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

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Transmitted 02/27/2004 3:17 PM ET

Bishops say reports show sad reality of priests who preyed on young

By Patricia Zapor
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- The picture that emerges from two new reports on the extent and causes of the Catholic Church's sexual abuse crisis is "sadly, one of those who broke faith with their people, their priesthood and their religious vows to use their sacred position to prey on the young and vulnerable," said the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., told reporters after the Feb. 27 release of the research and analysis that "the terrible history recorded here is history."

While the bishops "did not need this additional evidence to know that many have been harmed" by those acting in the church's name, the new evidence "serves as an urgent summons to act as fully as possible in reaching out to victims," he said.

The John Jay College of Criminal Justice released a statistical study titled "The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002." It was accompanied by "A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States" by the National Review Board, the panel of lay people commissioned by the bishops to evaluate the causes and context of sexual abuse within the church.

After a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington where the documents were released, Bishop Gregory and four other church officials held their own press conference.

Joining the USCCB president were: Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of St. Paul-Minneapolis, chairman of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse; Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry; Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., USCCB secretary; and Sulpician Father Ronald D. Witherup, president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men.

The John Jay study reported that 4,392 priests and deacons were accused of sexual abuse involving 10,667 people in the 50-year period studied. That amounts to accusations against about 4 percent of the estimated 110,000 priests who served in the country during that period.

The study also compiled data about the ages of those abused, the years in which it occurred and when it was reported, and the amount of money spent by dioceses in settling legal claims and providing treatment and other services to victims.

The review board's report discussed various causes behind the abuse scandal, the attitudes and atmosphere at seminaries and how the church responded to abuse accusations.

In response to questions from reporters, Bishop Gregory reiterated that decisions about whether bishops who knowingly left abusive priests in public ministry should be forced to resign is a matter for the Holy See to decide on a case-by-case basis.

"Each situation must be evaluated on its own merits," he said. Realistically, however, most of the cases in which priests were left in public ministry by bishops who knew about abuse allegations happened 20 or 30 years ago, Bishop Gregory said.

"Fortunately, most of those bishops are no longer in pastoral service," he said.

Several questions focused on whether the church would focus on screening out homosexuals from the priesthood.

At the earlier press conference where the John Jay study was released, researcher Louis Schlesinger said sexual orientation is not the cause of child sex abuse, that clergy who are heterosexual and wanted to break their vows would look to adult women and homosexual clergy wanting to break their vows would look to adult men.

While the review board said it was not blaming the abuse crisis on the presence of homosexuals in the priesthood, it called attention "to the homosexual behavior that characterized the vast majority of the cases of abuse observed in recent decades." It said that the large number of homosexual priests or seminarians in some areas "had the effect of discouraging heterosexual men from seeking to enter the priesthood."

The board concluded that the failure to take disciplinary action against homosexual "subcultures" at certain seminaries and in certain dioceses or religious orders "contributed to an atmosphere in which sexual abuse of adolescent boys by priests was more likely."

Bishop Gregory said the nation's seminaries have already begun doing a more thorough job of looking at candidates for the priesthood from a variety of perspectives, and that he didn't think they should begin focusing only on "any one potential difficulty."

"Our screening should look at all unhealthy psychological behavior," he said. "We will not fulfill our responsibility simply by focusing on one area."

He said he didn't want seminarians who are selfish, who have distorted views of themselves or are narcissistic, for example.

"We should look for those who demonstrate sound moral, psychological, spiritual health and not focus on any one potential difficulty," he said.

Bishop Gregory said he didn't think it was appropriate to disparage or denigrate the service of any priest who may be homosexually oriented but who is absolutely dedicated to his vows and ministry.

Archbishop Dolan said the attention to abuse in the church of the last few years has prompted seminaries "to be as careful as possible," but that the changes in screening to prevent men with unhealthy attitudes about sexuality had been in place for some time.

Consequently, changes in light of the new study and report would likely be more a matter of "strengthening and deepening what's going on now," Archbishop Dolan said.

Archbishop Flynn described the difference in screening at seminaries since the days he attended Mount St. Mary's in Emmitsburg, Md., in the 1950s, when psychological evaluation was unheard of.

"Nothing was said about intimacy or other important aspects" of being human, he said. Evaluations simply looked at spiritual and physical suitability.

By the time he was rector at the same seminary from 1965 to 1979, some review was made of candidates' psychological suitability for the priesthood, he said. Now, with even more stringent screening, "I see improvement in the products, of who's coming out of that particular seminary for ordination," he said.

Archbishop Sheehan said he has been asked by people in his diocese, and in the Phoenix Diocese, where he was administrator for six months last year, about those who may have lost their faith in the church because of how sexual abuse cases were handled.

"My response has been we can't change the past but can do a lot about the future," he said.

He said the crisis has been a reminder to Catholics that they "shouldn't put our trust in the bishop" or other parts of the institution. "We should put our trust in Jesus and in the Mass because human beings can fail as we've seen," he added.

"I have hope and confidence for the future of a church that's been around for 2,000 years," he said.

"Despite the shameful things that we discussed today, I see the Lord's presence," he said, adding, "That will continue to help us."


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