to different authorities, the church was cautioned against adding unnecessary new procedures for victims.

The Vatican report also included a study of how another profession, psychotherapy, has responded to sexual abuse among its members. It found that in Europe and Anglo-Saxon countries, about 10 percent of all psychotherapists admitted to verbal or psychological sexual abuse of their clients; physical abuse was much lower, around 1 percent.