Sex Abuse Scandal May Haunt Church
Observers Say New Victims Likely to Come Forward in the Future
By Tom Feeney
Star-Ledger Staff [United States]
Downloaded March 2, 2004
Can a grim accounting of 52 years' worth of child-sex abuse by Roman Catholic priests bring to an end the darkest period in the history of the American Catholic Church?
The United States Conference of Bishops says it can. When it released two reports last week putting at 4,392 the number of priests accused of sexually abusing minors between 1950 and 2002, the conference president, Illinois Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, proclaimed: "The terrible history recorded here today is history."
But church observers are not so sure.
Many of them -- even those who have been consistently critical of the church -- agree that there are likely to be fewer incidents of sexual abuse by priests in the future, because of both broad cultural changes and specific preventive measures adopted by the bishops in recent years.
But others caution that not even eradicating future abuse will be enough to keep the "terrible history" from coloring the church's future.
"I think the bishops wanted this to be finished, and I think it's all going to start up again instead of being finished," said Eileen P. Flynn, professor of theology at St. Peter's College in Jersey City and author of several books on the church. "This is not going to settle anything. This is going to incite Catholics to fury.
"The reason I say that is that there's been no structural change in the church. The bishops still have total control of the money, and they're not accountable to the people for how they're spending the money."
The accounting of past abuse compiled by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice from data reported by the church indicates that more abusive priests were ordained in the 1960s than any other decade and that the largest number of abuse cases occurred in the 1970s.
"Men ordained around 1970 were at higher risk for abuse since they were ordained during the tumultuous years of Vatican II and were coping like everyone else with the wackiness of the 1970s," said Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University in California and an expert on sexual abuse by the clergy.
Reported incidents have fallen sharply since the mid-1980s -- a fact that the bishops seized on to make the case that the church's steps toward preventing abuse have been successful.
"Along with the pain and anguish we feel in reviewing the past, we can also discern signs that the actions we have taken over the last 15 years have had a significant effect," Gregory said during the news conference Friday. "At this present moment, there is evidence of far fewer instances of abuse in the most recent past.
"It may be that there are victims who will not come forward for some time. But it is also true that these years saw immediate action on allegations, more sophisticated and effective treatment measures, and the removal from ministry of men who were offenders. These same years saw advances in screening candidates for Holy Orders and in the formation of those who are accepted into our seminaries. These actions, without a doubt, have made a difference."
The actual decline in abuse by priests might not be as dramatic as the report suggests, experts say. Survivors typically don't come forward when they're in their teens and late 20s, said Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, a clinical psychologist and co-director of the Trauma Treatment Center at the Manhattan Institute for Psychoanalysis.
"I think you will see a bubble of victims coming forward in the later part of this decade," Frawley-O'Dea said. "To whatever extent there were people abused in the '90s, you're not going to hear about them yet."
There are other factors that help account for the lower numbers over the past 15 years, she said -- factors that offer more hope that abuse by priests will be less likely in the future.
Children now are more likely to be taught to say no to a priest who makes an inappropriate advance and more likely to tell their parents if they are abused, she said. Adults are more likely to take children's reports of abuse seriously.
"I also think that within the church, kids these days spend far less time with priests," she said. "They're not going on overnights. There's a lot less intense relationship between contemporary Catholics and their church."
Even if the church is largely successful at preventing sexual abuse by priests in the future, the accounting it released Friday will not close the book on the scandal because the bishops, by and large, have refused to accept responsibility for their role in it, church observers say.
"The abuse problem is something that poor leadership certainly exacerbated, yet in many respects, the bishops have not turned the spotlight on themselves," said Paul F. Lakeland, professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut. "There is zero tolerance for priests, but not for bishops."
The abuse scandal buffeted the church for more than a decade, but during that time no bishop was forced out of office for failing to deal with abusive priests, Lakeland said.
Boston Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned amid revelations about his role in covering for abusive priests, but he did so under pressure from the laity, not the Vatican. The only other bishops who stepped down did so in response to allegations of abusive behavior in their own pasts.
"This is not something the church is going to be able to put behind them until certain steps are taken, and the most important one is for bishops to take responsibility for their actions," said Suzanne Morse of Voice of the Faithful, a national group formed in response to the sex abuse scandal to work for reform within the church.
The organization believes that the church should identify and hold accountable any bishop who knowingly transferred an abusive priest from one parish to another.
Morse said she will not be able to trust that the church has a handle on sexually abusive priests until it takes that step. She said the numbers showing a decline in abuse cases since the mid-1980s are suspect because they were reported by the church itself and not subject to meaningful outside review.
"Unless there's a mechanism for holding bishops accountable, the bad behavior could continue," she said. "That's something we believe is absolutely necessary for Catholics to feel that the church is functioning."
David Gibson, author of "The Coming Catholic Church" and a former religion writer at The Star-Ledger, said the release of the reports mark only a small step in the church's effort to put the abuse scandal behind it.
"This amounts to a good Act of Contrition in this time of Lent," he said. "The bishops have confessed. This report is part of their penance. But they get no gold stars until the laity is convinced that they will change their ways."
Staff writers Mark Mueller and Jeff Diamant contributed to this report.
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