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 CNS Special report:
 Coverage of John Jay report, National Review Board study.

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Transmitted 03/01/2004 2:25 PM ET

Sex abuse stems from crisis of faith, morality, EWTN panelists say

By Nancy Frazier O'Brien
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The clergy sex abuse scandal stemmed from a societal crisis of morality and a church crisis of faith, panelists said at an EWTN-sponsored "town hall meeting" held on the evening of the release of 52 years of sex abuse statistics.

Panelists at the 90-minute program broadcast live Feb. 27 on the Eternal Word Television Network included four members of the all-lay National Review Board, three bishops and two church commentators.

Made public earlier that day in Washington were a study by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice titled "The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002" and a 145-page report by the review board on the causes and context of that abuse over the past half-century.

Held on the campus of The Catholic University of America in Washington, the town hall meeting also included questions from a studio audience of several dozen people and telephone callers from around the nation.

Most panelists had praise for both the study and the report, but all agreed that more work must be done to study the development of the clergy sex abuse scandal and its relationship to society as a whole.

"This is a societal problem, not a Catholic problem," said Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee, a former seminary rector who chairs the U.S. bishops' Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry.

He said the work of the National Review Board provides "a model for everyone else to do a self-examination of their own institution."

Archbishop Raymond L. Burke of St. Louis said the clergy sex abuse crisis "developed during a time of dissent and rebellion in the church," a time also characterized by "a lot of laxity in teaching, especially as concerned sexual morality."

Bishop John M. D'Arcy of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., faulted some of his fellow bishops in the scandal but said the current structure of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops "is not the format for fraternal correction." He recommended bishops have a spiritual director "to assure that your decision-making is not based on popularity."

"We all like to be liked, but this is a job that needs tough decisions," Bishop D'Arcy said. Sometimes that can mean "helping a man not to be a priest who shouldn't be a priest," he added.

Review board member Robert S. Bennett said the clergy sex abuse crisis could not be boiled down to just "one or two factors," but that a major problem was that bishops "admitted into seminary many dysfunctional and psychologically immature young men and did not form them correctly" in terms of celibacy and chastity.

But board member William R. Burleigh emphasized the global nature of the sex abuse problem, saying, "Things do not happen in the church that are not part of general society."

Among the factors contributing to the abuse, Burleigh noted that "we never encountered any perpetrator who had not lost his spiritual life along the way."

Dr. Paul R. McHugh, a board member who chairs the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, praised the bishops for doing the "heavy lifting" in laying out a plan to confront the sex abuse problem at their June 2002 meeting in Dallas.

"No other institution faced with this problem has ever laid that kind of road map out," he said.

Justice Anne M. Burke, acting chairwoman, said the work of the review board has been "totally independent" but admitted that "it wasn't always easy to maintain that independence."

"The bishops weren't used to a board going off on its own," she said.

Burleigh said the bishops realize that "the eyes of the church are on them" and "seem eager to tackle these very knotty problems."

The sharpest criticism of the evening came from Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things, who said the review board's report was "a very severe indictment of episcopal leadership," which he said suffered from both "laxity and autocracy."

"Long before there was a sex abuse crisis there was a crisis of morality, a crisis of leadership," he said. "It was an outgrowth of broken catechesis, broken morality, a broken episcopacy."

Columnist and papal biographer George Weigel called the current USCCB structure "inadequate" for helping bishops to solve the sex abuse problem and said it "does not permit them to function with each other."

But the review board's report "has given bishops who wish to take the lead on this the tools to do so," he added.

Father Neuhaus said the report "names things for what they are" by showing that the majority of incidents of sex abuse involved teenage boys, making the sex abuse crisis primarily a "problem of homosexual predation."

Although he admitted that "there are probably canonized saints of the church who had a homosexual orientation," Father Neuhaus said he believed men with "a dominant or exclusive homosexual orientation" should not be ordained.

Archbishop Burke indicated that he agreed, saying that he had "great respect for people who struggle with this, but the bar has to be very high, especially with the pressures that are normal to the priestly life."


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