Signs of the Times
Sexual Abuse Brought ‘Smoke of Satan’

March 15, 2004

In its report on the causes of the crisis of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the United States, released on Feb. 27, the National Review Board said “grievously sinful” acts of priests and inaction by bishops let “the smoke of Satan” enter the church.

“As a result the church itself has been deeply wounded. Its ability to speak clearly and credibly on moral issues has been seriously impaired,” said the all-lay board established by the U.S. bishops in 2002 to monitor their efforts to bring an end to sexual abuse of minors by priests. Among the many ways the crisis can be viewed, it said, “the board believes that the overriding paradigm that characterizes the crisis is one of sinfulness”—priests committing grave sins against children and bishops committing grave sins of failing “to protect their people from predators.”

The often scathing report, an unprecedented critique by laypeople of Catholic hierarchical policies and practices, was written at the behest of the bishops themselves. In the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, adopted at their meeting in Dallas, Tex., in June 2002, the bishops established the review board. The board called the bishops’ charter “a milestone in the history of the church in America.” As a result of the implementation of the charter “the board is confident that effective measures are in place today to help ensure the safety of children and young people in the church,” the board said.

The review board’s 145-page report, titled A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States, was based on a review of the history of the sexual abuse crisis, research done by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice (see below) and interviews over the past 18 months with more than 85 people, including victims, priests, bishops, Vatican officials, lay leaders and professionals in a variety of fields.

Robert S. Bennett of Washington, D.C., the attorney who headed the board’s research committee, said: “Many bishops breached their responsibilities as pastors and put their heads in the sand.... These leadership failures are shameful to the life of the church.” Key problems with bishops who kept abusive priests in ministry included a failure to reach out to victims and speak with them, protective attitudes toward their priests, “too much faith in psychiatrists” and a lack of information-sharing with one another that could have helped them realize earlier that the problem was of “epidemic proportions.”

One of the primary solutions the report offered to prevent a recurrence of the problem is better screening and celibacy formation of priesthood candidates in seminaries, to assure that those ordained are really prepared to live healthy, chaste lives as celibate priests. “Seminaries must deal with issues of sexual conduct more openly and more forthrightly.... It is vital that bishops, provincials [religious-order superiors] and seminary rectors ensure that seminaries create a climate and a culture conducive to chastity,” it said. “Although the discipline of celibacy is not itself a cause of the current crisis, a failure properly to explain celibacy and prepare seminarians for a celibate life has contributed to it.”

The board said that over the past 10 to 15 years, dioceses and seminaries have increasingly used psychological tests, background checks and more sophisticated means of identifying “red flags” of personality disorders or psychosexual dysfunction to screen out unfit applicants.

Noting the preponderance of adolescent males among the victims of clerical sexual abuse of minors, the board devoted several pages of its report to the question of what role sexual orientation of priests played in the abuse scandal. The board concluded, “The paramount question in this area must be whether a candidate for the priesthood is capable of living a chaste, celibate life, not what that candidate’s sexual orientation must be.”

“But given the nature of the problem of clergy sexual abuse of minors, the realities of the culture today and the male-oriented atmosphere of the seminary, a more searching inquiry is necessary for a homosexually oriented man by those who decide whether he is suitable for the seminary and for ministry,” it said. “In the 1970’s and 1980’s,” according to the report, “there developed at certain seminaries a ‘gay subculture,’ and at these seminaries, according to several witnesses, homosexual liaisons occurred among students or between students and teachers.”

The board said many church leaders “failed to appreciate the harm suffered by victims of sexual abuse by priests, the seriousness of the underlying misconduct and the frequency of the abuse.” It sharply criticized bishops’ “misplaced reliance upon myopic legal advice.” Asserting that bishops must be pastors first, it said: “Far too many church leaders did not deal with victims in a pastoral fashion.... Bishops and other church leaders rarely spoke personally with victims of sexual abuse.”

“Clericalism contributed to a culture of secrecy,” according to the report, which said the legitimate values of confidentiality and privacy rights of accused priests “should not be allowed to trump the duty to keep children safe from harm or to investigate claims of sexual abuse against clerics and respond appropriately.” The board condemned the bishops’ preoccupation with secrecy and avoiding scandal before the massive revelations of 2002 forced them to confront the problem publicly.

“At heart,” it said, “this was a failure of church leadership, which lacked the vision to recognize that, unless nipped in the bud, the problems would only grow until they no longer could be contained...sowing seeds for greater upheaval in the long term.... Even today, some bishops and priests fail to address the issue of clerical sexual abuse in a sufficiently open manner.” It said addressing the scandal openly is critical to preaching the Gospel itself, the central mission of the church.

In reviewing the history of the scandal, the board also criticized the Vatican for what it described as responding too slowly to U.S. bishops’ efforts in the 1990’s to develop more expeditious ways to remove child abusers from ministry and from the priesthood. But it said that from recent board meetings with several top Vatican officials “it was clear that the Holy See is now devoting significant attention and resources to the current crisis.”

The board also said that “staffs of treatment centers must shoulder some of the blame” for frequently recommending to bishops that a man be returned to a parish or other relatively unrestricted ministry after treatment—often leading to new opportunities for the priest to abuse other minors. But it suggested there appeared to have been a destructive dynamic going on—bishops expected the treatment centers to “cure” their patients, so any center that failed to offer optimistic prognoses would soon find its business drying up. “The lack of alternative treatment goals [besides return to active ministry] increased the propensity of some treatment centers to become advocates for the patient-priests,” the board said.

Major recommendations the board made for the future were:

• further study and analysis of the causes and context of the crisis, including ongoing diocesan audits of compliance with the charter, like that conducted last year, and periodic review of the effectiveness of current policies;

• enhanced screening and formation of priesthood candidates and better monitoring of priests’ lives, ministry, morale and well-being after ordination;

• “increased sensitivity and effectiveness in responding to allegations of abuse,” including re-examination of current litigation strategies to give pastoral responses a priority over legal tactics;

• “greater accountability of bishops and other church leaders,” including “meaningful lay consultation” in the selection of bishops and greater use by bishops of the consultative and deliberative bodies established or allowed in church law;

• better interaction of church leaders with civil authorities in dealing with allegations of abuse and in reaching “reasonable terms” of agreement about questions of boundaries between internal church authority and the rights and obligations of civil authority;

• “less secrecy, more transparency and a greater openness to the gifts that all members of the church bring to her.”

Four Percent of Priests Accused Over 52 Years

About 4 percent of U.S. priests ministering between 1950 and 2002 were accused of sex abuse with a minor, according to the first comprehensive national study of the issue. The study said that 4,392 clergymen—almost all of them priests—were accused of abusing 10,667 people, with 75 percent of the incidents taking place between 1960 and 1984. During the same period there were 109,694 priests, it said.

Costs related to sexual abuse totaled $573 million, with $219 million covered by insurance companies, said the study done by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. It noted, however, that the true overall dollar figure is much higher than reported; 14 percent of the dioceses and religious communities did not provide financial data, and the total did not include settlements made after 2002, such as the $85 million agreed to by the Archdiocese of Boston.

The study, released in Washington on Feb. 27, was commissioned by the U.S. bishops’ National Review Board. The study was based on detailed questionnaires completed by U.S. dioceses and religious communities. Allegations were made against 4.3 percent of the diocesan priests and 2.5 percent of the religious priests, said the study.

The study said the sharp decline in abuse incidents since 1984, coupled with the declining percentage of accusations against priests ordained in recent years, “presents a more positive picture” than the overall statistics. It said that 68 percent of the allegations were made against priests ordained between 1950 and 1979, while priests ordained after 1979 accounted for 10.7 percent of the allegations.

No action was taken against a priest in 10 percent of the allegations, and in 6 percent of the allegations the priests were reprimanded and returned to ministry, reported the study. Other actions included suspending priests involved in 29 percent of the allegations and placing priests involved in 24 percent of the allegations on administrative leave, it said.

The study listed the main characteristics of the reported incidents of sexual abuse. These included:

• An overwhelming majority of the victims, 81 percent, were males. The most vulnerable were boys aged 11 to 14, who made up more than 40 percent of the victims. This goes against the trend in U.S. society as a whole, in which the main problem is men abusing girls.

• A majority of the victims were post-pubescent adolescents. A small percentage of the priests were accused of abusing children who had not reached puberty.

• Most of the accused committed a variety of sex acts involving serious sexual offenses.

• The most frequent context for abuse was a social event, and many priests socialized with the families of victims.

• Abuses occurred in a variety of places, the most common being the residence of the priest.

As “in the general population, child sex abuse in the Catholic Church appears to be committed by men close to the children they allegedly abuse, many appear to use grooming tactics to entice children into complying with the abuse, and the abuse occurs in the home of the alleged abuser or victim,” said the study.

Enticements included buying the minor gifts, providing alcohol, letting the victim drive a car and taking youths to sporting events, said the study.

The concentration of abuse was among a small percentage of the accused priests, while most of the priests accused, 56 percent, had only one victim, said the study. A further 27 percent had two or three victims. Slightly more than 3 percent of the accused priests had 10 or more victims, and these 149 priests accounted for abuse of 2,960 victims, representing almost 28 percent of the allegations.

Although most of the incidents occurred before 1985, two-thirds of the allegations have been reported since 1993. Regarding the drop-off in reported incidents after 1985, Robert S. Bennett said at the news conference that it was in part due to bishops’ becoming alarmed about the situation in the 1980’s and 90’s and starting to take preventive measures.

Karen Terry, John Jay principal investigator for the study, however, was cautious about the statistical drop-off. She noted that there is generally a lapse of several years between an incident of sexual abuse and the making of a public allegation. She said many allegations about events in the 1990’s may not yet have been reported.

The John Jay study said that pedophilia, an attraction to prepubescent children diagnosed as a psychiatric disease, was a smaller part of the sex abuse problem. It said that 22 percent of the victims were under 10. It added that 51 percent were 11 to 14 years old and 27 percent were 15 to 17 years old.

Only 9 percent of the accused performed acts limited to improper touching over the victim’s clothes, said the study. Slightly more than 27 percent of the allegations involved a cleric performing oral sex, and 25 percent involved penile penetration or attempted penile penetration, reported the study. Most of the allegations involved touching over or under clothing.

Almost one-third of the accused “showed a history of substance abuse, questions about his ‘fitness for ministry’ or behavioral problems,” said the study.

The report said 615 priests were investigated by police in response to allegations of sexual abuse of a child, with 217 priests being charged and 138 being convicted. The number of priests investigated was low because few allegations were reported to police, it said.

News Briefs

• About 700 priests “have been removed from ministry in Catholic dioceses since January 2002,” according to Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. They were removed in anticipation of or on account of the bishops’ commitments under the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People adopted in Dallas in June 2002. The charter required the removal from ministry of any priest involved in even one act of child abuse.

• The Archdiocese of Boston reported that approximately 7 percent of its priests serving between 1950 and 2003 were alleged to have sexually abused a minor.



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