September 26, 2007

"Learning from scandal"

Analyzing facts on clergy sexual abuse

By Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, Auxiliary Bishop of the Diocese of San Diego

From The San Diego Union-Tribune, September 23, 2007

“Pedophile priest.”

The alliteration is almost irresistible. But does it correspond to reality? Now that the dust is settling from the San Diego diocese sex-abuse settlement, it might be time to take an objective look at the question of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy in the United States. That is, if it is not already overdue.

In response to the overwhelming media attention given to this issue in the spring of 2002, U.S. Catholic bishops adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which, among other things, commissioned a study to be conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the nature and scope of the problem for all incidents alleged to have occurred between 1950 and 2002. The study's results were released in February 2004.

It would be impossible to summarize the entire 120-page report here, but it is worthwhile to note some of the more salient points. First, the study revealed that the problem of sex abuse of children and young people by Catholic clergy was, indeed, widespread, in the sense that nearly all dioceses across the nation reported at least one incident during that time. Also, the patterns applied consistently throughout all dioceses, regardless of such factors as its size and the region in which it is located. The majority of the clergy accused had only one allegation against them; in fact, 3.5 percent of the priests accused account for 26 percent of all of the allegations. Most of the verified incidents, however, involved more serious types of abuse. It was in this context that the report referred to the results of the study as “very disturbing.”

Furthermore, with regard to prevalence, the study demonstrated that a total of roughly 4 percent of all priests and deacons serving during these 52 years were accused of sexual abuse of minors, with 10,667 people making allegations. In basically all of the categories studied from the historical perspective (e.g., when the incidents occurred, the number of accused priests, priests accused as a percentage of all ordinations), the trend is the same: an increase in the 1960s with an upward spike around 1970, followed by a precipitous decline in the early 1980s. Indeed, 75 percent of the events were alleged to have occurred between 1960 and 1984. Along the same lines, the majority of priests accused were ordained between the 1950s and 1970s.

Of those priests with substantiated allegation(s) (80 percent of those originally accused), slightly over half were either dead or out of active ministry at the time of the allegation, or were voluntarily or forcibly removed. Of the others, 9.2 percent were reprimanded and returned to ministry; in most of the remaining cases, some precaution was taken before restoring the priest to ministry, such as evaluation, treatment and/or administrative leave. It should be borne in mind, though, that the way offenders were treated evolved with our growing understanding of the problem. Thus, in the earlier years of this period, when it was more common to believe this to be solely a moral fault, returning a priest to ministry after a reprimand was much more common; by the 1980s, the standard approach was to send the offender for treatment and not return him to ministry unless and until he had a positive evaluation of rehabilitation from a qualified professional.

While the patterns of Catholic clergy sexual abuse of minors more or less followed those of the general male population, one significant statistic stands out: 81 percent were perpetrated against males. Also worth noting is that 78.2 percent of the victims were between the ages of 11 and 17 when the abuse began. Also, of all offenders, only 3.3 percent were abused in more than one diocese. Indeed, with regard to this last statistic, in a letter to the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2004, the principal investigator of the John Jay study, Karen Terry, and its administrative coordinator, James P. Levine, wrote: “It is clear that transferring priests [among dioceses] with allegations of child sexual abuse was not a general response to the problem, and was limited to a finite number of cases.”

These are scientifically verified data from a study by a highly reputable college of criminal justice. While they give some reassurance against the allegation that bishops recklessly transferred abusive priests, they also indicate— to put it colloquially— that something must have gone wrong sometime in the 1960s, but began to be corrected by the 1980s, and, moreover, that the problem was something other than pedophilia (i.e., the sexual abuse of prepubescent children). More insight into this should be gained by the second study commissioned by the U.S. bishops currently under way, on the causes and context of the problem.

But how far do we still have to go in understanding this problem and what to do about it?

The answer would seem to be “still far indeed,” if any indication is to be taken from something published in The Boston Globe less than three years before that newspaper opened the floodgates of reports in January 2002 by breaking the story of one of the worst cases of clerical sex abuse, that of John Geoghan. On Aug. 1, 1999, the Globe published a commentary by psychology professor Sharon Lamb of St. Michael's College in Colchester, Vt., in which she criticizes the president of the American Psychological Association for stating that the APA “may have erred” in publishing an article the year before about a study that “found that not all sexually abused children are wounded for life, and not all victims are traumatized.” To those of us who have seen the devastation that child sex abuse does to those who suffer it, Lamb makes some truly disturbing statements that seem almost to dismiss this trauma, such as, “In a culture supported by a victim-hungry media and made-for-TV movies, we have bought into the idea of a victim as long-suffering and damaged. It is not always accurate.” Even the very headline on her article was shocking: “Some Victims Don't Need Pity.”

Another question involves the chances for rehabilitation of the perpetrators. It was in June 2002 that the California Legislature passed a bill that revived expired claims against private institutions that were on notice of sexual abuse of minors by their members and did not take sufficient action, and specified that sufficient action does not include sending the offender for therapy (something the bishops typically did before reassigning an accused priest). The implied presumption here is the unlikelihood that sex offenders can ever be cured so that they will no longer be a danger to children. But were these lawmakers consistent in applying this principle? The same Legislature passed a bill providing a program of rehabilitation for sexual predators of minors and restoring them to society. According to an article in the Union-Tribune on Aug. 7, 2003, in the first such case, that of Brian DeVries, his restitution to society erupted in controversy because it was “shrouded in secrecy as officials tried to avoid the community outrage that often arises when sex offenders move into a neighborhood.”

Neighborhood residents are hardly to be blamed for such outrage.

These are only two examples that demonstrate we still have far to go in learning about the insidious problem of sexual abuse of minors and in protecting our children.

In this area, no institution has been subject to greater public scrutiny, and self-scrutiny, than the Catholic Church in the United States. For those of us bearing the shame of our deviant confreres in the ministry, our greatest hope in this whole ordeal is that it has shed light on just how widespread and prevalent this problem is throughout our entire society. I pray that our painful experience may be a catalyst for all institutions to be held, and to hold themselves, so accountable, and for governments to enact laws and make provisions to enable families to more easily confront this problem in their own homes and to seek, and be given, the help they need to address it.

Short of this, we will fail to be a truly just society that protects and cherishes its children.


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