The Bernardin Case: The Aftermath
By Andrew Herrmann
Except for handshakes.
"No two-handed handshakes. No hugs. No arms around shoulders," said the Rev. Jill Hudson, a Presbyterian church official. "And that's sad."
Sexual misconduct charges have put religious denominations of all types on guard these days. And some clergy fret that this extra caution is undermining their relationship with their congregations.
Training on sexual abuse issues is as much a standard course these days at seminaries and other religious education institutions as theology and public speaking.
"It's one of the most pressing issues churches face today," said Hudson, who conducted a seminar on sexual misconduct Friday at McCormick Theological Seminary, 5555 S. Woodlawn. About 50 ministers and seminary students of varying Protestant denominations attended.
Sexual abuse of minors gains the most attention in the Roman Catholic church -- the false allegations that Joseph Cardinal Bernardin had sexual relations with a teenager generated reports around the world. But across all denominations, most cases involve males using their position of authority to take sexual advantage of females, said Hudson, a specialist in the field of clergy and sexual abuse.
Hudson said that in the past, churches dealt with clergy sexual abuse quietly because "the attitude was 'Let's not air our dirty laundry publicly.' " Then, the "courts said, 'If you cannot discipline and control your clergy, we'll do it for you to the tune of millions of dollars' " in fines and judgments.
The latest step for religious bodies is educating clergy-to-be before they enter society.
"We can't stop the person who is intent on being a perpetrator, an abuser. There is no test," said Hudson. But instructors can educate those training for religious careers to recognize aberrant behavior in others and in themselves.
"Every time a person talks with you, they are projecting on you the nature of God, everything that is holy, and everything that is sacred," Hudson told the McCormick group. "It is your responsibility to keep things under control."
"If you are caught in an abusive situation, you can kiss your career goodbye. Churches are so afraid of the civil system now, one (inappropriate action) and you're gone," she said.
The Rev. George Clements, a Chicago priest for 34 years who now runs a drug program out of Washington, D.C., said many priests are hesitant about physically interacting with parishioners.
While he does not doubt the problem of abusive priests exists, Clements says "many innocent priests are sitting in their rectories right now just as scared as they can be because some lunatic is out there making accusations."
Clements himself was the subject of rumors about sexual misconduct, he said, though never formally charged. When he lost weight on a diet, people "whispered I had AIDS," he said. If a priest speaks publicly of fairness concerns on the issue, he is "considered one of them" -- a sex abuser, said Clements. He describes an atmosphere of "hysteria" where priests are "guilty until proven innocent."
At St. Mary of the Lake Seminary, the Archdiocese of Chicago's facility in north suburban Mundelein, all seminarians are trained on sexual misconduct issues. The courses include how to recognize forms of sexual abuse, the ethical aspects of the problem and how "perception (of actions are) as important as intention," said the Rev. Gerald F. Kicanas, seminary rector.
Kicanas said recent seminary graduates now in the field report they are "cautious and hesitant" to work with youth groups because they are worried about appearances of impropriety.
"It can be frustrating," Kicanas said.
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