Lent Begins Dramatically for Church

By Bill Ryan
Arlington Catholic Herald [Arlington VA]
March 4, 2004

Lent began more dramatically than usual for the Catholic Church in the U.S. this year with the Feb. 27 release by the National Review Board of two major reports: The Incidence of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Members of the Catholic Clergy in the United States 1950-2002, and A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States.

Like Lent, the reports occasioned thoughts of mortification, penance, even humiliation, perhaps especially for the bishops, but also for all who care about the Catholic Church. But just as Lent ends in Easter, the reports brought with them the hope that the Church will rise purified and stronger from the crisis and scandal of the past two years.

How did these reports come to be?

When the bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, in Dallas in June 2002, they established an Office for Child and Youth Protection to be monitored by a Review Board, including parents. Its mandate: "To understand the problem more fully and to enhance the effectiveness of our future response, the National Review Board will commission a comprehensive study of the causes and context of the current crisis. The Board will also commission a descriptive study, with the full cooperation of our dioceses/eparchies, of the nature and scope of the problem within the Catholic Church in the U.S., including such data as statistics on perpetrators and victims."

To get the statistical data, the National Review Board turned to the highly acclaimed John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. The Review Board wrote its own report to provide an interpretation of those statistics. A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States is the first part of a more comprehensive study that will take several years to complete. The two reports were released simultaneously last week at a packed news conference. Washington attorney Robert S. Bennett headed the National Review Board's research committee, which wrote its report.

(In a Feb. 27 statement, Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde said release of the studies "shines a light on the past" and "will help to build a stronger safer church." Unlike the diocesan compliance report issued in January, the John Jay report is an aggregate report with no diocese-by diocese breakdown. Nonetheless, Bishop Loverde and many other bishops had shared with the people of their dioceses the statistics which they had reported to the John Jay researchers (see ACH 2/19/04). The records showed that since the Arlington Diocese was established in 1974, nine of 891 diocesan and religious priests who have served in the diocese, or 1 percent, were accused of sex abuse of minors by 11 victims. All of the alleged incidents occurred before 1994 and no cases are currently pending against the diocese).

"The terrible history recorded here today is history," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "We have nothing to fear from the truth or from the past if we learn from it."

The John Jay report does not make for pleasant reading. The Review Board's accompanying report contextualizing the John Jay statistics is quite critical of some bishops and other church officials and pulls no punches in describing the fallout from the scandal.

"This is a failing not simply on the part of the priests who sexually abused minors but also on the part of those bishops and other church leaders who did not act effectively to preclude that abuse in the first instance or respond appropriately when it occurred. These leadership failings have been shameful to the Church as both a central institution in the lives of the faithful and a moral force in the secular world, and have aggravated the harm suffered by victims and their families," the National Review Board said.

"Narrowly defined, the nature of the current crisis is twofold: It consists both of the sexual abuse of minors by the clergy and the failure of so many Church leaders to respond appropriately to that abuse. But the crisis also has a spiritual dimension, for, as is the case with all sinful conduct, it represents a failure to comport with divine law and the teachings of the Church. Unless all aspects of the crisis are addressed forthrightly, any steps to remedy it will bear only the patina of reform and renewal."

According to the board, while it is not possible to pinpoint any one "cause" of the problem of sexual abuse of minors by priests, there were two overarching contributing factors: because dioceses and orders did not screen candidates for the priesthood properly, many sexually dysfunctional and immature men were admitted into seminaries and later ordained. Since seminaries did not form candidates for the priesthood adequately, seminarians were not prepared for the challenges of the priesthood, particularly the challenge of living a chaste, celibate life.

"In addition," the board continued, "although neither the presence of homosexually-oriented priests nor the discipline of celibacy caused the crisis, an understanding of the crisis is not possible without reference to these issues. There are, no doubt, many outstanding priests of a homosexual orientation who live chaste, celibate, lives, but any evaluation of the causes and context of the current crisis must be cognizant of the fact that more than eighty percent of the abuse at issue was of a homosexual nature. Likewise, celibacy does not cause sexual abuse; but the Church did an inadequate job both of screening out those individuals who were destined to fail in meeting the demands of the priesthood, and of forming others to meet those demands, including the rigors of a celibate life."

The report offers a list of reasons Church leaders responded so poorly to the problem over many years. Essentially they boil down to a failure to understand the seriousness of the problem and the devastating effects of sexual abuse, paying too much heed to questionable advice from therapists and lawyers, not sharing information with one another, and, ironically, a fear of scandal.

The board's recommendations for the future include enhanced screening, formation and oversight; increased sensitivity in responding to allegations of abuse; greater accountability of bishops and other church leaders; improved interaction with civil authorities; and meaningful participation by the faithful in the Church.

The board said it was encouraged by the historic steps that the bishops have taken over the last two years to deal with the problem of sexual abuse. Justice Anne M. Burke of the Illinois Court of Appeals, the board's interim chair, gave a moving tribute at the news conference to the overwhelming majority of priests in this country who "have led honorable lives of dedication to the Church and her people."

The John Jay, National Review Board, and Audit reports can be found on the USCCB Web site,

Ryan is a communications official with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.


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