A new phase of child protection: What to do with laity and clergy who abuse?

The steps taken in the last 30 years to prevent the devastating trauma of child sexual abuse are making a … Continued

The steps taken in the last 30 years to prevent the devastating trauma of child sexual abuse are making a difference. From 1990 to 2010, substantiated cases of child sexual abuse throughout the United States dropped 62 percent, according to experts David Finkelhor and Lisa Jones using a variety of sources including national surveys, FBI and NDACAN (National Data Archive on Child Abuse and Neglect) data. Similarly, since the late 1970s, abuse by Catholic clergy has plummeted from 4 percent to less than 1 percent.

Mandatory reporting laws, prosecution of offenders, increased public awareness, and child-safe education programs have certainly contributed to this trend. Mirroring these aggressive efforts has been the remarkable turnaround in the Catholic Church with it currently having one of the most extensive, comprehensive child protection programs in the country.

The temptation now is to think society has done its job. It has “gotten rid” of the offenders by sending them to prison. Likewise, the church is dismissing clergy-offenders from priesthood. But such thinking is short-sighted. The process of making both society and church safe for children is not over. Rather, dealing with this terrible scourge, affecting all corners of our society, is entering a new phase.

I recall being at the bishops’ meeting in Dallas 2002 when the clergy sexual abuse crisis was at its zenith. In this intense environment, American public sentiment sent a clear message to the bishops, “Get rid of them.” And they did. A few hundred were immediately dismissed and more followed. Child advocates then queried the bishops, “So now, you are supervising these men?” The response came, “Once they are dismissed from priesthood, they are beyond our reach.”

The American mantra to such problems tends to be, “Get rid of them” thus giving the United States the highest incarceration rate in the world. But incarceration is only a limited and temporary solution. Civil authorities are able to prosecute some offenders, but lack of evidence and resources, plus criminal statute of limitations limit prosecution rates. Even so, most child abusers will eventually return to society. What then? Megan Laws have tried to keep them away from minors but children are everywhere.

The next phase of child protection is upon us: what to do long-term with laity and clergy alike who sexually molest children? In our “throw away” society, we cannot throw people away. Eventually, we have to face our problems.

Recently a known lay offender wanted to attend Catholic services. He could never work or volunteer in the Catholic Church, which now criminally screens all employees and volunteers and provides mandatory training in child protection. No known child molesters are allowed to serve. But can they sit in the pews and worship alongside our families? The temptation is to say, “You can worship, but not here.” But children are present in virtually all churches. Churches typically do not close their doors to anyone. All are welcome, saints and sinners alike.

This is part of a larger question and challenges our way of thinking. The despicable child molester cannot be shunted away from societal consciousness. The Christian message has something to say. No person, and similarly no society, can reach holiness without facing its darkest sinful self. When we face directly the evil of child sexual abuse among us, we make our society stronger and our children safer.

The majority of child molesters can live safely in our communities – only if they are supervised, not allowed relationships with minors, and aided in living good lives, including finding meaningful work and a church to worship. But, it should be added, there is a small percentage of offenders who are perpetually dangerous men with particularly predatory instincts, as recently demonstrated at Penn State. These need to be identified and kept under the closest surveillance, if not incarceration, for life.

The problem is how to begin this next phase of child protection. This is a challenge for all America– the Boy Scouts, Penn State, the Catholic Church, public schools, and all. The outline is becoming clearer but the details of this prescription are not so clear. And in these days of tightening budgets, its implementation will challenge societal priorities. Only a joint effort is likely to succeed.

How a people protects its vulnerable, the children, is a measure of its spirit. How it cares for the most despised in its midst is a measure of its soul. In the case of the perpetrators of child sexual abuse, when they are supervised and living a safe, well life, we are caring for our children and for our soul.

Monsignor Stephen J. Rossetti is a clinical associate professor, at the Catholic University of America

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  • formerpriest

    Fr. Stephen Rossetti is living in a fantasy land. Doesn’t he realize that the kids who are being abused by clergy today will not be heard from for another 15-25 years, at the earliest? Besides, I get three-four new cases every week of child abuse by clergy and others. And, they should be kept far away from children. Too bad if predators can’t attend Catholic Masses because children are present…..keeping children safe is the priority. Those men and women can go to their rooms, close their doors, and pray – it’s what Jesus suggest anyway.

    Robert M. Hoatson, Ph.D.
    Road to Recovery, Inc.
    Livingston, NJ 07039

  • geraldtslevin

    Bishops still control eveything: there are no comprehensive and truly independent audits of “bad” priests files.
    A rapidly declining priest population insures bishops will likely keep “bad” priests and accept new “bad” priests. Yet increasing the potential priest pool with married and/or woman priests is forbidden by the doting 85 year old pope, even for discussion.
    The fix is to apply the rule of law from the top down. Until pedophile protecting bishops are locked up, kids will remain at an unacceptable risk of being sexually assaulted by priests. This can and should be a national priority, from the top down .
    Where are Obama and Romney on standing up to bishop pedophile protectors. The pope seems to own Romney.

  • snapjudy

    “remarkable turnaround in the Catholic Church”???

    Church officials still are not removing credibly accused clerics.. If there has been any progess in keeping kids safer, the credit needs to go to all the victims for speaking up and taking action to expose the truth. Silence is not an option any longer, and those who cover up these crimes against kids need to be held accoutable for enabling and empowering more kids to be sexually abused to this day.

    Also the laws need to be changed and bishops need to stop fighting the removal of the statute of limitaions for child sex crimes. Until this is done, there has been no turn around, because there is nothing to deter the abuser and the enablers from stopping.

    Judy Jones, SNAP Midwest Associate Director, USA, 636-433-2511. [email protected],
    (SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests,)

  • kingcranky

    Your organization, SNAP, is truly doing God’s work in helping and assisting those who have been been abused by the Church.

    It’s important to remember that by covering up for pederast priests, their clerical superiors ensure further victims when reassigning the offenders to a new diocese without giving anyone a heads up as to who’s coming their way.

    Within 5-10 years, don’t be surprised to see these same types of claims emanating from areas the Church is now growing in popularity.

    Also important to remember, the only ones deserving of sympathy are the REAL victims, those sexually assaulted, their family & friends, and the parishioners whose financial offerings are used to pay legal judgements, money that could otherwise go to charitable services if Church officials would deal with this crisis honestly instead of trying to cover up wrongdoing.

    Those reasons are why SNAP is such an important group for victims rights and Church reforms.

  • Skowronek

    “Recently a known lay offender wanted to attend Catholic services.”

    If a police officer saw you and knew your legal status, would you be arrested? You never know who is also in attendance.

  • narodnik1

    Surely,the abusive priests could attend a mass said in the rectory or in hours when the church is closed to parishoners.

  • anscombe

    ‘How a people protects its vulnerable, the children, is a measure of its spirit. How it cares for the most despised in its midst is a measure of its soul.’

    Very true words.

  • Rongoklunk

    Better would be to leave children out of religion altogether. Let it be for adults only. That way kids would be growing up without heads full of bizarre superstitions, and will probably be better educated because of it. If they want to get into religion when they’re all grown up – well that’s their decision. But as children – just love them and educate them. Leave the ancient superstitions out of it. The end product is a sensible and rational human being.

  • Rongoklunk

    Why not try something completely different? Why not try leaving children out of religion altogether. Let it be for adults only? That will leave the kids free of superstition and ready to learn and explore the real world – which is, as far as we know, the only world there is. If as adults they want to become religious, well, it’s up to them.
    But if we did this then religion would eventually lose all its devout followers, who are the products of childhood religious indoctrination. But it could be the start of a new rational age – where we finally junked ancient superstitions and looked to science and commonsense to take us the rest of the way. A brave new world ahead unless some religious wacko blows everything up first, for some god or other.


    Our society throws millions of people away, all the time – and not even for GOOD reasons like they’re baby rapers.

    Be too poor, too old, the wrong color, too intellectual, too emotional, enjoy the wrong intoxicants, protest, refuse to be of the correct religion, love someone of the wrong sex, stand up for your rights when the great wad of the population decides you shouldn’t have any – if you’re lucky, you’ll only be ostracized. A lot of times, you’ll end up in jail or dead.

    The roman catholic pedophile priests enjoyed the full support of their “society”, to the point of having their crimes covered up, moving them out of the legal jurisdictions where they committed their crimes, to the extent of moving them out of the U.S. and into countries dominated by the roman catholic church.

    Jerry Sandusky enjoyed the full support and protection of college football for over 20 years while he raped child after child.

    The catholic bishops are great guns on excommunicating politicians when they disagree with certain positions, but have they excommunicated any of these baby rapers? No. They are still part of catholic society. They still enjoy the full protection and support of the church and its society.

    Personally, I think that anyone who sexually abuses or harms a child should be cast forever into the outer darkness. I realize I am in the minority about that on this planet. But that’s OK – I’m one of those outsiders. I am also right.

  • Skowronek

    Clearly I didn’t word my response very well. I am NOT siding with the offenders, I was simply suggesting a response by the religious leader to the question.

    If someone has rules to follow outside the doors of a religious establishment, the same rules apply within.