Sexual Abuse by Catholic Priests -- Next Steps
By Thomas G. Plante
San Francisco Chronicle [United States]
Downloaded March 5, 2004
There was a lot to learn from the release last Friday of reports on clergy sexual abuse in the American Catholic Church. The much anticipated document from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York stated that 4,392 priests (4 percent of the U.S. total) sexually victimized 10,667 children during the past 52 years. The report noted that 81 percent of the victims were boys, with two-thirds being teenagers. Most of the abuse occurred in the 1970s (70 percent of the offending priests were ordained on or before 1970), with significant declines by the 1980s and 1990s. In a separate report also commissioned by American Catholic bishops, the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, composed of lay persons, chastised the bishops for how they dealt with child-abuse allegations over the years.
How do we put these numbers in perspective? Tragically, the best available data from both the federal government and a number of independent researchers suggest that sexual victimization of children is neither rare nor confined to the Catholic Church. In fact, about 20 percent of American women and 15 percent of American men report that they were victims of child sexual abuse, with about 80 percent reporting that the abuse was perpetrated by a family member. Sexual abuse by other groups of men who have regular unsupervised contact with and power over children appears to occur at levels similar to those associated with priests. About 5 percent of school teachers, for instance, have sexually victimized a student; 15 percent of Americans report being the target of sexual misconduct by a teacher while in primary or secondary school. Apparently, other groups also need to conduct their own John Jay study.
We naturally expect better behavior from religious leaders such as priests than from other men, however. Furthermore, we expect that church officials would deal with sexual abuse allegations with concern, responsibility and stellar ethics. Tragically, we have come to realize that some priests and bishops behaved very badly.
The frequent recent reminders of the clergy sexual abuse problem in the American Catholic Church can't feel very good for anyone. Victims and their families are often retraumatized and thwarted in their attempts to heal and move on with their lives. The 96 percent of priests who have not abused children as well as average Catholics in the pews once again feel saddened, depressed and angry. They must find ways to make sense of such horrific behavior among their clergy as well as defend their faith tradition from frequent attacks, ridicule and jokes.
The often remarkable and impressive pastoral work of the Catholic Church helping the poor and marginalized of society in its efforts to create a more humane, just and ethical world and to follow the Gospels and the teachings of Jesus have been severely compromised. Many wonder if the church can ever regain or re-earn its moral authority.
Actually, there is hope for a better and stronger American Catholic Church. The church has an opportunity to develop a model program for policies and procedures to protect children and families from potential exploitation. Some of these improvements have already started:
-- Awakened laity: The emerging Voice of the Faithful and other Catholic lay groups have recently demanded more checks and balances and accountability in their church.
-- Lay review boards: These new boards operate in all dioceses and serve as another excellent step in the right direction. I serve on several of these boards, which include women, parents, abuse victims as well as mental-health, legal and law-enforcement professionals, along with some non-Catholics. These boards review all allegations of misconduct not only by priests but by all church employees.
-- Watchdogs and victim-advocacy groups: The watchdog activities of the media and victim-advocacy groups such as SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) have also made it much more difficult for priests and church officials to make decisions without observation and accountability.
-- Psychological screening and treatment: Screening and selection of applicants to the priesthood (who now generally enter seminary around the age of 30, compared to their teens during previous generations) improve the chances of psychologically healthy men entering religious life following more mature psychosexual development. Today, the church can use state-of-the-art research and clinical techniques to minimize potential sex offenders from entering the ministry and act quickly when someone engages in sexual misconduct.
The church has an opportunity to tap from the best that the faith tradition has to offer and behave in an ethical and moral manner. Only when it does can it regain the moral authority to be a light in an often dark world.
Thomas G. Plante is a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University and editor of both "Bless Me Father for I Have Sinned: Perspectives on Sexual Abuse Committed by Roman Catholic Priests" (Greenwood, 1999) and "Sin Against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church" (Greenwood, 2004).
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