Roman Catholic Church Discusses Abuse of Children by Priests

By Jonathan Friendly
New York Times
May 4, 1986

Faced with more than 40 cases in the last two years of Roman Catholic priests accused of sexually abusing children, church officials in this country are beginning to talk openly about the problem.

More than 100 priests and members of religious orders from the East Coast met Tuesday in Morristown, N.J., to discuss what the church could do for victims and for offenders. A similar meeting for bishops was held late last year in Collegeville, Md., and one for priests was held earlier this year in Arlington, Va.

[Photo caption: Photo of Roman Catholic priests and members of religious orders at meeting (NYT/F.N. Kinney)]

[Photo of the same event, from Canon Lawyers Discuss Variety of Topics at Regional Conference, by Andy Rodriguez, Beacon (May 8, 1986).]

The cases involved a ''minuscule'' percentage of the nation's 44,000 priests but ''it is the most serious problem we in the church have faced in centuries'' because of its implications for the church's moral leadership, credibility and finances, said the Rev. Thomas P. Doyle.

Father Doyle, who is assigned to the Apostolic Nunciature, or Vatican embassy in Washington, spoke at the Morristown meeting, a regional conference of the Canon Law Society. The society is an organization for lawyers who practice church law. Sexual abuse of children by priests was a major topic of the meeting. Father Doyle, who has dealt extensively with the issue, said that 40 to 50 priests had been accused of such offenses in the last two years. Some have been convicted, some admitted the charges and some cases are still pending.

Incidents in Louisiana

A highly publicized incident in Lafayette, La., two years ago forcefully brought the problem to the attention of church officials.

Gilbert Gauthe, a 41-year-old parish priest there, confessed that he had raped or sodomized at least 37 children. He was expelled from the priesthood and sentenced to 20 years in prison. The parish and its insurance companies expect to pay at least $10 million to the families of the children.

F. Ray Mouton, a lawyer for Mr. Gauthe, told the Morristown conference that the case had encouraged criminal complaints and civil suits by victims of other priests. He said most insurers canceled coverage for churches for sexual abuse after the Gauthe case became widely known. But the most threatening issue is ethical rather than financial or legal, he said.

''The Roman Catholic church cannot credibly exert moral authority externally in any area where the public perceives it as incapable of maintaining moral authority internally,'' he said.

Dealings With Authorities

The case has prompted church officials to reconsider their relationships with law-enforcement officials, the speakers said. Mr. Mouton noted that the church could no longer assume that a prosecutor would not bring charges or that a judge would deal leniently with a priest or allow the parish to handle the matter itself.

Further, many states have strenghtened laws requiring adults who know of child abuse to report it to health or law-enforcement officials, and church leaders are making new efforts to alert parishes to obey the laws.

The speakers said they did not know how many cases were pending against priests. ''New cases arise daily,'' Mr. Mouton said, adding that two more were disclosed Monday. Correcting him, Father Doyle held up three fingers.

Mr. Mouton and Father Doyle said diocesan officials should keep separate files on allegations of sexual abuse and said references to incidents in which charges were never proved should be removed from personnel files to protect the rights of priests.

Lawyers in the Gauthe case used church files to show that the priest admitted previous incidents of sexual abuse before he was transferred to Lafayette and that his superiors knew of the earlier problems.

'Moral Judgmentalism' on Sex

Father Doyle said that when a case of abuse has been proved church officials should disclose it to parishoners rather than secretly shuttle an offender to another parish, as he said they often did in the past. He said that the desire to avoid publicity, coupled with ''extreme moral judgmentalism in matters of sex,'' hampered efforts to solve problems with sexual abuse, which he said were inevitable.

Father Doyle said the first priority should be to provide counseling help to restore the victim's and the parish's faith in the church. He said church officials too often did nothing because they feared admitting the problem would lead to a lawsuit.

He also cautioned against trying to bully a family into dropping a complaint. ''You don't send some imperious cleric out there to show them how bad they should feel about dragging the church's name through the mud,'' he said.

Links to Other Problems

Another conference speaker, Dr. Stephen Montana, a psychologist at St. Luke's Institute in Washington, said sexual abuse of children was no more common among priests than it was among many groups that dealt with children. He said that among priests it was commonly homosexual rather than heterosexual and it was usually linked to other behavioral problems, including alcoholism.

He said there were no effective techniques to screen out potential abusers of children before they are admitted to a seminary. He added that, because sexual orientation could not usually be changed, priests who were sexually attracted to children should never be allowed to work with them.


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