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

-back to John Jay series main menu

Transmitted 02/27/2004 3:31 PM ET

Report says clergy sexual abuse brought 'smoke of Satan' into church

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- In its report Feb. 27 on the causes of the U.S. clergy sexual abuse crisis, 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, which the bishops established 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 was an unprecedented lay critique of Catholic hierarchical policies and practices, written at the behest of the bishops themselves.

In their "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" adopted at their June 2002 meeting in Dallas, the bishops established the review board. Part of the mandate they gave it was to develop two separate studies on the clergy sexual abuse crisis -- one on its nature and scope and another on its context and causes.

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.

One of the primary solutions it 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," it said.

The review board's 145-page report is titled "A Report on the Crisis in the Catholic Church in the United States."

It was released Feb. 27 at a press conference in Washington along with a massive research study, "The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002." The board commissioned that study, which was conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

The board based its report on a review of the history of the sexual abuse crisis, a review of the John Jay findings 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, the Washington attorney who headed the board's research committee, highlighted the main points of the report at the press conference.

He also asked reporters to take the occasion to alert Americans to the fact that "the abuse of minors is a national problem."

That is "no excuse" for the abuse of children at the hands of priests, he said, but "the children of America are in pain and no one is paying attention to them. No one wants to talk about this problem."

Among issues the board addressed concerning abusive priests were questions of seminary formation, celibacy and homosexual orientation.

Key problems with bishops who kept abusive priests in ministry, he said, 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 proportion."

"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," he said.

In its report, the board summarized some of the John Jay study's main findings.

It noted that the study found 10,667 minor victims accusing 4,392 of the nearly 110,000 priests who served in U.S. dioceses and religious orders from 1950 to 2002. (The number of accused priests includes 41 permanent deacons.) Among diocesan priests, 4.3 percent were accused of abuse; among those in religious orders, 2.5 percent were accused.

It also noted that the study found 81 percent of the abuse victims were male and 78 percent were between the ages of 11 and 17. It noted that most of the reported allegations of sexual abuse, 84 percent, occurred in the 1960s, '70s and '80s. Only 9.7 percent went back to the 1950s and only 6.2 percent occurred in the years 1990-2002.

"The data appear to support the view expressed by many (interviewees) that the crisis has an epidemic character -- exploding in the late 1960s and subsiding in the 1980s," it said.

The board said in 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 seminary applicants.

"The significant decrease in reported acts of sexual abuse of minors among priests ordained since 1990 may serve as some evidence that these screening procedures are generally effective," it said.

Franciscan Sister Katarina M. Schuth of the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., one of the nation's leading researchers on U.S. seminaries, told Catholic News Service two days before the report was released that seminaries have made "great improvement" in developing more comprehensive celibacy formation programs over the past 10 to 15 years.

Between nationwide studies she did in 1989 and 1999, seminaries' emphasis on that aspect of formation "increased greatly," she said, and responses to a follow-up survey she conducted in 2002 showed further progress.

The board report addressed a wide range of other issues in the church's handling of the sexual abuse crisis.

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.

From interviews, evidence and a study of church teachings distinguishing between homosexual orientation and homosexual activity, 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.

The board noted in passing that there were "other issues relating to celibacy" that were "beyond the scope of this report." It highlighted one: "Numerous witnesses told the board that they believe there were more incidents of sexual relationships between a priest and a consenting adult woman or man than between a priest and a minor."

Any such conduct by a priest is "gravely immoral" and "church leaders cannot allow such conduct to occur without consequences," the board said.

On the central topic of sexual abuse of minors, 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," it said. It 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 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," the board said. 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 1990s to develop more expeditious ways to remove child abusers from ministry and from the priesthood. But it said 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."

Vatican officials interviewed by the board included Cardinals Joseph Ratzinger, Francis Arinze, Alfonso Lopez Trujillo and J. Francis Stafford, one of the highest ranking Americans in Rome. Cardinal Ratzinger heads the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which holds direct jurisdiction over all cases worldwide involving sexual crimes against minors by clerics.

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."

The National Review Board report ended with a poetic "coda" quoting Psalm 32 to contrast the festering disease of hidden guilt with the healing power of the "honest admission of guilt."

"As long as I kept silent," the quoted portion of the psalm says, "my bones wasted away;/ I groaned all the day .../ Then I declared my sin to you;/ my guilt I did not hide./ I said, 'I confess my faults to the Lord,'/ and you took away the guilt of my sin."

In the face of the "sordid history of misdeeds" found in the clergy sexual abuse scandal, the board said, faith in a possibility of renewal lies in reliance on Jesus' teaching that "for human beings this is impossible, but for God all things are possible."

END

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