What matters in clerical abuse

THIS CATHOLIC’S VIEW By Thomas J. Reese, S.J. The media is being attacked by the defenders of Pope Benedict who … Continued

THIS CATHOLIC’S VIEW

By Thomas J. Reese, S.J.

The media is being attacked by the defenders of Pope Benedict who feel that its coverage of the sex abuse crisis is unfair. Do some reporters do a sloppy job reporting? Sure. Are some commentators over the top in their rhetoric? Sure. When the argument is between The New York Times and the Catholic Church, it may simply be one infallible institution taking on another.

But let’s be honest. The church has rarely been helpful in covering the sex abuse story, and without the media coverage, the church would not have cleaned up its act. The church owes a debt of gratitude to the media, especially the National Catholic Reporter, which was on this story from the mid-1980’s, long before the Boston Globe.

In addition, attacking the media is a stupid PR strategy that does not work; in fact it is counterproductive. It makes the church look defensive and makes it look like the church is trying to play down the problem of abuse. Calling the news coverage petty gossip or comparable to anti-Semitism is disastrous; it is pouring gasoline on the fire.

More and more individual cases are making headlines as lawyers leak information to the media or documents are released by the courts. In these news stories, it is extremely important for the reporters and their audiences to pay attention to the time lines in the cases. Here are some questions that need to be asked and answered when looking at concrete cases.

1. When did the abuse take place?

Most cases of abuse in the United States being reported by the media today occurred decades ago. We know from the 2004 study by the John Jay School of Criminology that the number of alleged abuses increased in the 1960’s, peaked in the 1970’s, declined in the 1980’s and by the 1990’s had returned to the levels of the 1950’s. If the date of the abuse is buried at the end of the story, the superficial reader may think it is a recent case.

2. When was the abuse reported to the diocese?

One of the tragedies of the sexual abuse crisis is that victims because of their age and vulnerability do not come forward right away. Some never come forward because they do not want their families, friends or acquaintances to know. As a result, not even the church knew the extent of the abuse. According to the John Jay report, one-third of the accusations were made in the years 2002-3. Two-thirds have been reported since 1993. “Thus, prior to 1993, only one-third of cases were known to church officials,” says the report. The church should be blamed for what it knew but can it be blamed for what it did not know?

3. Did the priest abuse again after he was first reported to the diocese?

Most priests (56 percent) according to the John Jay report had only one accusation against them. On the other hand, the 149 serial abusers (those who abused 10 or more children) were responsible for 27 percent of the abuse. That these serial abusers were not dealt with more quickly is unconscionable.

4. How long was it from the time the abuse was reported to the diocese to the time that the priest was suspended from ministry?

In order to protect children, it is essential that abusive priests be quickly removed from ministry (not allowed to wear clerics, celebrate mass or the sacraments in public, present himself as a priest or work with children). The 2002 Dallas norms require that an accused priest be suspended while an investigation is conducted.

Prior to 1985, most bishops handled these cases poorly. They got bad advice from lawyers and psychologists; they believed the priest when he said he would never do it again; they were focused on protecting the church instead of protecting children. Some bishops learned faster than others that this was an inappropriate response. After the bishops issued their guidelines in 1992, most bishops did better but some like Cardinal Law ignored the guidelines. Although only Law resigned, most of the bishops who did a bad job prior to 1992 are no longer in charge of dioceses because bishops retire at 75 years of age.

5. How long was it from the time the abuse was reported to the diocese to the time that the priest was reported to the police?

According to the 2002 Dallas norms, the diocese “will comply with all applicable civil laws with respect to the reporting of allegations of sexual abuse of minors to civil authorities and will cooperate in their investigation.” Most dioceses have gone further and report allegations even if it is not required by law. The diocese also “will advise and support a person’s right to make a report to public authorities.” Often the police will not investigate the crime because it is past the statute of limitations.

6. How long was it from the time the abuse was reported to the diocese to the time that the diocese reported it to the Vatican?

In 2001, the John Paul II mandated that if there is sufficient evidence that sexual abuse of a minor has occurred, the case should be reported to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In some cases, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) is being taken to task when he was not notified of the cases for years and sometimes decades after the diocese knew.

7. How long did the canonical process take to determine the innocence or guilt of the accused? If it is not finished, at what stage is it?

The canon law of the church, like the American criminal justice system, has procedures for due process. Due process can take time under both systems. Cases where the evidence is overwhelming or the priest confesses can be dealt with expeditiously. Cases where it is one person’s word against another are difficult. Despite all it resources of money and expertise, the American criminal justice system too frequently convicts the innocent and frees the guilty. It has difficulty dealing with cases of rape and sexual harassment where it is one person’s word against another. It should not be surprising that the church is not perfect with such cases either.

The Vatican website has a description, in layman’s terms, of the process for handling accusations of sexual abuse. For ongoing cases, the church needs to be transparent in describing at what point in the process the case is.

8. What punishment was applied to the guilty and when?

The 2002 norms approved by the Vatican state that the offending priest “will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants.” They state that the penalty of dismissal might not be applied “for reasons of advanced age or infirmity.”

In theory, dismissal from the priesthood (defrocking, forced laicization) can be distinguished from suspension from ministry. As long as the priest observes the conditions of his suspension, children should be safe. Children may in fact be safer when a priest is suspended and confined to a monastery under supervision than they would be if he is dismissed and thrown out on the streets with the church washing its hands of him.

But dismissal may be necessary to show victims and others that the diocese believes the accusation and has responded appropriately. It may also help in the healing process for victims. It also protects the diocese from any liability for future abuse. Because in the past many bishops did not police their priests well, no one trusts the bishops to do so now.

Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is a Senior Fellow, Woodstock Theological Center, Georgetown University.

By Thomas J. Reese | 
April 14, 2010; 9:06 PM ET

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  • usapdx

    Any RCC administrater that hide the TRUTH of a sexual abuse cime against a child to protect the IMAGE of the church must resign as a administrater no matter who. Any religious that commited the crime of sexual abuse of a child must be totally put out of any religious employement in the RCC.

  • Sajanas

    “In theory, dismissal from the priesthood (defrocking, forced laicization) can be distinguished from suspension from ministry. As long as the priest observes the conditions of his suspension, children should be safe. Children may in fact be safer when a priest is suspended and confined to a monastery under supervision than they would be if he is dismissed and thrown out on the streets with the church washing its hands of him. “Safer than if he were on a national sex offender database? Safer than if he had to go around to the neighborhood and announce himself? Who exactly is guarding these people in the church? Would they have tracking bracelets on their ankles? This is not the Congo here, your priests aren’t being persecuted by unfair or arbitrary laws, its okay to just turn them in to the cops. Its really just that simple.

  • Judy-in-TX

    Thank you, Father Reese.

  • chrismel09

    It is my humble opinion that religion is the bane of humanity. More wars and outright murder have been justified by religion than any other reason. I was raised Catholic an attended twelve years of Catholic school fortunately I was radical enough in those days to question the church’s authority in many different ways. Religion is nothing more than politics, power and money. Two of the most influential people in my life were Catholic priests one of whom is my Godfather and the other is the brother of the Detroit Tigers managers, Tom. It breaks my heart to think how comments made by people and the press disparage their professions. As the old saying “the Captain goes down with the ship” and its time for Ratzinger to go. Just maybe the Catholic church will finally realize that this is the 21 century an not the 12th. How about lets all try God and forget religion.

  • LadyOrmond

    Tom says: “1. When did the abuse take place? Most cases of abuse in the United States being reported by the media today occurred decades ago. We know from the 2004 study by the John Jay School of Criminology that the number of alleged abuses increased in the 1960’s, peaked in the 1970’s, declined in the 1980’s and by the 1990’s had returned to the levels of the 1950’s. If the date of the abuse is buried at the end of the story, the superficial reader may think it is a recent case.”======================Baloney! Soooo many defenders of the sexual predators and the bishop who have spent billions to protect them, make the same lame claim. Tom admits it’s baloney in his next paragraph:=============================Tom says: “2. When was the abuse reported to the diocese? One of the tragedies of the sexual abuse crisis is that victims because of their age and vulnerability do not come forward right away.”========================Given that obvious fact, how can anyone claim the number of children assaulted by predator priests has declined? The pope and the bishops and the priests think everyone else is stupid, easily gulled by their double-talk, easily impressed by their collars and frocks.

  • Cthulhu3

    Father Reese, I think this is a well written and thoughtful piece. Too bad it will get no further attention, because the media likes to keep the witch-hunt frenzy going.I still think the issue and role of homosexuality in the scandal still needs to be addressed. Most, but certainly not all, of the pedophilic and pederastic cimes committed against children seem to be homosexual in orientation, i.e. adult males exploiting and abusing young males. It is still an open question why a statistical majority of these acts are homosexual in orientation. It does not seem to be a statistical anomaly, but rather a strong trend. And it is not just connected to the priesthood–it is among the non-celibate general population, too. This is not meant to cast homosexuals in a bad light, but one has to wonder–and I think it demands more study by professionals–if homosexuals under the stresses created by the demands of celibacy or homosexuals with some other co-factors (immature self-image, conflict and guilt over their orientation, etc.) are more likely to victimize children and teenagers of the same sex. If this were the case, the Church, armed with this deeper psychological understanding and as a preventive measure, might be able to counsel these men against joining the priesthood or offer them help if they are already in the priesthood.

  • bob32

    Just like the Holocaust their evil game is over; no penance could possibly forgive any of the monstrous horror done to countless children over centuries. The Church,Pope, and priests all need to be brought before an International Court of Justice much like the Nuremberg Trials. We should all write letters of support to Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens in their attempt to have the Pope arrested.

  • JaneDoe4

    My question is why do the so called faithful in this church have to do penance?Nice shifting the blame Pope. Why don’t YOU do the penance since a lot of this is your fault for protecting the pedophile priests and the RCC church’s reputation instead of protecting and cherishing the young people endangered by these monsters?

  • kentigereyes

    I strongly urge the powers-that-be in this church kick these pedophilic priests out of the order and lets put them in prison. TFL, Ken

  • YEAL9

    Why did today’s pope, prelates, preachers and rabbis, so focused on society’s sexual sins, lose sight of clerical sexual sins?Obviously ordination in any religion is not assurance of good behavior !!!!!Neither is coronation!!! e.g. Henry VIII, King David.Neither is marriage as 50% of those men convicted of pedophilia are married.Neither is being elected president of the USA!! e.g. Billy “I did not have sex with that girl” Clinton, John “Marilyn Monroe” Kennedy”Neither is possessing super athletic skill!!! e.g. Tiger “I am so sorry for getting caught” WoodsNeither is being an atheist, secularist, humanist, Hindu, Buddhist, public school teacher, or pagan since pedophilia is present in all walks of lifeas perMar 29, 2010 ……www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi…/when-priests-and-rabbis-c_b_516386.html “The words used by Pope Benedict and others in responding to the Church’s ever-deepening sexual abuse crises reflect a sickness that is not unique to the Catholic community. In fact, that sickness creeps into all religious communities of which I know, and leaves a trail of victims in its wake every time. I refer to the way in which religious leaders and the communities which they lead wear the mantle of victimhood to cover their naked moral failings.”

  • areyousaying

    A Catholic PR chronology:1. Catholic League President Bill Donohue dismisses the victims as “gold-diggers”2. In the face of more revelations of abuse and cover ups, the Pope writes the Irish letter while his Vatican thug calls those who speak out, including the victims “Jew haters”3. Huckabee and Donohue Catholic neocons blame “the liberals”3. Vatican thugs blame “enemies of the church” and pretend the outrage is a pro-life, gay activist “conpiracy”4. Vatican thugs blame the media claiming their “decline in revenue” caused the uproar.5. The Pope finally speaks that the “Church is under attack” and “Christians, apparently except him, his cardinals, and bishops need to “repent” What this Church really needs to best represent it’s true diabolica motives towards the victims in this matter is to hire KKKarl Rove, Limbaugh and RNC Fox News to do their PR. Those folks really know how to jeer, sneer, smear, scapegoat and demonize others.

  • areyousaying

    oops, I forgot to mention the Church scapegoating gays, they think that really works well

  • FarnazMansouri

    Three more relevant questions for Church and Media1. Why has the Church not yet (!) released its Holocaust era archives?2. Why did Vatican Bank launder 200,000,000 mafia dollars?3. Why is the American media not reporting on the ongoing investigation of Vatican Bank for laundering 200,000,000 mafia dollars?4. Why did Pius XII permit 200 nazi Franciscan priests to torture to death thousands of Serbian Orthodox, Jews, and Roma, without so much as a comment?5. Why did Vatican Bank then accept the loot stolen by the Franciscan Nazi priests from their victims?6. Why has Vatican Bank refused to settle with the surviving victims and their heirs to this day?7. Why does the media not report on the ongoing law suit (2nd appeal)?

  • FarnazMansouri

    Correction to previous posting: SEVEN more relevant questions for Church and MediaMore, or additionalBTW., TOM REESE, the RCC’s crimes against nonCatholics are equally as important as its crimes against “God’s people,” among which pederasty is not alone.

  • Logic3

    To equate The New York Times and the Catholic Church as “simply may be one infallible institution taking on another institution”, as though, The New York Times or any other institution is of the same level as the Catholic Church is egregious, if not outright heredtical.

  • FarnazMansouri

    Additional Relevant Questions1. Why has the Church not yet (!) released its Holocaust era archives?2. Why did Vatican Bank launder 200,000,000 mafia dollars?3. Why is the American media not reporting on the ongoing investigation of Vatican Bank for laundering 200,000,000 mafia dollars?4. Why did Pius XII permit 200 nazi Franciscan priests to torture to death thousands of Serbian Orthodox, Jews, and Roma, without so much as a comment?5. Why did Vatican Bank then accept the loot stolen by the Franciscan Nazi priests from their victims?6. Why has Vatican Bank refused to settle with the surviving victims and their heirs to this day?7. Why does the media not report on the ongoing law suit (2nd appeal)?8. Might it be time to investigate how the Vatican is at once (a) a Sovereign Nation and, therefore, immune to law suits initiated by Americans, (b) a religion and therefore tax exempt, and (c) an unregistered foreign lobbyist?9. Might it also be time to investigate how Vatican Shills like Stupak and Ben Nelson unabashedly proclaim they are doing the Vatican’s bidding, thereby violating the Establishment Clause?

  • YEAL9

    Added information about the problems of the Vatican Bank can be found at:en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Institute_for_Works_of_Religion:Added information about the Catholic sex abuse cases can be found at:Added information about others who apparently have been unfair to Holocaust victims:”Steven ErlangerIsraeli banks holding assets from European Jews killed in the Holocaust failed to make a determined effort to return the holdings to their heirs, and when they were returned, they were not returned at their proper value, according to a report by an Israeli parliamentary committee. The government of Israel, as custodian for a large part of the assets, also failed to make a serious effort to maintain their value or to return them to survivors or heirs, the report said.”The assets of Israeli banks are posted at:The top two banks in Israel have over $600 billion in assets.Might it be time to investigate Israel and her banks and their unique powers they hold in Israel to include possible lobbying interests in the USA?And as per Rabbi as perMar 29, 2010 ……www.huffingtonpost.com/rabbi…/when-priests-and-rabbis-c_b_516386.html

  • NorwegianBlue

    I think Tom Reese makes several sound points, though I have a couple I expect he’d agree with:I don’t believe a single U.S. bishop resigned while stating, “I am responsible for allowing a sexual predator to remain in ministry. I was wrong to do so.”I’m ignoring the mockery of people resigning but the Vatican “not accepting” the resignations. Resign and LEAVE — they’ll find another bishop soon enough. As Charles de Gaulle said, the graveyards are full of indispensible men.I also believe that had any of these priests done something REALLY wrong–spoke out from the pulpit advocating the ordination of women, say, or in favor of birth control other than the rhythm method–the CDF and Ratzinger would have acted a hell of a lot faster and a hell of a lot more firmly. And if those topics don’t work, how about abortion?I’m depressed past words by these professional virgins in the Curia, fretting about “scandal,” by which they mean and have always meant “bishops and higher-ups looking bad.”Perhaps it’d be good for the next pontiff to have spend more time in direct parish work–at last as long, say, as it takes to get an associate’s degree. And maybe five years minimum as an actual bishop in a small diocese, rather than as a figurehead cardinal with a squad of auxiliaries to do the actual work.

  • YEAL9

    Why did today’s pope, prelates, preachers and rabbis, so focused on society’s sexual sins, lose sight of clerical sexual sins?Obviously ordination in any religion is not assurance of good behavior !!!!!Neither is coronation!!! e.g. Henry VIII, King David.Neither is marriage as 50% of those men convicted of pedophilia are married.Neither is being elected president of the USA!! e.g. Billy “I did not have sex with that girl” Clinton, John “Marilyn Monroe” Kennedy”Neither is possessing super athletic skill!!! e.g. Tiger “I am so sorry for getting caught” WoodsNeither is being an atheist or pagan since pedophilia is present in all walks of life

  • mama6

    Why did religious orders, specifically your own – the Jesuits – ignore reports of abuse and then give haven to predators who were found guilty by civil authorities? Why is justice for members of religious orders different than for others found guilty of the same crimes?