U.S. Officials at Vatican Welcome Release of Sex Abuse Studies

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service
February 27, 2004

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Two top U.S. officials at the Vatican welcomed the release of new studies on clergy sexual abuse in the United States, saying they will help the church address the root causes of the scandal.

Cardinal J. Francis Stafford, formerly archbishop of Denver, said the 145-page report on the causes of sex abuse, carried out by the exclusively lay National Review Board, represented a courageous step by U.S. bishops and should serve as a model for other institutions. He said it had highlighted a "crisis" in understanding and appreciating priestly celibacy.

Archbishop John P. Foley, formerly a Catholic newspaper editor in Philadelphia, said that although it was very disappointing to learn that 4 percent of priests have been accused of sexual abuse the commissioning of the studies by U.S. bishops was "a very good corporate examination of conscience."

The prelates made the comments in interviews with Catholic News Service in Rome Feb. 27, the day the review board's report was issued in Washington.

Also released was a separate research study commissioned by the board, carried out by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. It assembled data on clergy sexual abuse in the United States from 1950 to 2002.

Cardinal Stafford said it was a "courageous act" for U.S. bishops to entrust the research to a secular institution and a lay board.

"That has great significance, I think, not only for the bishops in the United States but for the wider church," Cardinal Stafford said.

"The bishops' leadership on this should be perceived by other institutions, both religious and civil, and be emulated by them, because this sinfulness is not limited to the priesthood, it is pervasive in modern society," he said.

Cardinal Stafford, former president of the Pontifical Council for the Laity and currently head of the Vatican office dealing with the sacrament of penance, participated in several U.S.-Vatican meetings on sex abuse in 2002 and was one of four Vatican officials interviewed by the review board in recent months.

He said the report speaks about the need for greater accountability on the part of bishops, something the bishops had sensed when they set up the review board in 2002.

Cardinal Stafford said that to improve accountability in the future the establishment of a "committee of episcopal peers" has been suggested in recent discussions. The committee would intervene whenever questions arose about the oversight of a given bishop. Other Vatican sources confirmed that such a proposal was being considered.

Cardinal Stafford said such a committee of bishops would be "more theologically and canonically regular than what we have existing now."

"It must be honest and courageous in intervening when needed. That is a primary condition that both clergy and laity are looking for," he said.

At present, accountability on sex abuse procedures is monitored by the National Review Board, a lay organization established by the U.S. bishops, and is assisted by the Office of Child and Youth Protection, a staff office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Cardinal Stafford said the review board report rightly called for better formation in clerical celibacy. He said one main problem is that many in the church -- including priests and bishops -- believe that celibacy is a relatively recent practice in the church, created in the 11th or 12th century for nontheological reasons.

"In fact, the reason for celibacy is much older than that, and the practice of celibacy in the church is of apostolic origin. This is what the latest studies indicate. We have to recover the ancient motives and sources of celibacy," he said.

Cardinal Stafford said he expected seminary programs would be modified to place greater emphasis on the "intimate connection between celibacy and the theology of the priesthood." He said it was possible that future conferences on this issue would be held in the United States and in Rome.

The cardinal said he thought the review board had accurately criticized U.S. bishops for "relying too much on legal and psychological experts and insufficiently on the virtue of prudence and common sense." He said overreliance on experts was a mistake typical of institutions in modern society.

He said he found a very hopeful sign in the fact that most cases of clergy sexual abuse occurred decades ago, and that relatively few cases have occurred since 1990. That probably reflects greater oversight by bishops and a greater emphasis on testing and screening of candidates to the seminary, he said.

"We must continue to pursue the beginnings of this trajectory," he said. One way is to examine the success of lay movements in promoting vocations and educating priests, he said.

Such movements, including Communion and Liberation and the Neo-Catechumenal Way, have been able to foster vocations in their communities, carry out priestly formation within the community environment and offer post-ordination training, he said.

Cardinal Stafford said the advantages of such spiritual communities should not be overlooked. He said it was interesting that, according to the statistical study, the percentage of diocesan priests accused of abuse was much higher than religious-order priests -- 4.3 percent compared to 2.5 percent.

"What is that saying about the importance of community?" he said.

Archbishop Foley, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, said that in dealing with the sex abuse scandal the church's reaction must be "to exercise virtue, and in the absence of virtue, exercise candor, which is a virtue itself. We have to be honest. We cannot deny what happened."

The archbishop said he was "shocked and surprised" by the John Jay College study that said 4 percent of priests had been accused of abuse.

"Even one case is shocking and surprising, but 4 percent is very disappointing," he said.

While Archbishop Foley said he had not had an opportunity to read the entire study and the National Review Board report, he said he agreed that the church's first response must be "an intense process of selection and formation of candidates for the priesthood and a deep spiritual life among bishops and priests."


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