Sexual Abuse of Children by Clergy No Longer a Hidden Issue
Charges of Clerics Molesting Children Is Causing a Crisis
By Gerald Renner
March 28, 1993
With the swiftness of a contagious disease, the names of five Connecticut clergymen have been added recently to the growing North American roster of men of God who have been accused of sexually abusing children.
Ten years ago the roster existed only in secret church archives. Today, it is the focus of television and radio talk shows, dramatizations, books and journalistic exposes.
The clergy do not stand alone. People in all walks of life have been found to have sexually molested children. Offenders are heterosexuals, homosexuals and bisexuals. Many are in the helping professions, working with children. Many are married.
And while clergy of other churches have also been accused, the multimillion-dollar court judgments against the Catholic Church and public exposure of the scandalous misbehavior of such offenders as the former priest from Fall River, Mass., John R. Porter, have created a crisis for Catholic leaders.
No longer are sexual exploitations of children by priests hushed up or covered up.
The Roman collar that once conveyed trust is fraying at the edges. The reports have shaken Catholics and demoralized the 53,000 priests in the country. A survey last fall of more than 1,000 Catholic lay leaders by Today's Parish, a magazine published in Mystic, showed they are angry and losing confidence in the priesthood. That was particularly so for people in parishes where priests have been accused of abuse.
The problem of priests who prey on children has been called the greatest internal crisis the Catholic Church has had to face since the Protestant Reformation. That assertion is being made not by enemies of the church, but by such inside critics as the Rev. Andrew Greeley, the sociologist and author, and the Rev. Thomas Doyle, an American Dominican priest who learned the dimensions of the problem working as a canon lawyer in the 1980s at the Vatican Embassy in Washington.
The spotlight first turned on Louisiana in the early 1980s and moved spectacularly into New England last year, when Porter was accused of molesting scores of children in North Attleborough and other towns where he served in the 1960s.
Until this year Connecticut had escaped the limelight. But no longer.
Since January, three priests have been named in lawsuits, which are pending, and a fourth was arrested and charged with sexual assault on a minor, to which he has pleaded not guilty. A Protestant minister of the United Church of Christ, who was charged with sexual molestation last July, also has pleaded not guilty.
Two of the priests, the Rev. Ivan Ferguson and the Rev. Felix Maguire, belong to the Archdiocese of Hartford, and two, the Rev. Raymond Pcolka and the Rev. Kieran Ahearn, to the Diocese of Bridgeport.
Ferguson, 58, is accused in a lawsuit of sexually abusing three students when he was a chaplain and teacher at West Hartford's Northwest Catholic High School in the 1970s.
McGuire, 66, former pastor of St. Therese's Catholic Church in North Haven, has been sued by a 21-year-old man for $ 500,000, alleging the priest sexually assaulted him when he was 15. Fifteen adults, including men and women, accuse Pcolka, 53, of raping and sodomizing them at churches in Stratford and Bridgeport between 1966 and 1982. Pcolka, who walked out without permission from the treatment center the diocese had sent him to, was suspended from the ministry.
The other priest who stands accused is Ahearn, 55, of St. Mary Church in Bethel. He was arrested by Massachusetts police on charges of indecent assault on a 16-year-old boy when he was on a skiing vacation. He pleaded not guilty Jan. 21 in Southern Berkshire District Court in Great Barrington, Mass.
The civil lawsuits are pending in the courts and neither the priests nor the church have responded directly.
Several lawyers say they are on the verge of filing civil suits against two other Connecticut priests on sexual molestation charges.
The Protestant minister charged recently in Connecticut is the Rev. Boardman Kathan, 63, a minister of the United Church of Christ and former associate pastor of the Cheshire Congregational Church. A married man with grown children, Kathan resigned from the ministry after he was arrested last July. He has pleaded not guilty and faces trial on felony charges that he sexually abused two young sons of a neighbor.
But the case against Kathan is the exception, said the Rev. David Hirano, the administrative head of the United Church of Christ in Connecticut. Most of the sexual misconduct cases in his church involve adults, he said. Hirano said one other minister accused of molesting children quit the ministry several years ago.
Similarly, in the Episcopal Church in Connecticut, Bishop Arthur E. Walmsley said only one priest has been accused of abusing children during his 13-year tenure. No criminal charges or civil lawsuit were filed and the priest left the ministry. And while the United Church of Christ, the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations are confronting the issue of clergy who are accused of sexual abuse, their concerns center mostly on the sexual harassment of adult women, not on pedophilia.
Mark Chopko, a legal counsel for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the Catholic Church's theology of priesthood contributes, in a sense, to the problems the church faces today.
In the Catholic Church, "you are a priest no matter what you have done," he said, whereas Protestant ministers accused of abusing children often quietly drop out of the ministry or are defrocked.
"There is a reluctance to abandon anyone to his fate. To do so would be for bishops to turn their backs on an important aspect of their theology," Chopko said. In years gone by, the bishops did not appreciate the repetitive nature of pedophilia, he said, and because of that the lawsuits are now being filed.
There is no question that the great focus of concern in the Catholic Church has not been on harassment of women, but on priests abusing children, particularly boys.
No generally accepted, comparative studies have been done to determine whether child sexual abuse is more or less common among Catholic clergy than among others.
And since many child abusers are married men, the question of how celibacy contributes to the problem is complicated and disputed.
"Celibacy doesn't cause the problem," said Dr. James J. Gill, a Jesuit priest and a consultant psychiatrist at the Institute of Living in Hartford. But he said that it could be a contributing factor among men "whose psychosexual development has been jammed."
"When you have somebody who has no legitimate outlet for sexual impulses and desires, often the man himself, instead of doing this with an adult or even with a well-developed adolescent, will pick a child and rationalize, 'I am only showing the care, tenderness and affection this child needs,' " Gill said.
He said men who make vows of celibacy realize that involvement with a woman "could involve pregnancy and expectations on the adult woman's part."
A. W. Richard Sipe, a former priest and instructor in psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, more directly implicates a celebate clerical culture.
"It is a culture that rewards immaturity," he said. "It rewards people who are very conformist and prolongs the maturation process."
Not being able to relate to adult peers, if they become sexually active, some clerics turn to adolescents, mostly boys, said Sipe, author of "A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy."
On the other side, the Rev. Stephen Rossetti, a Catholic priest and psychologist at the St. Luke Psychiatric Institute in Suitland, Md., does not blame celibacy.
"The psychosexual dynamics are formed well before someone enters the seminary," he said.
Rossetti edited a 1991 book of essays by experts titled, "Slayer of the Soul: Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church." It was published by Twenty-Third Publications of Mystic and is in wide use in dioceses.
Of the incidence of child sexual abuse by priests, Rossetti said, "I wish I had some numbers on it. My best clinical guess is that priests are no more or no less involved than other adults involved with children. There is no hard data, and anybody who says there is doesn't know what he is talking about."
But on the effect the reports of abuse are having among Catholics, Rossetti has the data from the survey he conducted with Today's Parish.
Rossetti said Catholics are developing a negative attitude toward the priesthood. "This research suggests that it is time to extend our healing ministry beyond the immediate victims to the entire church," he said. "The entire community has been wounded."
In the first highly publicized cases in the early 1980s in Lafayette, La., the diocese and its insurers ended up paying $ 22 million through 1990 to the victims of seven abusive priests. Steep awards were fueled by jurors' belief that church authorities tried to minimize, obfuscate and cover up the charges.
The Louisiana cases opened the floodgates. Lawyers and victims of abuse by clergy aggressively pursued other lawsuits and prosecutions elsewhere.
The American Bar Association began holding annual seminars in 1989 on "tort and religion." Much of the agenda is taken up with the law regarding sexual abuse -- and, over coffee in the corridors, which churches have "deep pockets."
The victims themselves organized. Jeanne Miller, whose son was sexually assaulted as an altar boy by a Chicago priest 10 years ago and whose complaints fell on deaf ears, coordinates a group called Victims of Clergy Abuse Link-Up, a nondenominational group of 3,000 members who were victims or relatives of victims.
"Ninety percent of our victims were victims of Catholic priests and 90 percent of them are male," said Miller, who often appears on television talk shows.
More than anything else the case of James Porter, the former Fall River priest, focused national attention on the Catholic Church.
Porter, who left Massachusetts around 1967 and quit the priesthood in the early 1970s, is accused in civil lawsuits of molesting dozens of children nearly 30 years ago in New Mexico and Minnesota and charged with 46 criminal molestation counts in Massachusetts. Now married with children, Porter was sentenced to six months in prison in Minnesota in December for molesting his female teenage baby-sitter. The Porter case inspired the people in Connecticut to bring their lawsuits, say Thomas R. McNamara of New Haven and T. Paul Tremont of Bridgeport, lawyers who represent 16 plaintiffs who are in their 30s.
The lawsuits were made possible when the statute of limitations was broadened in 1991. The state legislature, recognizing that young victims of sexual abuse may be unable to deal with the memories for decades, passed a law permitting victims to sue up to age 35. Previously, it had been effectively limited to age 20.
The reporting of Jason Berry, a New Orleans freelance writer, in the lay-edited, independent National Catholic Reporter of Kansas City, Mo., laid out the scope of the child abuse problem in the Catholic Church.
In his 1992 book, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children," Berry said that between 1984 and 1992, 400 Catholic priests in North America have been reported to authorities and named in lawsuits for sexually molesting children, mostly boys. About one in three were prosecuted on criminal charges. He spent seven years compiling cases, beginning in Louisiana and then tracking others all over the country.
Berry estimates that the Catholic Church has had to pay $ 400 million in settlements, legal fees and medical expenses in the past decade. A separate report, prepared for a 1986 meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, warned that church liability could amount to $ 1 billion by the end of the century.
Berry reported that the problem of sexual abuse by clergy has been aggravated by church officials' persistent attempts at covering up the incidents. He said complaints were buried; victims ignored, threatened and even villified; and offenders transferred to other parishes or, like Porter, to other dioceses, where they repeated their crimes.
Jeanne Miller, of Victims of Clergy Abuse Link-Up, said the depth of anger among victims of priests comes from the stonewalling by church authorities.
"We saw the priest as a man and a human being who had some sort of a problem, but we thought that this could be dealt with by the institution," she said.
"But the institution turned against us and betrayed the values, morals and principles we were operating on. That was where the real betrayal and breach of trust came from."
Worst of all, Miller said, "a faith system is destroyed." Few of the people who have gone through the experience will have anything further to do with the church. The focus on the problem by Berry, and by people such as Miller who are speaking out, has had an effect.
If he had not read Berry's book, said Tremont, the Bridgeport lawyer, he would have been inclined to reach an out-of-court settlement with the Diocese of Bridgeport on behalf of Sharon See and Brian Freiboot, both now 28, who said Pcolka had abused them. But he said he rejected a church lawyer's offer to settle and have the file sealed, because Berry's book opened his eyes that "there is a clear coverup" going on.
Since Tremont filed his lawsuit in early January, 13 other people say Pcolka also abused them. That would not have happened had the case been settled quietly, Tremont said.
Now the diocese is fighting a motion Tremont has made to disclose other out-of-court settlements involving abuse of children by clergy, he said.
Joseph T. Sweeney, a Hartford lawyer who represents the Bridgeport diocese, rejects Tremont's claim of coverup.
"My perception is he seems to think he has a rerun of the things he read in Jason Berry's book," Sweeney said, but that is not so.
"All I can say is, there has been no coverup in Bridgeport. After it is all over, I think people will see that," he said.
Sweeney is opposing disclosure of confidential church documents because he doesn't believe the public should have access to them.
Settling out of court is not a coverup, Sweeney said. "Settlement and confidentiality are very commonplace in resolution of civil claims," he said.
Meanwhile, high-level churchmen seek to regain a higher moral ground.
In an apology issued on behalf of the hierarchy last June, Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati said that "mistakes have been made in the past" because "few in society and the church understood the problem well."
"People tended to treat sexual abuse as they did alcoholism -- as a moral fault for which repentance and a change of scene would result in a change of behavior," said Pilarczyk, then president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"Where lack of understanding and mistakes have added to the pain and hurt of victims and their families, they deserve an apology and we do apologize," he said.
At the same time, the archbishop said that the bishops' conference "is not a governing body" and cannot set standards for the 188 dioceses in the United States on how to respond when allegations of sexual abuse are made against priests.
But, Pilarczyk said, the conference recommends that when there is "even a hint" of an incident, the diocese should investigate it immediately, remove the priest if evidence warrants it, follow civil law where there is an obligation to report, give pastoral care to the victim and the victim's family and seek treatment for the offender.
Such is the policy of the Archdiocese of Hartford, adopted on April 20, 1990, as it applies to priests or anyone else who works for the church, said the Rev. John P. Gatzak, archdiocesan spokesman. "That is the essence of our policy, too," said the Rev. Christopher Walsh, spokesman for the Diocese of Bridgeport.
In the most aggressive action to date, the Chicago archdiocese has established an independent commission to investigate allegations of sexual abuse. The panel includes legal and psychological experts.
But people like Jeanne Miller remain skeptical.
"I think the institutional church has figured a more sophisticated way to respond on paper, but in reality it hasn't changed," she said.
"We are still awaiting a call from someone saying, 'A diocese responded immediately with concern, providing counseling for the priest and for us and calls us regularly to see how we are doing.' "
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