Chapter One: Overview


When the Church is the problem, it must also be the solution. (Henson 1995)[1]

I. Introduction

In 1984 the first of many allegations of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy became public.[2] Although individual priests committed the deviant acts, the whole Catholic Church, especially the hierarchy, was “wounded” (Rossetti 1992).[3] These “unholy acts” (Wilkes 1993) threw the Church into a crisis (Berry 1992, Jenkins 1996, Secker 1993-1994). “This repulsive reality of sexual misconduct has touched, damaged, or destroyed the lives of countless victims as well as the lives and ministry of clergy, religious, and the hierarchy” (Wolf 1994, 203). It became the           “ ... S&L disaster of the Catholic Church” (Greeley 1993, 51). A sacred trust had been violated (Fortune 1989). From tabloid columnists to “60 Minutes” commentators, almost everyone had an opinion about priests accused of abuse and Church leaders who were perceived as irresponsible and culpable. A canon lawyer priest who has appeared on behalf of many victims said, “I have found that many people accept a sexually disturbed priest with much less resistance than they do when trying to accept a dishonest hierarchy”  (Doyle 1997-1998). Missing from the fray has been the voices of those directly involved—either in the abuse itself or in handling allegations of abuse. Missing has been the bishops’ interpretation and understanding of their fellow bishops’ responses to allegations of sexual molestation and abuse by their fellow priests. This study fills that gap.

The primary source data for this research are 20 U.S. Catholic Church bishops. They describe and analyze their assessment of their own and other bishops’ responses to allegations of sexual molestation and abuse of children and adolescents by members of the clergy from the 1970s to the mid-1980s, during which much of clergy abuse took place that was later made public.[4] The secondary source of data is six priest-perpetrators who are fairly typical of priests with whom the bishops had to deal.[5] The priests’ stories support much of what the bishops revealed in their interviews. For example both priest-perpetrators and bishops saw the priests’ molestation of children and adolescents as a sin, a moral failing.

At the outset it might be helpful to state what this study does not attempt to do. First, it does not evaluate the performance of individual bishops and their handling of clergy abuse cases.[6] I made no attempt to “match” priest-perpetrators’ stories with those of their bishops. The clergy abuse phenomenon have been analyzed by others more qualified than I. For a general history and assessments of the bishops’ handling of clergy abuse cases, see among many others Berry (1992), Burkett and Bruni (1993), Chinnici (1994), Connors (1992, 1994), Crewdson (1988), Flynn (1994), Fox and Berry (1993), Greeley (1992, 1993), Harris (1990), Kennedy (1993), Wilkes (1993).[7] In addition to scholarly books and essays, allega­tions of clergy abuse were reported in local newspapers covering the cities and towns in which the abuse took place. On a national level, the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) “broke ground for other media outlets in drawing attention to clergy sex scandals, in pre­senting the cases as part of a systemic problem, and by stressing the institutional contexts of the offenses” (Jenkins 1996, 15).

For the social constructionist perspective, see Jenkins (1996);[8] for an overview of clergy malfeasance, see Shupe (1995); for an assessment of the effects of priest-perpetration on the trust of Catholics in the priesthood, Church, and God, see Rossetti (1992, 1993, 1996), Harrington (1993), Dreese (1994), Connors (1994); and also for an assessment of the bishops’ response to victims and other victim-related issues, see Stiles (1988),[9] Berry (1993a), Rossetti (1996, 1997), Fortune (1989), and many others.[10] For discussion on some of the legal issues, see especially Jenkins (1996), Chopko (1992), Fedje (1990), Mitchell (1987), Quade (1992), Young (1989). For a criticism of treatment centers, see Payne (1997).

Prior to the exposure of clergy abuse of children and adoles­cents, allegations of the sexual abuse of women by clergy became public.[11] While sexual relations between priests and women have been going on for centuries,[12] it was only in the wake of the women’s movement that the abuse of women became a public issue. Some courageous bishops stepped forward. Under the aegis of Archbishop Rembert Weakland, for example, the archdiocese of Milwaukee published a handbook, Project Rachel, to assist in dealing with clergy abuse of women, and followed this with one dealing with the abuse of children and adolescents, Project Benjamin.

While individual bishops were forced to make public state­ments, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) remained silent. Finally, as more and more cases became public, Mark Chopko, legal counsel for the United States Catholic Confer­ence (USCC)[13] issued a series of short statements.[14] It was only then that the NCCB finally responded,[15] first in carefully worded statements that reflected the influences of the lawyers representing the NCCB, individual dioceses, and insurance companies,[16] and then in the publication of Restoring Trust: A Pastoral Response to Sexual Abuse, volumes I (1994) and II (1995). Both volumes have informa­tion on evaluation and treatment centers. Volume I includes a review of and commentary on diocesan policies and articles on selected topics in different areas by authors with experience in the field (Kinney 1994/1995).[17] The focus of Restoring Trust is procedural. While providing much needed information, the volumes’ primary purpose was to help the bishops and their staff “to deal pastorally”[18] with the clergy abuse issue. The volumes did a great deal to unify the bishops’ responses to allegations of abuse. Victims and their advocates would argue that responding pastorally to victims, their families, and the parish communities takes much more than sets of procedures.

II. The Organizational Culture Perspective

After the death of a charismatic leader,[19] institutionalization starts and subsequently the charisma becomes “transformed or is incorporated into the routine institutionalized structures of society” (de Haas 1938/1972, 12). One of the characteristics of the routini­zation and the subsequent institutionalization processes is the development of a common culture. The organizational culture perspective provides a “lens” through which to examine a culture, in this case the organizational ecclesial culture of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church.[20] The organizational culture perspective provides a way to go beneath the surface and to examine deeply held expectations, beliefs, assumptions, and values. No other studies have approached Catholic clergy abuse from this perspective.

The organizational culture perspective focuses on elements of the culture within an organization, such as symbols, artifacts, language, and patterns of behavior (Ott 1989; see also Schein 1984, 1985; Sathe 1985; Siehl and Martin 1984). One such artifact of the Catholic Church is its storytelling. The Catholic Church is, in fact, a storytelling organization.[21] Stories, what Harvey Cox (1976) calls the “people’s religion,” can be the key to understanding the culture of the Catholic Church. Stories, that is Old and New Testament stories as well as the stories of the participants, are a key to understanding the life of the bureaucratic, hierarchical, and patriarchal Catholic Church. Burrell (1979/1992) writes, “If one gives up the search for narratives ... one gives up the search for academic understanding” (179).

This storytelling aspect of the Catholic Church is important to this study for two reasons. First, it provides an insight into why the participants responded as they did to questions about their under­standing of clergy abuse 25 to 30 years ago. I found convincing Schank’s (1990) argument that to understand the world one needs to explain it:

In order to understand a story, a sentence, a question, or a scene, you have to explain to yourself exactly why the people you are hearing about or observing are doing what they’re doing. (6-7)

One’s explanation to oneself of events, etc. takes the form of stories that one tells first to one’s self and then to others. “Storytel­ling and understanding are functionally the same thing” (24). Schank (1990) continues:

We need to tell someone a story that describes our experience because the process of creating the story also created that memory structure that will contain the gist of the story for the rest of our lives. (155, italics in the original)

To understand what occurred during the early days of the clergy abuse cases, I had to understand the situation as did the priest-perpetrators and bishops. The actual reality of events had been translated into each participant’s “memory structure” that then became the contents for the stories that each would tell. As stated in my letters (Appendix 1) this study offered the bishops and priest-perpetrators an opportunity to tell their stories—to explain “the world” in which they had to deal with clergy abuse, an opportunity that 20 bishops and six priest-perpetrators embraced.

Second, one of the preeminent stories in the Catholic Church’s scriptural, doctrinal, and liturgical tradition is the story of forgive­ness, conversion, and repentance. In the Old Testament, sin is linked to infidelity, the breaking of the covenant relationship with God (Ex 32:1-6, Dt 9:7-21). We sin against the God whom we do not see, when we offend our neighbor whom we do see (Lv 19: 9-18, Is 1: 23-25). In the New Testament, “love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably linked” (McBrien 1994, 953; see also Mt 22:34-40; Mk 12:28-31; Lk 10:25-37). On this issue of sin and forgiveness many involved with the clergy abuse phenomenon adamantly disagree. Sin, conversion, forgiveness and redemption have been rarely discussed in depth, but these issues are an integral part of the phenomenon of clergy abuse. The most notable exception is Rossetti (1996) who argues in his book, A Tragic Grace: The Catholic Church and Clergy Sexual Abuse, that the Church’s response has been “excessively negative, legal, focused on offenders, and limited” (103). He continues, “a fully Christian perspective and response should be positive, pastoral, pro-victim, and proactive” (103, italics in original).[22] Before those involved can get to that point, they need to better understand each other. This study should advance that understanding.

A prolific storyteller, Andrew Greeley focuses on, among other aspects, the redemptive element of storytelling. Greeley (1994) argues that Catholics stay in the Church, in part, because of the stories:[23]

Catholics remain Catholic because of the Catholic religious sensibility, a congeries of metaphors that explain what human life means, with deep and powerful appeal to the total person.  The argument is not whether Catholics should leave their tradition or whether they should stay for the right reasons.  The argument is that they do stay because of the attractiveness of Catholic metaphors. (38)

These metaphors are part of what makes Catholic’s stories so attractive.  At the center is sacramentalism, “the conviction that God discloses Himself in the objects and events and persons of ordinary life” (39). Catholic stories, like Catholicism, embrace the whole human cycle. For Catholics, priests are the ones who tell the stories of birth and rebirth, of sin and salvation, of death and new life. Not only do priest tell stories; with elaborate rituals and rich pageantry they celebrate and “ … mark the passing of the year—Midnight Mass, the Easter Vigil, First Communion, May Crowning, Lent, Advent, grammar school graduation and the festival of saints” (39). Numerous bishops attested to the fact that many families of victims did not want any harm to be brought on priests who were molesting and abusing their children. While they wanted the priests removed from contact with the youth, most often they did not want them banished or punished. The priests were a part of their spiritual life.

For Schank (1990) the key to understanding ourselves (Schutz’s subjectivity) and what happens to us in our everyday life lies in the stories we tell ourselves and others. “In other words, everyday understanding is a creative process that requires you to construct explanations for behaviors and events that have occurred” (7). We do this by the scripts, which are “ … a set of expectations about what will happen next in a well-understood situation” (7).[24] Because of the new training[25] that the bishops have received, their scripts have been altered from the time of their first experiences with or exposure to clergy abuse. Schank writes that what “ … all people are doing ... is figuring out what story to tell. Thus the understanding process involves extracting elements from the input story that are precisely those elements used to label old stories in memory” (59). The labeling process Schank calls “indexing.” Schank (1990) ties his storytelling ideas to intelligence:

In sum, then, we can say that it is a normal part of intelligence to be able to find, without looking for it, a story that will help you know what to do in a new situation. It is an exceptional aspect of intelligence to be able to find stories that are superficially not so obviously connected to the current situation. If you have labeled a story in a complex fashion prior to storage, it will be available in a large variety of ways in the future. Higher intelligence depends upon complex perception and labeling. (224)

It is precisely this crucial element of how the subject perceived, stored, labeled, and later retrieved information that makes information gathered in qualitative studies subject to intense scrutiny by researchers and readers.  The “social realities have become “stories,” accounts, justifications.[26] The tasks of the researcher are to make behemoth efforts to make sure the data are reliable and have external validity.  Finally but importantly, one of the objectives is to open up the data “ ... in order to interrogate them further” (Coffey and Atkinson 1996, 30). The organizational culture perspective assisted with this task.

III. Basic Underlying Assumptions

The organizational culture perspective also focuses on elements that are germane to this study, such as norms, moral and ethical values, and basic underlying assumptions, all of which motivate, influence, and inform participants in and observers of a culture (Ott 1989).[27] Schein (1985) defines organizational culture as:

The basic assumptions—invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration—that have worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems. (9)

Basic underlying assumptions are not easily identified because they have “… dropped out of awareness (and) ... are likely to have moved out of members’ conscious into their preconscious” (Ott 1989, 42; see also Schein 1984, 1985; Sathe 1985; Siehl and Martin 1984). This is especially true for bishops, most of whom grew up in an ecclesial culture. Thirty percent of Bishops entered the seminary at age 14 or younger[28] and typically are priests for 20 to 25 years before becoming consecrated as bishops.[29] To answer a question such as “What factors did you most consider when dealing with the various abuse cases in your diocese,” the bishops relied on their underlying values and assumptions that are stored in their memory and permeate their priestly lives. This reliance on their basic underlying assumptions is similar to Schein’s (1985) coping process, which is to face “problems of external adoption and internal integration” (9).

The ecclesial milieu of the Church has the same characteris­tics as that of an institution. An institution has (1) authority and office; (2) it is governed by laws, (3) the teachings of the Pope and of the Council with the Pope and bishops are infallible[30] and (4) it is bureaucratic, that is has superiors and subordinates (Hasenhüttl 1974, 11-13). The Church is hierarchical (c: 204)[31] and traditional, and the concept of preserving the institution is reiterated in numerous encyclical letters and decrees. But, as with so many aspects of the Church’s teachings, there is an internal tension between authority and freedom.  For example, in 1964 Pope Paul VI issued Ecclesium Suam, an encyclical letter “On the Ways in which the Church Must Carry Out Its Missions in the Contemporary World.”  In it, the Pope states that the Church should adopt an attitude that is essentially dialogical (no. 58-115).  More recently Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical on ecumenism Ut Unum Sint (1995), offered a challenge “ ... to find a way of exercising the primacy, which while in no way renouncing what is essential to its mission, is nonetheless open to a new situation” (95).  Pope John Paul II wrote:

This is an immense task, which we cannot refuse and which I cannot carry out myself.  Could not the real but imperfect communion existing between us persuade Church leaders and their theologians to engage with me in patient and fraternal dialogue in which, leaving useless controversies behind, we could listen to one another, keeping before us only the will of Christ for his church ... (96)

When Bishop John Quinn (1996) responded to the Pope’s challenge in an address at Oxford, his comments were met with harsh criticism by some of his fellow bishops—few in number, but vocal.[32]  Most notably Cardinal Law’s (Boston) and Cardinal O’Connor’s (NY) harsh responses indicate how deeply rooted this “preservation of the institution” can be.[33] Some bishops demonstrate thirty years after Vatican II that some church leaders still respond institutionally to situations that cry out for pastoral responses.

The milieu, the ecclesial and organizational environment (Reese 1989a, 53-75), permeates the lives of priests and bishops (Greeley 1972a, 1972b, 1972c; Ference, Goldner, and Ritti 1970). A participant bishop (AUX5) relates what a bishop about to retire said about one aspect of his ecclesial life:

I’m going to miss Holy Week. I used to be principal celebrant. I loved the ritual, the music. You were central to it; you were involved. I won’t do ordinations—that was a big part of my time … The chrism mass on Holy Thursday, I’m going to miss that.... I’m going to miss the boards, the people I’ve met, talented, gifted people; we’ve become friends. I’m going to be out of the loop on all these kinds of things.

The vocation to the priesthood is another major underlying assumption of the Catholic Church. Vatican I (1869-1870)[34] stressed the hierarchical structure of the Church, supreme power of the pope and those who by ecclesiastical law participated in it, and episcopal power and those who participated in that power. These powers were unequal (Provost 1985, 258). The 1917 Code stressed that only clerics could obtain “the power either of orders or of ecclesiastical jurisdiction as well as benefices and pension” (quoted in Lynch 1985, 202). The power of orders came only through ordination. In 1959, Pope John XXIII issued an encyclical letter[35] that reiterated the greatness of the priesthood. He quotes his predecessor, Pius XI, on priestly holiness:

Through the character of Sacred Orders, God willed to ratify that eternal covenant of love, by which He loves His priests above all others; and they are obliged to repay God for this special love with holiness of life ... So a cleric should be considered a man chosen and set apart from the midst of the people, and blessed in a very special way with heavenly gifts--a sharer in divine power, and, to put it briefly, another Christ ... He is no longer supposed to live for himself; nor can he devote himself to the interests of just his own relatives, or friends or native land ... He must be aflame with charity toward everyone. Not even his thoughts, his will, his feelings belong to him, for they are rather those of Jesus Christ who is his life. (quoted in Sacredotii Nostri Primordia 6)[36]

Although Vatican II did a great deal to stress the interrelated­ness of the common priesthood of the faithful and the hierarchical priesthood (c: 207; De Ecclesia 10),[37] the specialness of being called to the priesthood permeated Catholic culture. “The excellence of the order of priests” (Presbyterorum Ordinis 1) was manifested in rich ceremonies of ordination to the episcopacy, the presbyterate, and the diaconate through the liturgy of words and music, the vestments, and rituals, such as the laying of hands, anointing with holy oils, and the like. From the ever-present clerical attire to “my son, the priest,” the priest was held in great esteem. This was especially true among the Irish who, while they comprised one-sixth of the American Catholic population, comprised one-third of the clergy and almost one-half of the hierarchy.[38] The overwhelming majority of priests who chose to stay in the priesthood after the large exodus of the 1960s did so because of their “sense of vocation.”[39]

Even more telling is the Church’s legal stance toward priests seeking laicization, that is, a return to the lay state. Canon 290 states: “After it has been validly received, sacred ordination never becomes invalid.” A priest can lose his cleric state (c: 290),[40] but if the priest seeks to resign after ordination, he has to agree that from the beginning his ordination was invalid. In other words, as far as ordaining a priest is concerned, the Church cannot make a mistake.[41] “Thou art a priest for ever, in the succession of Melchizedek” (Hb 7:17). To be laicized, the priest has to declare as invalid all his years of ministry. In Greeley’s (1972b) study, priests had to give their reasons for not seeking laicization. The fact that the second highest percentage (57%) was because the process was degrading (290) provides some indication, I think, of priests’ unwillingness to endure this degradation.[42] Of the six priest-perpetrators I interviewed, only one sought and received laicization. Two who had been out for between eight and ten years refused to invalidate their years of service by signing the laicization papers.

Vatican II succeeded in being an aggiornamento (revival) for the Roman Catholic Church, but the rate of the changes suggested and/or mandated by the documents varied greatly. Some were radical and took place overnight, such as saying the Mass in the native language instead of Latin with the altar and priest facing the people. Others were much slower in coming. For some, accepting their “common priesthood” beside the “ministerial priesthood” was not achieved quickly. As indicated above, the two major premises of the 1917 Code were (1) the hierarchical nature of the Church and only those with holy orders have jurisdiction, and (2) ministry is fundamentally sacramental and clerical. The Code stressed the sacredness and uniqueness of ordination, conferred by only competent ecclesial authority (Gilbert 1985, 14).[43] During the 1970s when much of the clergy abuse occurred, the laity still viewed the priests as being “above all others” as did Pius XI (see above). It is not a surprise, then, that victims and parents did not want the abusing priests to be punished, just removed from working with kids (Berry 1992).

The organizational culture perspective brought to light the basic underlying assumptions of the Catholic bishops. From the bishops’ and the priests’ data come the following research summary.

IV. Research Summary

The data from the bishops, more fully described in chapter five, have been grouped into the following three general relation­ships that are deeply interconnected:

¨     The bishops’ relationship with other bishops

¨    The bishops’ relationship with the priest-perpetrators

¨    The bishops’ relationship with the victims

First, most bishops are preeminently institutional men and their main objective, which is supported by both tradition and doctrine, is to preserve the institution of the Roman Catholic Church. As one ex-priest wrote, “bishops are not appointed to change the Church but to maintain and defend it as it is. Their first commitment as organization men is to maintain the institutional church” (Kennedy 1997/1998). They are the successors to the first Bishop, St. Peter, and to the college of the Apostles. Their episcopal consecration bestows on them the fullness of the sacrament of holy orders and gives them a permanent gift the powers to sanctify, teach, and govern. But their office of sanctifying, teaching, and governing is exercised in “hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college” (Lumen Gentium 21).  Thus the bishops “ ... in an eminent and visible way undertake Christ’s own role as Teacher, Shepherd and High Priest, and ... they act in His person” (Lumen Genitum 21). While the bishops are a heterogeneous group, and they may lack uniformity in determining “appropriate collegial action” (Lumen Genitum 21, ftn. 96), they were fairly unanimous in their agreement that the bishops acted in “good faith.” When responding to allegations of sexual abuse, the bishops felt that their actions were fulfilling their obligation to be loyal to the Roman Catholic Church.

Their deviant behavior aside, the priest-perpetrator participants also had a sense of wanting to preserve the Church.  They saw themselves as still being priests in an institution to which they were called by its founder.  Both bishops and priest-perpetrators had a sense of their vocation and part of their obligation was to do the work of the institution.

Second, an integral part of the doctrine and the tradition of the episcopacy and of the Church itself is the institution of the priesthood. The institution of the priesthood is the bedrock upon which the Church was founded and is as ancient as the institutional church.  “You are Peter (petras), the Rock; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall never conquer it” (Mt 16:18, see also Brown 1996, 189). When faced with allegations of clergy abuse, the bishops turned inward, thinking both of the Church and of the priests. Their actions were motivated by a desire to protect the Church from scandal and to help the priest repent and resolve to “sin no more.” Because of “the seal of confession,” they were scrupulous in keeping private any allegations of wrongdoing.  Little, if any, knowledge existed on the addictive nature of their behavior or its psychological dimensions. Even less consideration was given to victims.

In tandem with the above are the following generalizations:

¨    All sin was perceived as a moral failing for which the punishment was prayer, penance, and a firm resolve not to sin again

·                    will power, not treatment, was considered the remedy

·                    bishops looked at the priests’ religious not psychological motivations

·                    psychological profiles on priest-perpetrators had not been developed or were not readily available

·                    bishops did not understand the addictiveness of the priests’ attraction to children and adolescents; for example, priests that were “good with youth” were seen as a “plus;” immatur­ity was not viewed with suspicion, it was seen as “docile”

·                    confidentiality was the norm; the seal of confession bound bishop and priest, and bound as well bishop and the victims’ families

¨    Laicization was not considered an option; once ordained, a vocation to the priest was considered permanent

·             reassignment within the diocese was the norm; on occasion a priest with a problem might be sent to a neighboring diocese of a friend-bishop

·             the bishops’ treatment of the priests paralleled the way families treated their own problem children and adults

·             the Catholic population was more homogenous; the congregations were mostly immigrant, blue-collar families, with very traditional values, one of which was to respect the Church and the priesthood

The bishops’ relationships with other bishops are significantly different from that of bishop to presbyterate. The bishops “consti­tute a collegial body enjoying supreme power in governing the Church” (Lumen Gentium 22, ftn. 96). And govern they do, with autonomy. Bishops were very hesitant to indicate to other bishops any difficulties or failures they might be having in dealing with their own discipline problems. An abusing priest was seen as a weak, sinful priest; he was a discipline problem that an effective bishop would be able to handle. With the exception of contacting a neighboring bishop-friend, they were loath to make public any disciplinary matters. Thus, bishops only addressed the issue of clergy abuse when forced to by the publicity the abuses cases had garnered.

During the 1970s to the mid-1980s, the bishops’ relationship with the victim was almost nonexistent. First, bishops dealt with parents of the victims and not with the victims themselves. Second, the families of the victims asked for privacy. Rarely did they want the priest removed from the parish or from his priestly office. They just wanted the priest away from children and adolescents. Often the priest-perpetrators were very good friends of the family.[44] Rarely was there much investigation. If conflicting stories were told, bishops didn’t have investigative tools to determine culpability or reliability, etc. Most important, the psychological effects on the victims were minimized. The predominant attitude toward the young among the bishops, but also within the psychological community, was “they’ll get over it.” 

V. Time Frame of Study

The time frame of this study is the 1970s to mid-1980s.  The organizational culture perspective is especially helpful for this type of study because the details of the cases were not as important as the ecclesial, religious and moral, social, political, and legal influences on the respondents.  Although the particulars of the cases might have been forgotten, the bishops and priest-perpetrators had not forgotten the clerical culture in which the allegations were made.  For example, much of the media attention was focused on what seemed like the Church leaders’ escaping blame (Berry 1992, Burkett and Bruni 1993, Fortune 1989, among others).  Many bishops told quite another story.  In the early 1970s to mid-1980s, the families of the victims did not want the priests to be punished. One bishop, (AUX2), told of his urging the victim’s family to press charges:

But generally back then, the frustration was that the parents wouldn’t take it (the complaint of molestation) any further.  They would expect you to do something about the priest, but you wouldn’t have adequate grounds to do anything because they would not confront the priest, they didn’t want their names to be used. So you were stuck … Actually I wanted to do something about it, but I don’t know many cases back then truly got resolved. It was always people did not want to “push it.”

As indicated above, another significant cultural factor was the fact that the bishops were (and still are) autonomous. Because pre-Vatican II considered the Church a “perfect society,” bishops were expected to keep hidden anything that could cause scandal. Bishops were expected to handle discipline problems discretely and efficiently. They might have sent a diocesan priest to a religious community for a retreat, but, in the main, bishops handled their own problems. If priests were sent to see psychologists, they often returned an “OK to return to ministry” assessment (see chapter four, P-P6). This assessment coincided with the bishops’ and priests’ assessments that molestation and abuse were moral failings, sins, that were forgiven. It also underpins the findings that the bishops (and psychological community) did not understand the addictive nature of sexual molestation and abuse.

Bishops handled the cases on their own and rarely, if ever, spoke to other bishops.[45] When I asked why the NCCB had not discussed publicly at an earlier date the serious matter of clergy abuse, one bishop (B3) said,    “... we didn’t think we were going through it as seriously as we were until 1985.” (The “it” refers to the clergy abuse crisis.)

Although most of the incidents about which the bishops and priest-perpetrators in this study spoke occurred from 15 to 25 years ago, they have not forgotten how they felt, and for the bishops, they have not forgotten what it was like to be a priest. For the last ten years, bishops have been schooled by psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists, addiction specialists, victims’ advocates, and lawyers. Because of the clergy abuse scandal and the work done by the NCCB, the American bishops are now probably the most knowledge­able group in the United States on the abuse of children and adolescents by professionals. Thus, any discussion on clergy abuse would be affected by the education and training they’ve received from these experts. To side step these influences and to avoid doing an assessment of current policies and procedures, this study focuses on what occurred during the early days of the crisis, during which allegations were kept confidential.[46]

This study should advance our understanding of why the bishops so seriously misjudged the seriousness of the molestation and abuse of children and adolescents by their clergy.

VI. Significance of Study to Law, Policy, and Society

The theoretical underpinnings for this research project are multi-disciplinary. First is the organizational deviance framework. In this is study, organizational deviance focused on the Catholic Church as a normative organization, the response of its bishops to the deviant behavior of the clergy, and the priest-perpetrators involved in the molestation and sexual abuse of children. In sociology/criminology, organizational deviance literature is labeled differently and has multiple interpretations.[47] In this study the focus switched from the participatory level at which the deviance occurred to the hierarchical and bureaucratic level, which involved the bishops who were responsible for the dioceses in which the abuse occurred. Because of the strength of the organizational culture perspective and the need to simplify the final version of this study, I did not use the organizational deviance framework. However, the literature provided me with a much need understanding of deviant behavior and how this behavior is understood by the perpetrators as well as the leadership in organizations. For example, during interviews, I was conscious of any techniques of neutralization[48] used by both bishops and priest-perpetrators.

Equally important were the perspectives from political science, especially the politics of the Church,[49] and organizational theory and decision-making.[50] And clergy abuse cases highlighted the vast difference between civil and criminal law and canon law. Again, because of the strength and flexibility of the organizational culture perspective and the need to simplify, I concentrated on the relevant canons in this study and did not branch out into an examination of criminal law.

It was clear that once the clergy abuse cases became public, everything about them became highly politicized. Bishops had to use all their mental, legal, administrative, and public relations skill to respond to the cases in the public as well as private arenas. Although I used "the management of multiple identities" concept[51] only in my letters to the bishops (Appendix 1), that framework dominated my thinking from the beginning because (1) it best represented the phenomenon the bishops faced and (2) it also coincided with and was supported by the underlying principles of the law, policy, and society department of which I was a member. This study powerfully demonstrates the need for a multidisciplinary approach to complex social issues such as this.

In sum, the theoretical underpinnings of this study are strongly multidisciplinary, and these multiple frameworks as well as their accompanying literature helped in my understanding of clergy abuse and how the leaders in a normative organization responded to it socially, politically, legally, and of course morally.

VII. Summary

Dulles (1974/1978) writes, “ … at the heart of the Church one finds mystery” (21). The concept of “mystery” permeated the documents of Vatican II, beginning with “The Mystery of the Church,” Chapter 1 of the Constitution on the Church. The Church, a “divine reality inserted into history” (Lumen Gentium, 14, ftn. 1), is a paradoxical union. Dulles (1974/1978) writes that the mystery of Christ in the Church is a “ … union of the human with the divine, begun in Christ, (and) goes on in the Church” (22). This going "on in the Church” is what makes this institution also a human institution. Its members, from the Pope to the newly baptized, are human beings beset with weaknesses. While most Church leaders do not want to focus on the weakness of its leadership, weakness and sin are a part of the Church. The weaknesses of the Church are part of the mystery of the Church.

The Church is also a social services institution. Its essence is ministry, or the apostolate. Its present day apostles—bishops, priests, deacons and the laity[52]—are “sent by God” to serve others (see Congar 1967, 3-13).[53] Like others social institutions, its members struggle with “doing good” and the same time “being good.” The expectation of society is that those who work in the social services bring something “special” to their work. Members of the armed services are expected to be “officers and gentlemen,” law enforcement officers are expected to “defend and protect.”  Youth group leaders, such as coaches, are expected to exemplify fair play and graciousness in defeat. Boy Scouts leaders are expected to live according to their oath to keep themselves “morally straight.” Those involved in the health care industry, especially in therapeutic situations, are expected to “do no harm.” Educators, especially those who deal with youth, are expected to teach their students by words and deeds. Priests and ministers are expected to be “holy men” who hold sacred the trust that is so generously extended to them. Society as a whole, and specifically victims, expect accountability from the individuals who violate the trust bestowed on them, and even more so from the institutions they represent.

This tension within the Church between the “human” and the “divine” sets the tone for the study that is to follow. In chapter two, the literature review focuses on the Church as a social institution and its priests, who have sacred orders, but are also street-level bureaucrats (Lipsky 1980). Chapter four presents data from priest-perpetrators, and chapter five analyzes and interprets the data from bishops who are the leaders of a human and divine institution. They are called to serve the hierarchical institution and to minister to priests and laity, the needs and goals of which are often in conflict. Chapter six assesses how well the bishops served the Church, its priests, and the laity. It assesses the Church as a social institution with a moral mandate to serve not only the faithful, but also its presbyterate. It assesses how well the institutional Church lives up to what it proclaims to be.


[1] Quoted in The ISTI Sun, 1995, 1. (Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute). See also Shupe (1995, ftn. 6).

[2] Rev. Gilbert Gauthe admitted to having (1) sex with older boys when he was young, (2) molested four boys at his first parish, (3) sex with 11-14 year old boys every few weeks after attending eight church-paid counseling sessions, (4) molested 35 boys and one girl, and (5) no remembrance of their names when read to him. In the same case, church leaders admitted to knowing about his predilection for having sex with young boys, transferring and promoting him to pastor in a rural area where he was alone for six years, and knowing for the past dozen years about “sexual aberrations” among its seminarians and diocesan priests.

[3] See Abbreviations and Conventions for how terms are handled in this study.

[4] During this time, initial decisions were made on how to handle the allegations. Now both sets of participants have been greatly influenced by the public’s response to abuse, the knowledge they’ve gained about abuse and its effects, and the diocesan policies instituted to handle abuse case. I did my best to keep them focused on the earlier time period. Most were pleased to have the opportunity to discuss the ecclesial culture of 25 to 35 years ago.

[5] Data from the six priest-perpetrators are not given the same “weight” as the data from the bishops. My findings are reported in chapters four and five, respectively.

[6] In general, prior to the mid-1980s when the first clergy abuse cases became public, dioceses did not have written procedures and policies to handle the deviant behavior of the clergy other than those prescribed in canon law (cc: 1311-1399). In general, cases were handled on an individual basis—those involving diocesan priests by the diocesan bishop. Those involving religious priests were handled by their religious superiors, unless a religious priest was working in any kind of pastoral work, in which case the diocesan bishop would have a “broad range of authority” (Doyle 1997, 2).

[7] See an editorial response to Wilkes’ essay, “Sins of a Father,” America, 6/19/93, 3.

[8] The social constructionist perspective is a complementary approach to the organizational culture perspective as both pay attention to multiple factors that affect the definition, construction, treatment, and evaluation of any problem or crisis (Spector and Kitsuse 1987). To the constructionists concepts are not clear cut and “given” in nature; rather they are socially and culturally constructed. See Jenkins’ Pedophilia and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (1996) for a much-needed social construction perspective of clergy abuse. It examines the generation of the clergy abuse problem, including constituencies such as the anti-Catholic tradition, the media, and claims-makers and interest groups, which include feminists and the legal community. For the constructionist and claims-making perspectives, see Spector and Kitsuse (1987) for an overview; see Best (1987, 1990) and Pfohl (1977) on child abuse.

[9] Assault on Innocence (1988) was published under the pseudonym Hilary Stiles, who later revealed herself as Jeanne Miller, the mother of a boy abused by a priest (Chicago diocese). Miller founded Victims of Clergy Abuse Linkup, and later simply The Linkup (VOCAL). See Burkett and Bruni (1993) and Jenkins (1996) for description and analysis. Barbara Blaine founded Survivors Network of the Abused by Priests (SNAP).

[10] The most comprehensive bibliography is the ISTI Bibliography published by the Institute of Spiritual Therapy and Information (ISTI), edited by Roman Paur, OSB, Collegeville, MN: St. John’s Abbey and University, 1996. (See or

[11] See especially Marie Fortune (1983, 1989/1992), Horton and Williamson (1988). 

[12] See Sexuality in the Confessional: A Sacrament Profaned, Stephen Haliczer, (1996) for an in-depth examination of case studies and trial documents of the sexual misconduct of priests and penitents during the time of the Counter-Reformation (1530-1819). Haliczer describes the punishment for priests who commit sexual sins, and he also describes the life of priests and their congregations during this time in the Church’s history.

[13] An administrative body that serves the American bishops, the USCC “is a civil entity ... assisting Bishops ... where voluntary, collective action on a broad interdiocesan level is needed” (OCD 1992, A-72).

[14] “USCC Pedophilia Statement,” Origins 17(36) (February 18, 1988), 624. See also Human Rights, Fall 1992, 19(4): 22-29. See Shannon (1993) for the role of the lobbying efforts of the USCC.

[15] See, for example the Administrative Committee’s one-page “Statement on Child Abuse Released by the Administrative Committee,” (Washington, DC, November 5, 1989. In addition to having Origins publish the NCCB/USCC’s public statements, the second part of NCCB meetings were open to the public and were covered by many reporters for the media, including among others the Associated Press, Time, Newsweek, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. For an analysis of the media and clergy abuse, see Jenkins (1996, chapter 4) and Rossetti (1996, chapter 1).

[16] Bishops’ interviews, Doyle (1997/1998).

[17] Articles written especially for the volume include the following topics: pedophilia, outside counsel, victims, abuse of power, diocesan attorneys, recovered memory, parishes, insurers, treatment, and recidivism.

[18] See letter (Volume II, Restoring Trust) from Bishop John F. Kinney, Chairman, Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse.

[19] Weber (1922/56) wrote about the three different types of authority—the traditional, the charismatic, and the bureaucratic. He focused primarily on the latter, but it is the charismatic leader and his followers that are of interest in this study.

[20] The organizational culture perspective was more appealing than an organizational culture, per se, of the Catholic Church. The organizational culture paradigm focuses on the sociological, political, and economic factors within the culture. Also, for a study involving the Catholic Church, beyond these theoretical frameworks, there exists theological and ecclesiological frameworks, the scriptures, and papal and episcopal documents and decrees. Even an exhaustive examination of all these elements might easily have left unexamined deeply held values and norms that have been passed down for generations and have become translated into underlying basic assumptions. The organizational culture perspective focuses on what has become incorporated into the fabric of bishops’ lives.

[21] See Boje (1991, 1995) for the storytelling organizations. See Holstein and Gubrium (1995) for treating the interview respondents as storytellers or narrators and the interview as active/interactive processes. See Schutz (1967) for viewing the subjects as possessing a “stock of knowledge” that is substantive, reflexive, and emergent. See Foucault (1978) for viewing the experience of the respondent as a “history of the present” (31).  See Schank (1990) for the effects of storytelling in the development of real and artificial memory.

[22] I argue later that the church’s response, while it may have appeared to be protective of the priest was actually protection of the institution of the priesthood and the institution of the Church.

[23] American Catholics stay, first, because of a “remarkable loyalty to their religious heritage” (39).  Religion matters. Greeley (1994) argues, this heritage is more than “institutional authority, doctrinal propositions, and ethical norms, it has great stories” (39).

[24] See also Scripts, Plans, Goals, and Understanding: An Inquiry into Human Knowledge Structure, in which Roger C. Schank and Robert P. Abelson (1977) explore how and why humans use scripts in their acquisition of knowledge.

[25] The NCCB first discussed clergy abuse at its annual meeting in 1985, Collegeville, MN. Then in May 1992, the Priestly Life and Ministry Committee sponsored a Think Tank meeting of 20 or so experts in various fields. The Priestly Life and Ministry Committee and the NCCB decided a separate committee was needed, and the Bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse was formed.

[26] See Coffey and Atkinson (1996, 99-105), Granfield and Koenig (1992), Scott and Lyman (1968), Potter and Wetherell (1987), Sykes and Matza (1957).

[27] Ott (1989) distinguishes between beliefs and basic assumptions. “Beliefs are conscious and can be identified” (42). Basic assumptions have moved to the recesses of the mind (42). If I had asked the bishops about their beliefs concerning the Church and clergy abuse, they would have provided doctrinal and legislative (canon law) responses, but they most likely would not have revealed deeply rooted assumptions about the priesthood and moral failings.

[28] The ages at which the bishops entered the seminary: 14 and under--30%; 15 to 17--15%; 18--15%; 19 to 20--30%; over 21--9% (not 100% because of rounding) (Greeley 1972b; 40).

[29] In 1971, 68% of the bishops were over 55 years of age. None were between 26-35; 3% were between 36-45; and 29% were between 46-55. Active priests were 25% (26-35 years); 30% (36-45 years); 22 % (46-55 years); and 23% (over 55) (Greeley 1972b, 24).

[30] For a discussion infallibility, see cc: 749, 205, 331; Lumen Gentium 25 and Dei Verbum 19.

[31] Chapter 3, Lumen Gentium 18-29 describes the hierarchical structure of the Church. It’s significant that this chapter comes after the one on the People of God and begins by stating bishops, those with sacred power, “are servants of their brethren” (18).

[32] Quinn delivered his Campion Hall centennial lecture at Oxford, 6/29/96. See Commonweal 7/12/96 for his lecture and 8/16/96 for some responses.

[33] See Hoyt, "O'Connor on Quinn," Commonweal 9/13/96, 2.

[34] Vatican I , which was under the leadership of Pius IX, was interrupted by Vittorio Emmanuele’s entry into Rome, and many changes were abandoned, including “much-needed reform to canon law” (Alesandro 1985, 4).  Years later, Pius X initiated the gathering together of all laws in the Latin Church. It took 13 years to accomplish this task. The resulting Codex Iuris Canonici (CIC), also referred to as the 1917 Code, was promulgated by Benedict XV in 1917. Although its 2,414 canons were modeled on 19th century civil law codes and had 25,000 citations of former texts, CIC was the “most radical revision of law ... (and) the most centralized and clearest system of universal legislation the Church has ever know” (4). Interestingly, even though the Pope urged the publication of just “instructions,” or explanations and interpretations, the Church’s legal system grew “once again complicated, confusing, and unwieldy” (4).

[35] Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, on the 100th anniversary of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of “pastors.”

[36] In Sacerdotii Nostri Primordia, from Pius XI’s Acta Apostolicae Sedia, Acts of the Apostolic, 1958. (

[37] See also Mediator Dei.

[38] See Greeley (1972b) for ethnicity of priests. For diocesan bishops, active priests, and resigned priests respectively, by father’s ethnicity: Irish: 49%, 39%, 34%; German or Scandinavian: 25%, 24%, 29%. For religious superior, priests, and resigned: Irish: 38%, 34%, 35% and German or Scandinavian: 21%, 25%, 25%. Only 17% of all American Catholic males were Irish (29).

[39] For rates and numbers of resignees, see Greeley (1972b, 276-279).

[40] A priest could lose his clerical state: (1) by having his orders declared invalid; (2) as a penalty of dismissal; and (3) a rescript of laicization granted by the Apostolic See (Lynch 1985, 229-235).

[41] This is very similar to the Church’s stand on marriage and annulments. The major part of Sheila Rausch Kennedy’s argument was that in granting an annulment to her ex-husband, Rep. Joseph Kennedy Kennedy, the Catholic Church was nullifying their sacramental marriage. See Crowe (1996).

[42] The highest (67%) was because “laicization was irrelevant to the priest.” The most frequent reasons were coded, thus percentages do not equal 100.

[43] The 1917 Code sought to control admission to the hierarchy of orders and to stem admission by the will of the people or by secular authority, both of which had occurred in the past (Gilbert 1985, 714).

[44] Guilfoyle (1995) and Kraskoukas (1995), among others, were close friends of priests who ended up abusing their son and daughter, respectively.

[45] Repeatedly I asked bishops if they spoke to other bishops, and unanimously they said they did not. One or two said they might have called a neighboring bishop-friend to “run it by him.” Almost all bishops said that bringing up at the NCCB meeting malfeasance of any kind would have been seen as a weakness and as their inability to handle their own discipline problems. Interestingly, fiscal malfeasance was apt to be handled more swiftly, but even that was not easy to detect because of the autonomy of the dioceses (See Shupe 1995).

[46] The focus of the organizational culture perspective is not on the incidences of abuse, per se, but on the milieu in which the decisions were made on how to handle allegations of clergy abuse. On a practical level, bishops would not have spoken to me if my research objectives included information on individual cases.

[47] This varies slightly with the typical sociological use, which is the organization’s own deviant behavior or complicity with members’ criminal behavior (Vaughan 1983, Sherman 1980). Organizational deviance is used somewhat interchangeably with criminal elite, elite or professional deviance (Simon and Eitzen 1982, Coleman 1985) and corporate crime and corporate deviance (Clinard and Yeager 1980), and organizational deviance (Raelin 1994).

[48] For more on techniques of neutralization, see Sykes and Matza (1957), Matza (1964), Agnew and Peters (1986), Agnew (1994).

[49] See especially Byrnes (1991, 1993); Gelm (1994); Metz (1971); Menedez (1993); Bellah (1991, especially “The Public Church”); Shannon (1993); and Segers (1990).

[50] See also Weber’s work on economics and social organization (1974), on charism, bureacracy and institutional building (1968), as well as some who have sought to explain his theories (Bendix 1946, Constas 1958).

[51] See Cheney (1985, 1991).

[52] There are two sacred ministers in the Catholic Church--one is called “clerics in the law” and the other “Christian faithful, who are also called laity” (c: 207). The former receive the sacrament of orders. There is one sacrament of orders, but there are three grades of orders: the episcopacy, the presbyterate, and the diaconate (cc: 1008, 1009). See Schillebeeckx (1985) for a discussion on this tripartite division (260-265).

[53] Congar (1967) describes the added dimension of serving with love, or agape. “The soul of the apostolate, what sets in motion this great missionary sequence that has it origins in the Father, and sets in motion all mission in the Church, starting from the Father and passing through Christ and the apostles, is agape” (5).