Rebuilding Trust, Part 2
What Becomes of Abusive Priests?

By Scott Westcott [Pennsylvania]
Downloaded June 30, 2003

At the height of the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the spring of 2002, Catholic Diocese of Erie officials met with a nationally known expert on pedophilia.

They discussed the possibility of the diocese using a more stringent method to identify child molesters in the priesthood.

The expert, Erie urologist Justine Schober, M.D., characterized the meeting as productive. She was under the impression there would be further discussion.

She is still waiting.

"I never heard from them again," Schober said in a recent interview. "I don't know why."

Monsignor Michael Gaines said via e-mail that at the 2002 meeting diocesan officials recommended that Schober and other researchers confer with representatives from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, who were dealing with the pedophilia issue on a national level.

Gaines, vicar of the Western Vicariate and director of the diocese's office of clergy personnel, said he did not know if the connection was ever made between the researchers and the bishops' group.

Schober said she is disappointed that her dialogue with church officials ended. She said she's confident her expertise could have helped the Erie diocese and others around the country better understand and confront the problem of priests who sexually abuse minors.

"In my mind, putting the most technologically advanced methods to use and having the newest information available would have been advantageous," Schober said. "It would have been a good-faith effort on the part of our local diocese."

Schober said she could have helped address a range of issues - issues that are emerging as central in the clergy sexual abuse scandal that continues to haunt the church.

Debate rages over how successful treatment and therapy can be at preventing abusive priests from victimizing more children. And with dioceses across the country adopting zero-tolerance policies against abusive priests, questions remain about what should be done with those who are removed from the ministry.

"There has been discussion about the church's ongoing responsibility for these people, especially when they are in their 70s or 80s," said Cheryl Bates, spokeswoman for the Erie diocesan review board. "When a priest of 50 or 60 years who knows nothing but church life is no longer considered a priest, how does that individual make his way in the world and care for himself? I'm sensitive to the view he should have thought of that before he began a pattern of behavior, but that doesn't bring us any closer to a humane decision."

The Catholic Diocese of Erie declined to comment on the status of priests who have been removed from ministry. The diocese has also rejected calls for full disclosure that would publicly state the names and whereabouts of abusive priests.

That policy angers Donald O'Hara of Saegertown, whose grown son claims that when he was an altar boy in the late 1970s he was molested by the Rev. Chester J. Gawronski.

Gawronski was removed from the ministry in 2002 by Bishop Donald W. Trautman. O'Hara said diocesan officials told him within the past few months they did not know Gawronski's whereabouts.

"To quote the bishop, 'that is outrageous,'" O'Hara said. "What does that say about the empathy of the hierarchy? It just boggles my mind to have (accused priests) just roam around anywhere."

Behind all the research, rhetoric and controversy lies a simple question: How likely are abusive priests to re-offend after they have been removed or resigned from the ministry?

The answer is elusive. For decades, many Catholic dioceses, including the Diocese of Erie, have sent priests who have sexually abused children to the St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md.

There, the priests undergo an intensive blend of treatment that includes medication, 12-step and group therapy, and progressive music and art therapy. The Rev. Stephen Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute, claims the facility has a high success rate with priests who undergo the treatment and then stick with ongoing therapy and supervision.

An internal study of more than 450 priests who underwent the center's six-month treatment program between 1985 and 1995 showed only three of the men relapsed - a conclusion based on reports from the men themselves, church supervisors or law enforcement officials.

Some question the validity of those statistics. Gary Schoener, a Minnesota psychologist who has closely studied the Maryland center, said St. Luke's close relationship with the church makes it difficult to accurately assess the success rate of its treatment methods.

Schoener's research uncovered inherent flaws in the program. He found that because the Catholic Church was such a large client, St. Luke representatives had a tendency to tell church officials what they wanted to hear.

Even more troubling, he said, was that local dioceses often did not conduct detailed investigations into abuse claims - thus hampering professionals trying to tailor treatment to an individual priest's problem.

"The problem before and the problem today is they don't start out with enough data," Schoener said. "These offenders tend to lie a great deal. What offenders often do if you put them in treatment, they have a tendency to admit to what you know, and don't say anything more. That is not enough to treat the problem."

Schober, the expert on pedophilia from Erie, offers more sobering statistics on the likelihood of an offender molesting again.

"If a person is in therapy, the recidivism rate is 25 percent and every year distanced from that therapy the recidivism rises," Schober said. "If they are not in therapy one would expect an extremely high recidivism rate."

Schober said the current trend in treatment combines drug therapy, testing, intense psychological counseling and vigilant supervision to curb the impulses and actions of child molesters.

"It is my opinion that sexual orientation is fixed," Schober said. "One might be able to modify libido and suppress arousal and desire, but I am yet to see someone's sexual orientation changed by drugs, counseling or prayer."

Richard Sipe, a former monk who has studied the issue of clergy sexual abuse for decades, argues that priests might be less likely than the typical molester to act again. Sipe said many psychologists and researchers fail to consider the unique role celibacy plays in the issue.

"People keep comparing it to the general population," Sipe said. "The cleric culture is a foreign culture. ... What other group is all male and vowed to perfect and perpetual chastity?"

Sipe said that unlike with serial pedophiles, it is not uncommon for a priest who has not had any sexual experiences to come out of the seminary and become seduced by the admiration or love of a young parishioner.

That relationship sometimes crosses the line into inappropriate behavior, he said. But Sipe said some priests who get involved with a minor early in their careers will not re-offend as they mature.

"If you take it as a whole, I think priests do differ," Sipe said. "They do have fewer victims. In large measure they are generally less likely to re-offend than the general population. Of course, you can't apply that to every priest."

Thomas Plante, a California psychologist who has studied clergy sexual abuse, agrees that priests as a group might be less likely to re-offend. He attributes that to the support system established by the church and the "vow of obedience" that can curb a priest's behaviors and limit his access to children.

Still, Plante's research indicates a majority of abusive priests are not one-time offenders. He found the average clergy abuser has eight victims and a total of 32 instances of abuse before he is caught.

"For the most part if they have that predilection they don't stop until they are caught, or they come forward and say I have a problem," Plante said. "It's a lot like alcoholism."

Experts on pedophilia seem to agree on one thing - the issue of oversight and monitoring of abusive priests was the missing link in the recommendations that came out of the U.S. bishops' meeting in Dallas in June 2002.

While intense focus was placed on prevention measures and removing priests who have sexually abused minors, the question of what to do after a priest was stripped of his ministry remained largely unanswered.

In some instances, accused priests have continued their ministry elsewhere. One of the accused priests in the Phoenix clergy-abuse scandal continues to serve as a priest in Mexico. He remains wanted in Arizona with a warrant out for his arrest on charges he abused a teenage boy and the boy's young adult sister about 20 years ago.

The Boston Globe recently learned that a priest accused of fondling a 16-year-old boy in the early 1980s was working as a concierge at a hotel that offers "family-oriented tour-de-fun that will delight anyone who has children."

"Certainly it is a problem of how to deal with priests that are removed from ministry," Sipe said. "If you consider these men a danger to pastoral people, do you have the right to thrust them onto the community at large? That doesn't seem responsible."

Yet in some instances that is what has happened, said Rossetti, director of the St. Luke Institute. Rossetti said many dioceses have simply cut ties with abusive priests - a policy he argues the bishops were pushed into by the public and the media.

"In the hysteria of 2002 it was clear the public would not accept any option except total dismissal from the priesthood," Rossetti said. "What we did in the last 12 months was make the church safer, but did we make society safer? I think we shifted the problem. I think we need to cooperate to find the best way for keeping children safe."

Rossetti said the intense pressure in Dallas in 2002 forced bishops to recommend zero-tolerance policies and abandon a long-standing system of keeping priests under diocesan care. Typically, an abusive priest would be sent for treatment and then return to a limited ministry away from children and under the supervision of another church official.

Indeed, an Erie Times-News investigation found that some priests who faced allegations of sexual misconduct were under restricted ministries and living in local diocesan residences prior to approval of a new sexual abuse policy in March 2002.

The diocese has declined to comment on the status of those priests now.

The new diocesan policy on clergy sexual abuse states that in cases with extenuating circumstances, such as age or infirmity, the cleric "will be required to live a life of prayer and penance." The priest or deacon would be prohibited from representing himself as a cleric, participating in church activities or wearing clerical garb.

Schober questioned the effectiveness of having diocesan officials monitor abusive priests.

"Look at the difficulty our own probation system has monitoring sex offenders and they are on their backs all the time and they know what to look for and that is their only job," she said. "I don't see the Catholic Church having any system such as that in place. It was a no-win for those supposedly monitoring them. They were parish priests or bishops, not parole officers."

Schober said the church could establish a system in which trained professionals familiar with pedophiles could closely monitor and counsel abusive priests.

Plante, the California psychologist who counsels both abusive priests and victims, said in the dioceses he deals with, most of the priests have been "warehoused in some type of church facility in the middle of nowhere."

Plante sees that as a better alternative than a diocese simply cutting ties with an accused priest.

"If they throw them out on their ear the way a lot of people want, then the church no longer has authority and do we really want that?" Plante said. "Zero tolerance sounds good on paper, but there are some unforeseen consequences."

Schoener, the Minnesota psychologist, said the Catholic Church offers a paradox in regard to the oversight issue. On one hand, the structure and resources of the church could allow for a system in which pedophile priests could be closely monitored and placed in settings where they had little access to children. "In theory, that could be damn good oversight," he said.

Yet, he said, the same structure allows for an environment that permits secrecy and little disclosure about the names and whereabouts of offending priests.

"The problem is these people can be less marked than most," Schoener said. "They can travel in church vehicles. They can do things incognito. They can live in a place without having an address or a phone in their name. You try to locate these people and they just aren't there."

SCOTT WESTCOTT can be reached at 870-1733 or by e-mail.


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