Bishop Accountability

Inquiry in Chicago Breaks Silence on Sex Abuse by Catholic Priests

By Peter Steinfels
New York Times
February 24, 1992

Shaken by a succession of disclosures that have led to the indictment of a parish priest and the removal of five others, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago is undertaking the nation's most extensive inquiry into one of the most painful subjects facing the Catholic Church in the United States: the sexual abuse of minors by priests.

A special commission appointed by Joseph Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago, is re-examining decades of accusations against these and other priests amid evidence that the church's safeguards against abuse are insufficient despite strengthening in recent years. The panel's three members, including a judge and a social services official from outside the church bureaucracy, are expected to complete their report in the spring. Many church leaders hope that it will set a standard for the entire country.

Nobody knows the extent of sexual abuse of minors by priests, in Chicago or elsewhere. Experts agree that the offenders make up a tiny fraction of the nation's 53,000 priests and that the overall numbers are probably no higher than in other professions where men work closely with children and adolescents. But abuse by adults with religious authority, people who occupy a place of special trust in church members' lives, constitutes a particularly shocking form of betrayal.

"I just wish I could forget," Cristine Clark said of the behavior that an ingratiating priest from a diocese near Chicago lured her into at the age of 14. She says she still suffers daily flashbacks and waves of shame, cannot be alone in a room with any man except her father or husband and feels "paranoid and so afraid that someone would abuse my daughter someday."

Once deeply religious and thinking of entering the convent, Mrs. Clark, now 21 years old, has not had her children baptized. "Every time I see a priest or minister," she said, "I cringe."

Until the mid-1980's, complaints of sexual abuse seldom received any public airing. The Catholic Church's internal organization, where decisions are often made behind closed doors, enabled church officials to brush aside accusations of sexual abuse out of naivete or fear of publicity. In the past, accused priests were frequently recycled to new assignments without warning to their new parishioners; complaining victims and their parents were often treated by church officials as potential legal adversaries rather than pastoral responsibilities.

"Pedophilia is the S.& L. disaster of the Catholic Church," said the Rev. Andrew M. Greeley, a Chicago priest as well as sociologist and popular novelist, who has long prodded Cardinal Bernardin in newspaper columns to take resolute action on the issue. "The more that comes out, the worse it looks and you begin to wonder if there's ever going to be an end to the mess."

Revised Assumptions

The reality of child sexual abuse has hit home to many church officials around the nation, often in the form of devastating lawsuits and angry parishioners. Bishops have been revising what they acknowledge were naive assumptions about clerical child molesters and defensive attitudes toward their accusers. Today, virtually all dioceses have adopted new policies to weed out abusers and extend help to victims and their families.

[Photo Caption: The Rev. Robert E. Mayer, who is accused of sexual misconduct. Photo by Associated Press]

"My sense is that the church is really struggling in good conscience to solve this problem," said Dr. Fred S. Berlin, the director of the Sexual Disorders Clinic at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, which has evaluated and treated offending priests. Where a few decades ago, "society in general did not have an appreciation of the serious nature of these problems," he said, today the church "has evolved in its understanding, just as society has."

But events in Chicago have raised questions about how far-reaching that evolution has been. The Chicago Archdiocese has long been viewed as a center of innovation in the American church. Strict policies about sexual abuse were thought to be already in place.

So disclosures last October at St. Odilo's parish in Berwyn, outside Chicago, set off a series of events that left Cardinal Bernardin, a leader in the liberal wing of the hierarchy, abashed and may have a national effect on how the church approaches the issue.

History of Accusations

Parishioners at St. Odilo's learned that the Rev. Robert E. Mayer, who had quietly left the parish in July, had been accused of sexual misconduct with a 20-year-old man. Then the parents of a 14-year-old girl, an eighth grader at the parish school, said that Father Mayer had molested her as well, charges on which the Chicago priest was eventually indicted. In January, he pleaded not guilty and now faces trial.

The congregation also discovered that Father Mayer had been assigned to St. Odilo's, and to other parishes before that, despite a lawsuit for sexual misconduct brought against him in 1982. Other accusations were made against the priest in following years, and the archdiocese had ordered him not to be alone with anyone younger than 21. The condition was unenforceable in practice, however.

The trauma at St. Odilo's resulted in a public apology from Cardinal Bernardin to the parish. The cardinal also issued a letter to be read in all parishes acknowledging "mistakes, for which I am deeply sorry" and announcing the new commission. The commission, consisting of a judge of the Chicago Juvenile Court and a past adviser to the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services along with an auxiliary bishop, was mandated to re-examine all archdiocesean procedures for dealing with sexual abuse.

To make sure that no priests who could be a risk to children remain in parish posts, the panel has reviewed accusations going back 35 years.

As a result, four priests were abruptly ordered to leave their parishes. Another Chicago priest had already been removed in September after a civil suit was filed alleging that he had sexually abused adolescent boys in 1979. Another Chicago priest faces two civil complaints of sexually harassing an adult and abusing a 6-year-old boy.

Estimates on Problem

No figures exist on accusations of sexual misconduct in the nation's 185 dioceses. Jason Berry, a New Orleans journalist who has examined many court records in preparing a book, estimates that 400 priests have faced criminal charges or civil charges over the last decade. Mr. Berry says the church has paid out $400 million in legal fees, treatment costs for priests and victims, and damages, not including the sums paid by insurance policies.

Mark E. Chopko, general counsel for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, calls these figures "grossly exaggerated." The fact that a single offender typically has many victims makes the extent of the problem more difficult to estimate. Court records of settlements are also often sealed to prevent identification of either the victim or abuser.

Jeffrey Anderson, a lawyer in St. Paul, said that he was currently involved in well over 100 cases against priests. The problem "touches virtually every diocese and state," he said.

Well-Known Cases

It has also touched some well-known Catholic figures. The Rev. Bruce Ritter, founder of Covenant House, a Manhattan refuge for teen-age runaways, resigned amidst accusations of sexual misconduct with troubled youth.

Last December, the Rev. James Tunstead Burtchaell, a prominent theologian and anti-abortion spokesman, resigned from the University of Notre Dame faculty after complaints by male students that he had subjected them to sexual advances.

A particularly disturbing case is that of the Rev. Dino Cinel, whose homemade videotapes of sexual encounters with teen-age boys, some of them filmed in a New Orleans parish rectory, were discovered by another priest in December 1988. Church officials took three months to turn the material over to law enforcement agencies, and there were no public actions by the archdiocese's bishop or criminal charges by the district attorney until a television expose last March.

It was another Louisiana case that is generally seen as forcing changes in the church's attitude. In 1985, a priest in Lafayette was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for molesting at least 35 children.

That year the National Conference of Catholic Bishops held the first of several closed-door discussions of the subject at their semiannual meetings.

In 1989, the bishops said, "However such cases may have been handled in past decades -- when psychology was less sophisticated and when child abuse may have viewed as simply a moral failing for which one should be repentant, rather than a psychological addiction for which treatment was mandatory -- today things are different."

Criticism on Changes

But those who believe that the recent reforms are insufficient point to the facts that bishops can still reassign priests without explanation and that, until recently, the church officials looking into accusations against priests were almost always other priests.

The critics note that the church's actions have also been shaped by an emphasis on forgiveness, and especially by a desire to avoid public scandal -- a desire sometimes as strong among laity as clergy and leading the police or criminal justice agencies to shy away from prosecuting cases against clergy.

Factors like these are expected to lead the Chicago commission to recommend that some kind of independent board, including lay people and outside experts as well as priests, be established to receive accusations, immediately investigate them, report charges to civil authorities and remove the accused priest if warranted and provide therapy to victims and perpetrators.

Such a board might still leave final decisions to the cardinal, but it would report directly to him and not through the church bureaucracy. A few smaller dioceses have set up such mechanisms.

"The introduction of a review board with lay people on it will change things," Cardinal Bernardin said in a telephone interview on Saturday. "Up until now we have been dealing with these problems on an in-house basis."

The question of whether to return priest offenders to their work is one of the most difficult the Chicago commission will face. Many experts say sexual offenders can generally be treated and reintegrated in church work without danger of committing further abuse.

But other professionals and many lay people, including a growing movement of victims and victims' parents, are not convinced that treatment is reliable. There is growing pressure to protect both potential victims and the church's reputation by banishing proven offenders completely from the ranks of priests.

The Chicago commission is considering whether after extensive treatment and with continuing supervision, offenders should be allowed to continue in work not involving contact with young people.

Cardinal Bernardin says he has changed his own views on this issue. Formerly he reassigned some priests to parishes after they underwent apparently successful treatment. "I now feel," he said, "that anyone who has engaged in sexual misconduct with a minor should not be placed in parish ministry again."


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