The Church in Crisis: 'Painfully Candid' Report
Reveiw Board's Work Praised, Though Skeptics Question Whether Recommendations Will Be Enacted

By Joe Feuerherd
National Catholic Reporter [Washington]
Downloaded March 10, 2004

Asked his view of the causes of the clergy sex abuse crisis, the bishop, tongue firmly in cheek, told members of the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People: "If you're conservative, homosexuality is the problem; if you're liberal, celibacy is the problem. So tell me who you are, and I'll tell you what the problem is."

It's not so simple anymore, though the central findings of the review board's 145-page report are straightforward: Over the past half-century, 10,667 children were abused by 4,392 clerics because the church failed to weed out candidates unfit for the priesthood while too many bishops put other priorities, such as "fear of scandal," ahead of protecting minors.

Yet the report is nothing if not nuanced, exploring numerous explanations for the crisis beyond homosexuality and celibacy.

As the anonymous bishop, quoted in the report, knows, those who blamed gay priests for clergy sex abuse used "homosexuality" as shorthand for a broader set of concerns, including the "culture of dissent" in the post-Vatican II church and the resulting "crisis of fidelity."

Likewise, those who argued that "celibacy" was a contributing factor to clergy sex abuse didn't simply mean that unmarried men are more likely to abuse children than those with wives; celibacy, instead, is the visible representation of what many church progressives see as a closed clerical structure incapable of policing itself or unwilling to do so.

That's where the 12-member review board came in. Initial assessments of the review board's work indicate a level of common ground on a controversial issue not seen in the American church for decades.

From the church's conservative wing: "The report from the National Review Board is really a very sober, honest and painfully candid assessment of nonfeasance and malfeasance on the part of many bishops and is therefore a document that potentially represents a historic movement for possible reform in the Catholic church in the United States," Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, editor of First Things, told NCR.

And the liberals: Author Eugene Kennedy called the report "a remarkable achievement" that demonstrates the "theological sophistication" of the American laity. Fr. Donald Cozzens, author of Sacred Silence: Denial and Crisis in the Church, said the board provided an "important service to the church and to society." He said, "I hope it signals a new day for the laity, who are calling the bishops to be faithful to what they said they would do."

From the 11th floor conference room of his downtown Washington office on the Monday following the release of the report, attorney Robert Bennett drew a parallel between the work of the 12-member National Review Board and his work defending subpoenaed presidents, indicted congressmen and accused corporate chieftains.

Get the bad facts out

"I've been involved [as an attorney] in almost every scandal since Watergate," said Bennett. "One thing I have learned ... is that you get all the bad facts out, you reform, you apologize, and you move on. Otherwise it will fester. And that is a lesson that the church, at least up to this point, has not learned."

Bennett offered a harsh bottom line: "If [the bishops] had dealt with these things more forcefully, more directly, more openly, we would not have the crisis we have today."

The crisis was quantified in another study commissioned by the board, this one by a team of researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The researchers, using anonymous data provided by dioceses and religious orders, found that more than 4,392 priests abused 10,667 young people between 1950 and 2002, with the greatest number of cases occurring between 1960 and 1985. Roughly 4 percent of priests in this period had a "credible" accusation of abuse made against them, according to the John Jay report. The church has paid more than $572 million to settle abuse claims, excluding recent payments such as the $85 million settlement to victims in the Boston archdiocese.

John Jay's researchers offered the facts - what occurred? - while Bennett's committee dealt with the less quantifiable question of context: Why did it happen? How did sexual predators thrive in the priesthood, molesting children with little fear of reprisal?

Over the course of 18 months, the review board's research committee interviewed approximately 100 people who offered theories and firmly held views on the whys and wherefores of clergy sex abuse.

Among them were more than a dozen cardinals and bishops - the Vatican's Francis Arinze and Joseph Ratzinger and Americans Anthony Bevilacqua, Roger Mahony, Edward Egan, William Lori, Theodore McCarrick, Francis George, Timothy Dolan, Harry Flynn, John McCormack, Adam Maida, Sean O'Malley, Rembert Weakland and Michael Sheehan. Some bishops met alone with board members; others brought their lawyers.

Authors (Fr. Andrew Greeley, Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese, Jason Berry, Eugene Kennedy, Leon Podles, A.W. Richard Sipe and George Weigel among them) were queried. Victim advocates talked to the board, as did lawyers, psychotherapists, and government prosecutors.

Competing theories

Rather than picking and choosing among competing theories - celibacy and homosexuality being only the most prominent of the divides separating the experts - the final product reflects the broad range of opinions held by those interviewed. The report contains, it seems, something for everyone; support, if not endorsement, for nearly every informed opinion.

Homosexuality? "That 81 percent of the reported victims of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy were boys shows that the crisis was characterized by homosexual behavior." Yet, says the report, "there are many chaste and holy homosexual priests who are faithful to their vows of celibacy."

Post Vatican II confusion? "Although some witnesses told the board that pre-Vatican II "repression" led to problems and others told the board that post-Vatican II laxity led to problems, all agreed that the rapidly changing climate - from a strictly regimented atmosphere to an 'anything-goes' atmosphere - contributed to the crisis."

A crisis of fidelity? "Priests who were truly holy would not have abused young people; nor would they have allowed others to do so," the report said.

Celibacy? "There can be no doubt that while it is a gift for some, celibacy is a terrible burden for others, resulting in loneliness, alcohol and drug abuse, and improper sexual conduct." It is an area, said the board, "that demands further study."

Out-of-control seminaries? "In the 1970s and 1980s, in particular, there developed at certain seminaries a "gay subculture," and at these seminaries ... homosexual liaisons occurred among students or between students and teachers." Said the board: "The failure to take disciplinary action against such conduct contributed to an atmosphere in which sexual abuse of adolescent boys by priests was more likely."

But, said Bennett, "the most important part" of the report deals with church governance - specifically the structural and cultural flaws that allowed the church to treat the perpetrators of heinous crimes more charitably than their victims.

"An individual bishop is virtually an absolute power, they are virtually unaccountable," said Bennett. "I think that is a major cause of the problem." On this point, the report is blunt: "The exercise of authority without accountability is not servant leadership; it is tyranny."

And not a benign dictatorship, according to the review board.

Far too often, says the report, bishops minimized the crime of child sex abuse and treated victims as antagonists, protected guilty priests, and made the avoidance of scandal a top priority, "which ultimately bred far greater scandal and reputational injury."

Meanwhile, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many bishops failed to implement procedures approved by their national conference that would have mitigated the problem, while collectively they refused to gather data on the scope of the crisis.

Bishops, says the report, relied too heavily on the advice of therapists (who had a vested interest in "curing" abusive priests), and allowed diocesan lawyers to dictate strategies.

The latter point is of particular concern to Bennett.

"My personal opinion is that when you represent a client, whether that client is the Catholic church or a big company or an individual, you always have to make an informed judgment about your goals. What is to the best interest of your client? Sometime that requires aggressive tactics; sometimes that requires less aggressive tactics," said Bennett.

Not like General Motors

"But somebody has to say, "Wait a minute this is a church." This is not some corporate entity and we can't use tactics and approaches which may win the battle, but lose the war." He pointed to an example where a diocese charged a child victim of abuse with contributory negligence. "The damage of that to the church far exceeded whatever minor litigation benefit you got," said Bennett.

"You can't defend the church like you do General Motors," said Patrick Schlitz, a Minnesota attorney who has defended dioceses in abuse cases.

Administrative malfeasance has spurred troubling church-state issues, said Bennett. Pointing to settlements where bishops have accepted government oversight of some church functions, Bennett said that "any individual bishop with the advice of his lawyer can make a decision that has an impact far beyond that one diocese and can have a negative impact on the whole church. How could that be?"

"There have been some cases, like Phoenix, where the bishop stuck the people of the diocese with a "bill" for the bishop's misconduct, for the bishop's bad decisions," said Schlitz. "He was basically spending the money of innocent Catholics ... to settle the possibility of criminal charges against him."

Among the most disturbing management failures noted in the report: "There appears to have been a general lack of accountability for bishops for the reassignment of priests known to have engaged in the sexual abuse of minors." Today, says the report, "several hundred priests have been removed from ministry, but few bishops have left the episcopacy."

Further, bishops did not make use of the tools for lay involvement in diocesan management. "If the bishops had honestly used their diocesan pastoral councils and presbyteral councils to discuss the issue of priests who sexually abused young people, the advice they would have heard well may have prevented the current crisis."

What's the solution? The report includes 25 recommendations - including lay input on the selection of bishops ("The procedures currently provide for some input, but those procedures aren't being used," said Reese). Additional recommendations include enhanced screening of seminary candidates, reexamination of church litigation strategies and "improved interaction with civil authorities."

Will the bishops listen? Few are optimistic.

"I am by no means confident that they will make the basic changes that have to be made in governance," said Bennett. "And at the end of the day if they don't, I think there are going to be ... other problems."

Said Kennedy: "Their past behavior shows that they have a great capacity to absorb reports as the fog does a ship going into a harbor."

Neuhaus too eschews optimism, but argues that the bishops would be smart to take the board's advice to heart.

"Here we have for the first time a group of undoubtedly responsible top level lay leaders who have devoted almost two years ... to examining the way in which the church is governed and have ... come up with some very serious proposals which are respectful of the church's divine constitution, which are not proposed to advance an agenda ... but rather to help the bishops be the kind of leaders they are ordained to be. I don't think we've ever had this before."

He continued: "The bishops, if they are wise, will welcome this wholeheartedly, embrace it, and undergo the serious self-examination of the church's governance that the review board report calls for."

Bishops' conference president Wilton Gregory declared at a Feb. 27 news conference, "The terrible history recorded here today is history." Gregory did not provide specific information on how the bishops' conference would consider the review board report. The National Review Board, meanwhile, will shift its focus to ensuring continued diocesan compliance with the child-protection procedures established by the bishops, said Anne Burke, chair of the board. Among the priorities, said Burke, is securing additional staff for the Office of Child and Youth Protection. There are currently two professional staff members in the office.

Bennett, meanwhile, plans to resign from the review board in June, he told NCR.


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