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Saturday, February 28, 2004

Abuse is over, church declares
But questions on priest celibacy, punishment of offenders remain


WASHINGTON -- Just after the release yesterday of two long-awaited studies on the sexual abuse of children by more than 4,000 priests, the president of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops declared with emphatic finality in a news conference that the bishops had faced the problem, come clean and swept the church of abusers.

"I assure you that known offenders are not in ministry," said Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, punching out his words. "The terrible history recorded here today is history."

One of the reports pronounced that "there must be consequences" for the church leaders who failed to stop the abuse and that the bishops should hold one another accountable in the future. But it did not satisfy critics who said that the church was continuing to sidestep the most sensitive, intractable issues raised by the scandal.

In reacting to the reports yesterday, advocacy groups and reporters peppered the bishops with a host of questions: Shouldn't bad bishops be removed? Should the celibacy requirement for priests be abandoned? Should seminaries bar gay men?

And why have most bishops never divulged the names of their offending priests, many of whom are now living unsupervised and anonymous in the civilian world as a result of the church's new "zero tolerance" policy?

"What Catholics want to know is, has there been a pedophile priest in my parish or in my school?" said Peter Isely, a psychotherapist in Milwaukee and board member of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests. "The most useful information the bishops have, they're not giving us.

The reports, some of whose contents were disclosed late Thursday, a day before their official release, included a "just the facts " statistical analysis based on numbers provided by bishops and religious orders, and prepared by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

It tallied a terrible toll of 4,392 alleged abusive priests and the ways and locations in which they violated more than 10,667 children. One common scenario: plying a child with alcohol and molesting him in the parish residence.

But the more provocative report laid out the causes of the crisis and was written by a National Review Board of Catholic laypeople appointed by the bishops, who judged them to have both enough eminence and enough loyalty to the church to be entrusted with the task.

The chairman of this group was Robert Bennett, a former federal prosecutor, and it included two judges, a law school dean, a psychologist, a psychiatrist and Leon Panetta, former chief of staff to President Clinton.

The review board's report called for "consequences" for those bishops, leaders of religious orders and seminary administrators who behaved in ways both negligent and criminal by failing to remove priests with histories of abuse from contact with children.

Now, lay groups and victims asked yesterday, who will discipline church leaders, how and when?

Only one bishop has lost his position so far for mishandling priest perpetrators.

Cardinal Bernard Law was removed from his seat as archbishop of Boston, although he is sill a cardinal and can vote in the election of the next pope.

Said Sister Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, "We need a system of checks and balances in the church."

The report suggested better "fraternal correction," which means that bishops should keep one another accountable.

But Jason Berry, a journalist who helped uncover the sexual abuse scandal nearly 20 years ago and author of a new book on it, said: "Fraternal correction is a myth. It's never worked."

On another point in the board report, church insiders and experts told the board members that far more priests are sexually active with adult women and men than the priests who abused youngsters. Already yesterday, several church reform groups issued news releases questioning the church's celibacy requirement for priests.

The report also said that more than 80 percent of the victims were teenage boys. Because of this, the bishops were asked repeatedly at the news conference whether gay candidates should be barred from seminaries. Gregory said that the question was under consideration by both the bishops conference and the Vatican. But he suggested that he would not favor an outright ban.

"We as bishops should not simply be examining those who may have a homosexual orientation," Gregory said. "Our screening should look at all unhealthy psychological behavior. I don't want anyone in the seminary who is selfish. I don't want anyone in the seminary who has a distorted view of himself. The narcissistic personality, all of the other qualities."

The review board's report said the "paramount question" is whether a candidate for the priesthood is capable of celibacy and chastity, not his sexual orientation.

In an interview, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee said he agreed that gay candidates should be scrutinized more carefully than straight ones.

He said, "I would think there would be added temptations to the fruitful living of one's chastity."

Perhaps the most immediate question facing the church is what to do about the priest offenders who have been removed from ministry. The Catholic bishops said yesterday that since their "zero tolerance" policy went into effect, more than 700 priests had been removed since January 2002 alone.

"Unfortunately," Gregory said in the news conference, "some who have left we have no way of knowing where they are. They've left the active ministry and are out in the world."

The church said it has neither the resources nor the personnel to monitor the thousands of inactive and former priests who victimized minors.

Many victims and lay advocates, and some prosecutors and sex abuse experts, are calling on bishops and the leaders of religious orders to make public the names of abusers so that they cannot simply move on to jobs as teachers or camp counselors.

Steven Penrod, a distinguished professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said that the John Jay study, which he worked on, suggests that the bishops were unaware of the enormous number of abuse cases in the church nationwide because they did not share information with one another.

"A central clearinghouse will undoubtedly come out of this," he said.

But in interviews, bishops said that while they were considering such a move, they had found reasons not to: The priests publicly named might sue the church; a victim might object out of fear of being exposed.

Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis, chairman of the bishops' ad hoc committee on sexual abuse, said, "I want to be sure that we're on safe ground legally."

And he added, "Whatever we do, we do it for the protection of children."



  • The church must do a better job screening candidates for the priesthood and make sure they are mature, well-adjusted individuals who understand the challenge of celibacy.
  • The primary duty of church leaders in dealing with abuse allegations should be the welfare of the victims, not the rights of the accused priests.
  • The church should choose bishops who see themselves first and foremost as pastors. Diocesan and presbyteral councils should be revitalized to provide advice and oversight for bishops.
  • Church officials should report all allegations of sexual abuse to authorities, regardless of the circumstances and the age or credibility of the accuser.
  • Bishops and other church leaders must be more responsive to concerns of the laity. That means acting with less secrecy, more transparency and greater openness.


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