on Cases of Clergy Sex Abuse
By Martha Sawyer Allen
At a time when religious institutions are becoming more adept at helping victims of clergy sex abuse, there is a growing backlash against the overwhelming number and nature of such cases.
There is even a new term for it: "The Bernardin factor."
People who work on cases of sexual misconduct by the clergy are starting to say that enough is enough. People are too willing to sue churches and too many false cases are being filed, some claim. They contend that too many highly publicized cases based on sketchy or tainted evidence are poisoning the well of serious efforts to cleanse churches of the vestiges of clergy sexual misconduct.
Many worry that the more speculative cases are damaging the atmosphere and discouraging legitimate victims from coming forward. Many also blame the news media for sensationalizing the cases. And others worry that the church's main job - ministry - has been irreparably damaged.
The case that has brought all of this out is the recent lawsuit filed against the cardinal of Chicago's Roman Catholic archdiocese, Joseph Bernardin, a scion of the liberal-progressive wing of the U.S. church and an internationally revered theologian.
A former theologian has claimed that Bernardin sexually abused him once while serving as the archbishop in Cincinnati in the mid-1970s. The cardinal has denied the charge.
Church and civic leaders and average churchgoers whose faith has been shaken by cases like that of former priest James R. Porter have stood in defense of the cardinal.
Some people are comparing Bernardin's case to the one involving Bishop Gerald O'Keefe, of Davenport, Iowa, who was accused of molesting two women while serving as a priest in the Twin Cities in the 1960s. O'Keefe denied the charges, and the lawsuits were withdrawn last summer.
Patrick Schiltz, a Minneapolis lawyer who defends religious institutions in sex abuse cases, says people from around the country have called him about O'Keefe since Bernardin was sued.
"No one is comparing Bernardin to Porter," he said. "They're comparing him to O'Keefe." In other words, the assumption of innocence is being held for the cardinal, while Porter is guilty as charged.
This is a very delicate problem for churches. Many denominations have made extraordinary strides to help victims, to prevent further abuses, to teach the clergy the rules for appropriate behavior and to heal congregations ruptured by charges of clergy misconduct. But all denominations have been hit financially by the plethora of civil cases, and they don't have endless resources.
"Five to 10 years ago, false complaints were almost unheard of," Schiltz said. "They were real cases of serious sex abuse and some fault by the churches. But today we're getting cases that involve hugs, or glances. And the first significant number of false complaints. We're seeing many more people who telescope a whole lifetime of emotional pain and problems into one event of many years ago. These victims have far more problems and suffered far less serious abuse."
The Rev. Margo Maris, assistant to the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota and a nationally recognized leader in clergy sex abuse cases, said religious institutions "are learning how to protect their [financial] assets.
"There are individuals in positions of power who have been transformed and understand" the issues of clergy sexual abuse, she said. But "the initial shock is gone" and now leaders are asking "what to do with the aftermath."
Schiltz said: "The most significant development is that clergy sexual misconduct has given rise to the industry of victimology. It's the wedding of two populations that are overpopulated and underregulated: Lawyers and psychologists."
The term "Bernardin factor" was first coined in the liberal magazine Christian Century. Its editor, James Wall, wrote in the Dec. 1 issue: "Sexual abuse as an expression of power over children or vulnerable adults is finally receiving greatly needed public exposure. But the act of uncovering abuse is itself being abused."
While acknowledging that clergy sexual misconduct can injure people for life, Wall continued: "Like Senator [Joseph] McCarthy going one step too far with Joseph Welch, or Ross Perot bristling too often against Al Gore, the Bernardin suit may be a defining moment that could lead state legislatures to consider the 'Bernardin factor' and require civil suits against those who work in the helping professions . . . to be temporarily sealed until proven to have sufficient merit to proceed."
Wall concedes that closing court documents "is a danger." But, he adds, "legislatures have a responsibility to protect both the strong and the weak."
Jeff Anderson, a St. Paul lawyer who represents victims of clergy sexual abuse, said he believes that the current legal system protects all parties.
While religious institutions "are becoming more adept at realizing the ramifications [of clergy sexual misconduct] and in helping victims, they are also much more effective in protecting themselves," Anderson said. "They're also going to great lengths to avoid exposure of it. But they can't. It's out."
Maris, who has trained more than 50 victim advocates within denominations in Minnesota, said, "What's gotten out of hand is the spectacular [cases]. Telling the truth hasn't gotten out of hand. The church hasn't listened, so people have had to do spectacular things to be heard. . . .
"If we're really about healing, then the victims have to tell the
truth and the churches need to listen. Pastors need to listen to how their
behavior affects people. That's the truth I'm talking about, not the headlines."
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