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 CNS Special report: Implementing the bishops' charter

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Transmitted 02/03/2004 4:02 PM ET

Effective treatment possible for sex abusers, say two experts

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Many priests who have abused children can be treated to prevent future abuse, said two experts involved in treatment programs.

"There's a mistaken idea that treatment doesn't work. Treatment does work in reducing relapse," said Father Stephen Rossetti, president of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., which treats priests involved in child sex abuse.

A major problem, however, is that many priests who need treatment are not entering programs now because they have little incentive to do so under the U.S. bishops' "zero tolerance" policy of dismissing priests from ministry for even one act of abuse, said Father Rossetti.

Agreeing was Dominican Sister Donna Markham, immediate past president of Southdown Institute in Aurora, Ontario, which also treats priests and religious for various disorders. Both said that some form of limited, supervised ministry could be possible for offenders diagnosed as low risk for relapse.

They were interviewed Jan. 30 while in Washington for meetings.

"We are only getting about half of the priests we should. Guys are not willing to go into treatment if they know they are going to be thrown out of ministry," said Father Rossetti.

Sister Markham said that there is a lot of good will on the part of bishops who want priests to get treatment.

The U.S. bishops' 2002 policies in the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" state that once a priest has been credibly accused "the alleged offender may be requested to seek, or urged voluntarily to comply with, an appropriate medical and psychological evaluation."

The charter also establishes permanent removal from ministry as the normal punishment for any priest or deacon who committed sex abuse with a minor.

Father Rossetti said the St. Luke Institute tracked the 325 priests treated for child sex abuse from 1985 to 2002 and that the known relapse rate was less than 5 percent of them. Sister Markham said that a similar study at the Southdown Institute produced about the same results.

"We are right in our diagnosis 90 percent of the time. Occasionally we are going to be fooled, judges are going to be fooled," said Father Rossetti.

Sister Markham said that a small minority of child sex abusers are habitual offenders with little chance of improving with treatment.

The vast majority -- such as those who are emotionally immature or who were abused as children and are acting out their own abuse -- can be successfully treated, she said.

Father Rossetti said that there is a danger that people are stereotyping all child sex abusers as "dirty old men" rather than seeing that they fall into different categories.

Both said that there are factors which show whether an offender has a high or low risk of relapse.

Low risk factors include:

   -- The offender admits what he did.
   -- He cooperates in his treatment program.
   -- He is willing to act under supervision.
   -- He has empathy with victims.

High risk factors include:

   -- The number of victims is high.
   -- The offender shows narcissistic and anti-social behavioral patterns.
   -- The offender may have something organically wrong with his brain chemistry that can cause erratic behavior.

"People can be treated. They can work through the issues and are capable of conversion," said Sister Markham.

Father Rossetti said that before the current "zero tolerance" policy a "clinical model" was used in dealing with child sex abuse by clergy.

This model was based on treatment and left the door open to some form of limited ministry, he said.

"Before, you would go for evaluation. You would work hard, be forthright," he said. "Some form of supervised ministry was available."

Father Rossetti said the treatment approach is better for society and the church than simply throwing a priest out of ministry because the treatment approach includes monitoring and supervising offenders as a further defense against relapse.

He called the bishops' current approach a "legal model" in which canon law procedures for dismissing clerics automatically kick in once a person is judged an offender.

"The 'clinical model' is seriously compromised in the current climate," he said.


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