Thomas Reese: Taking Stock of the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis and Protecting Children

Pope Francis prays during the opening of a sex abuse prevention summit at the Vatican on Feb. 21, 2019. The gathering of church leaders from around the globe took place amid intense scrutiny of the Catholic Church’s record after new allegations of abuse and cover-up last year sparked a credibility crisis for the hierarchy. (Vincenzo Pinto/Pool Photo via AP)

Last month’s summit in Rome on child sex abuse did not break new ground for those, like myself, who have been following this crisis for more than 30 years, but it did made clear — again — that the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has been devastating for the victims of abuse and for the church as a whole.

There are three parts to the crisis, which I plan to deal with in three successive columns.

First, there is the failure to protect children; second, the failure to hold bishops accountable; and third, the lack of transparency in dealing with the crisis.

Protecting children is a fundamental obligation of any adult, even of those who are not parents. Children are vulnerable and abuse is criminal. It is impossible not to be moved when listening to the horrible stories of survivors of abuse, who can be permanently scarred by the experience.

Abuse occurs in other settings, of course, including schools and in families’ homes, but that fact is no excuse for the church’s poor handling of abuse.

The mistake many bishops made in the last century was to treat abuse as a sin rather than a crime. If the priest repented and promised not to do it again, the bishop would give him another chance, as if child abuse were comparable to failing in celibacy with a consenting adult. Often, incompetent therapists and psychologist supported this return to ministry.

Bishops were tempted to save these priests, especially those who had only one accusation against them. Before 2002, bishops sometimes simply kept these priests out of parishes and restricted them to administrative work or ministering to adults.

It is true some of these priests never offended again. An alcoholic priest might wake up in bed with a teenage prostitute and be so shocked by the experience that he got into AA, stopped drinking and turned his life around.

But no one can guarantee that an abuser will not re-offend, and too many priests, after being moved to another parish, did just that.

A few were serial offenders of the worst sort.

The 2004 report on clergy abuse by scholars from the John Jay School of Criminal Justice found that just 3.5 percent of the abusers (149 priests) were responsible for abusing 2,960 children, 27 percent of the victims known at that time. Each of these priests had more than 10 allegations against him. On the other hand, 56 percent of the priests had only one accusation against them.

Psychologists explain that there are different types of abusers. There are preferential abusers who prey on children. And there are opportunistic abusers who prey on whoever is available, either children or adults.

It was not till 2002 that the bishops accepted that the best policy was not to allow any child abuser to continue acting as a priest. The Dallas Charter, established by the U.S. Catholic bishops in 2002, and the norms approved by the Vatican established zero tolerance of abuse by priests. No one who abused a child could be returned to ministry.

In implementing the new policy, dioceses also established lay review boards to assist bishops in examining allegations against priests. No longer is it just clerics policing clerics. Any bishop who disregards the recommendation of his review board to remove a priest from ministry does so at his peril because the public and the media will find out.

Most people want abusive priests not only removed from ministry but also dismissed from the clerical state (laicized) and want them to lose any financial support from the diocese. Others fear that, if an abuser is kicked out on the street without any supervision, he will continue to be a danger to children. They would argue that it is safer to have the church continue to support him in a setting where he would not have access to children. The threat of losing such support might keep him in line.

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Source: Religion News Service