Article in Washington Post on Clergy Sexual Abuse Misses the Mark

The Washington Post has published a story this morning on the Sexual Abuse Scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. Why exactly they have chosen to do so at this time is not clear. There are no new allegations, no legal updates to report, no recent protests or accusations against the Archdiocese of Washington’s handling of this matter.

The Article, entitled  After child abuse accusations, Catholic priests often simply vanish, seems to have as its purpose and focus the question of whether the Catholic Church is doing enough to “track” and control the behavior of former priests once they have been “defrocked” (i.e. laicized or removed from ministry). The question seems somewhat misplaced however since such functions of control, probation and registering sex offenders are the role of the State, not the Church. Never mind though, this article is going to be about the Church. Never mind that the Church has no legal standing or power to accomplish such tracking, control and legal disclosure. Yet it would seem according tot he article that she is still negligent. Exactly how the Church is to accomplish this task of tracking and controlling is not made clear by the reporters or others interviewed. At any rate this lack of monitoring seems to be the premise of the article. The article begins with this somewhat rhetorical observation:

[S]omething glaring is missing in this country: the accused priests. Although the vast majority were removed from ministry long ago – barred from celebrating Mass in public, administering the sacraments, wearing their clerical collars or presenting themselves as priests – church officials say they have no way to monitor where the men are now…..The Washington Post was able to identify 31 priests accused in the Washington area and locate nine who are still alive…..

The implication of course is that we are supposed to be monitoring. Again, how and on what legal basis or standing we are to do this is not stated.

 The Article is further deficient in that  it doesn’t discuss the breadth of what the Church has done to protect kids nor does show how much has been developed, including criminal background  checks of all priests and lay staff who have any contact with youth. No mention is made of the reporting and accountability to third parties that all abuse prevention training is up to date and that all requirements are met yearly in terms of legally recognized abuse prevention programs. Neither does the Post article make clear that historical data and names of all accused priests have been made public. All the men mentioned in the article have been named publicly before by the Church. Further, it is the policy of the Archdiocese to immediately inform the local police of any charges of abuse, past or present.  None of this is mentioned and the impression is allowed by the article that the Archdiocese is somewhat  cavalier about men who are barred from ministry and child safety, which is not true.

As a priest, I am grieved and angry that any brother priest of mine harmed children, sexually abused them, or scandalized them in any way. Nothing could be further from the purpose of the priesthood and the Church than the exploitation of the innocent and vulnerable. There is simply no place in the priesthood for those who have done such things.  I believe the Archdiocese of Washington has been very serious about finding those men who offended and, upon knowledge of any past abuse coming to light, has acted swiftly to remove them and report them to law enforcement. As a priest I am additionally grieved at how the horrible violation of trust by these abusers has affected the ability of the vast majority of priests who never offended to preach the Gospel and build trust with their people. I am no apologist for any abuser priest. Neither do I think that the Church has handled this matter well in the past. However, this Post Article says nothing about how seriously this Archdiocese has been about this problem for a long time now. This leaving out  of the “rest of the story” is a serious deficiency of the article and a disservice to the Church, and to  many people I love and respect who are very diligent in protecting the  young. Susan Timony is the post just prior to this (  some of the significant measures we take to prevent abuse and also the pastoral care we extend to victims and their families.

But the ultimate deficiency in the Post article  is the poor marksmanship of the authors who completely miss the target of what should concern us at this point. The data in this article goes a long way to show the deficiencies in our criminal justice system. If we are really serious about protecting young people from sexual abusers it is not obvious by looking at the lapses in incarceration, probation and community protection by the State.

I would like to look at an example from the article to illustrate this. The quote from the article is in bold italics black. My commentary is normal text red

The Case of Robert Petrella:

Robert J. Petrella has been accused by at least 25 men of molesting them when they were boys, church officials said. He has been convicted twice of abuse charges in Prince George’s County – in 1997 and 2002. Yet his name does not appear on any sex-offender registry He was prosecuted under the Maryland laws in effect at the time his crimes were committed, long before such registries existed, said Prince George’s Assistant State’s Attorney Renee Battle-Brooks: (This is bureaucratic gobbledygook. Robert Petrella has been in and out of jail twice since 1997. His absence from sex-offender registries is not a negligence on the part of the Church, this is negligence on the part of the State. Where is the outcry? Where are the demands for reform? Surely the Post will devote full attention to this terrible oversight in the law. The Post and many voices legitimately demanded immediate reform in the Church for our oversights and bad policies of the past. How about this dreadfully bad policy by the State of Maryland?  Robert Petrella should be listed prominently in every sex-offender registry. He is a very serious offender. At least  25 men have accused him. This is a serious dereliction of duty on the part of the state).

The Washington Archdiocese, which removed Petrella from the ministry in1989 after two decades and seven parishes, defrocked him in 2002. Susan Gibbs, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said she isn’t sure where Petrella is, and his attorney, William Brennan, declined to comment. (Hmm…so it looks like the Post isn’t going to decry the State of Maryland and interview people who demand reform. Oh, I see, it’s back to the Church which is supposed to know his whereabouts and be doing…. what? Has the Post not missed the true target here? It is the State of Maryland and other States as well that need reform. The Church does not have the capacity to track whereabouts since she cannot demand reportage from US Citizens. We cannot force Petrella to where a ankle device   or demand he check in every day. That is not in our power. The State however does have that power and I would recommend that the Post, if it is serious about protection, use a little journalistic pressure to agitate for change as they and others rightfully did of the Church in the past).

The person who has tracked the former priest most closely in recent years is [David] Fortwengler, who was an11-year-old altar boy at St. Columba when Petrella molested him in 1968. “I got that sick feeling in my stomach again,” Fortwengler said of learning that Petrella’s probation was coming to an end. Petrella, who did not respond to phone calls and letters, had gone unmonitored for long stretches before…..  Petrella….didn’t face criminal charges until 1997. After being convicted of battery, he served one week in jail before persuading a Prince George’s judge to release him so he could care for his ill mother. (Pay attention folks. After being convicted of child molestation Petrella spent only one week in jail, one week. Now this is a serious miscarriage of justice by the State. Again, where is/was the outcry? Where are the demands for reform? Why did this go unreported at the time? Again, this is the State, not the Church that is going lite on offenders)

His release required him to be in a home detention program in Pennsylvania under supervised probation for three years. Yet it came out in court documents years later that probation authorities there were never supervising him….  (More incompetence and dereliction by the State. It seems well past time for the Post and others to demand a full investigation of such matters. A dangerous sexual predator was allowed to go free and unmonitored for years. Did he live near a school, a playground? How many others are going free and unmonitored? Why is the Post making this an article about the Catholic Church. Here again it seems that they are missing the mark, which is the States of Maryland and Pennsylvania, which have both the legal power and duty to protect citizens and have failed to do so. The Church does not have the ability to track people or the power to engage in probative practices. It really must be the State that does this).

In 2002, after Fortwengler and two more victims came forward with allegations, Petrella was arrested again and pleaded guilty to three counts of unnatural or perverted sex practices. This time, he served nine months (nine months? Is that all?) and was released on the probation that ended three years ago…. (out already?) Haunted by the idea of Petrella going unnoticed, Fortwengler located him in 2008 in the North Arlington, N.J., home where the former priest had grown up. He was living there with his mother  (Is this the same mother who was so sick that he had to be released to care for her in 1997?),  neighbors said. He sometimes took walks carrying a Bible and wore a clerical collar when he appeared for a neighborhood condolence call, they said. “In order to protect your children, the whereabouts of dangerous predators like Petrella must be disclosed,” read the flier Fortwengler took door to door. Since then, neighbors have kept a close eye on Petrella, Good for Mr. Fortwengler. However he shouldn’t have had to do this. Further, with all the weird protections Petrella seems to have, Mr. Fortwengler may well have opened himself to a lawsuit had Petrella chosen to do so. Just as the Church has no power or jurisdiction to engage in such practices, neither does Mr. Fortwengler. But again he should not have had to do this. Robert Petrella belongs on every list of registered sex offenders. Had this been the case, neighbors would have known.

Well, OK, you get the point. It is the State which should be the real target of our reporters here. But, strangely, they are silent in terms of pursuit of this angle of the Story. It remains the Catholic Church that is their target. Rather than call State Officials, our reporters called the Bishop’s Conference and the Archdiocese of Washington. They received the following and rather obvious replies:

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops conference, said there is only so much that can be done to keep track of accused priests once they are no longer connected with the Church. “There is a lot of concern, but there are limits to what we can do legally,” she said. “We have no authority over them. Once they’re gone, they’re gone.” 

“Our authority over them ends when they’re laicized and no longer priests,” [Susan] Gibbs [Communications Director for the Archdiocese of Washington] said. “Even if they’re not laicized, they have the choice of walking away. They are adults. We’re not a police force. We don’t run prisons. We don’t have mechanisms in a legal sense for controlling them.” The legal system is much better positioned to offer ongoing scrutiny, she said. “That’s why it’s best if someone reports abuse immediately and that it’s brought to authorities, because then there’s a legal path to follow for investigating, proving and monitoring.”

Exactly, There are legal limits, and even legal liabilities involved when private citizens or organizations overstep their authority. Lawsuits, charges of harassment, defamation and so forth can result.

Three other ADW cases – Two former priests of the Archdiocese (Edward Hartel and Russell Dillard) are also mentioned in the article. Neither were convicted in court of the charges against them. They remain suspended from priestly ministry however for various reasons. In these cases the Church has been stricter than the State. The norms of the Church allow us to be very particular about who we allow to function in priestly ministry. However, to legally track and attempt to restrict the movement of former priests like these (who are free US Citizens and convicted of no crime in any US court) would surely involve legal liabilities. One final Archdiocesan Priest mentioned in the article is James Finan and he has freely submitted to supervision by Church authorities. Having met his legal obligations to the State he has lived in Church retirement homes for priests. He has not ministered as a priest or had any contact with parishes or children. But note, he is supervised as a free decision of his own. The Church could not insist legally on this, since he has rights as a US Citizen.

In the end, the Post has missed the proper target. Currently there are serious deficiencies in the criminal justice system that need investigation. The safety of children and minors is at stake when the State either through incompetence or legal complexities fails to give sentences that are commensurate with the crime, grants early release and/or  allows sexual offenders to go unmonitored and unreported on sex offender registries.

The Church has rightfully been rebuked for our failings of the past. I know that this rebuke has had the salutary effect of reform in the way we handle these matters today. I think that on-going scrutiny is both necessary and helpful for the Church. However this Post article makes clear that significant reform is also necessary in the US criminal justice system. It is my hope that the Post will follow through with what it has uncovered and that other media and concerned parties will insist on reform in the State as well. Sadly, and for obvious reasons the Church herself cannot champion this call. I suspect that I will get more than a few comments here on the blog from those who will be quite angry with me and assert that I am trying to evade responsibility for our past failures. I am not, and hope I have stated that plainly. But the fact is, this problem is bigger than the Catholic Church. If we are really going to be serious about protecting children it’s time to widen the net of accountability.

Here is a PDF of the Statement Issued by the Archdiocese of Washington Yesterday in response to the Post Article: Our Commitment to Healing and Protection

19 Replies to “Article in Washington Post on Clergy Sexual Abuse Misses the Mark”

  1. The more I see articles like this that show how our culture hates the Church, the more I admire the wonderful priests I know. Thank you for your perseverance!

  2. The reason the Post does not go after the State is that the State controls the Post, and is part and parcel of the State’s propaganda machine. That being said, it is obvious why the Ministry of Truth published this story:
    DO NOT TRUST PRIESTS! The so-called holy men can be the most egregious violators of children. Nothing like a Roman collar for a cover story.

    Catholicism in particular, and religion in general, are dying out in America. Proof? Look at the number of parishes and parochial schools that are closed every year. Look at the falling attendance at Mass or services or what have you. Look at the ever increasing number of atheists and humanists that are brave enough to come out of the closet and proclaim their independence from mythology. (The current PM of Australia is an atheist, I don’t see any concentration camps springing up! The ol’ “godless Communist” epithet doesn’t fly.) Can’t argue with the numbers.

    There is an old axiom: “An educated Catholic is an oxymoron.” The GI Bill allowed large numbers of middle class men to gain their college degree. At the same time, Vatican II changed the Roman Catholic Church in to a fun house mirror image of the Protestant church. Put the two together, and it’s lights out for the god-guys.

    1. Somehow I suspect Mr. H that we will be around a little longer than you think. I do admit our numbers are down recently but the Lord never told us we’d be in the majority. In fact he implied the opposite (e.g. narrow road etc).

      Your comment: There is an old axiom: “An educated Catholic is an oxymoron.” shows forth an ignorance. THe Catholic Church has a strong intellectual tradition rooted in her founding of the university system in Europe, not to mention scholasticism and the deep wisdom of the early Church Fathers. The Catholic Church has made great contributions to modern science:

    2. First of all religion is not dying out in America at all (least of all Catholicism) no matter how hard atheist try to convince themselves otherwise.

      If you think Catholics are uneducated than you must be pretty ignorant yourself. There are many bright minds in the Catholic Church, present and past, and in all fields, from philosophy to physics to arts.

      “Vatican II changed the Roman Catholic Church in to a fun house mirror image of the Protestant church.”

      This is nonsense. Vatican II has not protestantized at all the Church… Only those who *do not* understand or know Vatican II, would say that.

      “Proof? Look at the number of parishes and parochial schools that are closed every year. Look at the falling attendance at Mass or services or what have you. ”

      Well this does not prove much. Church attendance mostly decreased in the 60-70’s… now it’s actually slightly increasing in the US.

      “The current PM of Australia is an atheist, I don’t see any concentration camps springing up!”
      Ths hardly means nothing.
      The PM is an atheist but the nation is general is not and the PM of Australia is not an all powerful regent who can do whatever he wants like Stalin or Polpot almost were.

      “Look at the ever increasing number of atheists and humanists that are brave enough to come out of the closet and proclaim their independence from mythology. ”

      Two points about this:
      1- There aren’t as many atheists as atheist’s like to think or spread around. Also religion is quite making a come-back in the last 2 decennia.
      While in the 60-70’s many sociologists thought as you do, not the idea that religion might disappear is not taken seriously by any self-rescpecting sociologist. Only deluded atheists belive they ‘have won’.

      2- Who is free from mythology? Certainly not atheists! You just need to read the atheist propaganda: Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennet and other… its FILLED with lies, half truths, misunderstandings, ignorance.
      I think it is atheists who live in a delusion adn believe in self-created ‘myths’

      Perhaps the true oxymoron (*your words prove it*) is an ‘educated atheist’.

      “Put the two together, and it’s lights out for the god-guys.”

      Such delusion is so sad. Can you also say ‘I will find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow’? Wink Wink.

      Instead of believing everything Dawkins and Hitchens tell you, why don’t you get educated?

  3. This is a difficult subject to enter into discussion because no matter how you try to support the Church, many will say that you are not been sensitive to the wounds inflicted on the victims by molesting priests. The Washington Post is just looking for ways to keep this dirt alive like a gossip, because they are not coming up with anything that has not been said or try to shed new light that would be helpful to the subject. The Church has already taken steps to see that its priests and seminarians are properly educated, trained and are aware in keeping watch over these disordered triggers by living a life of surrender to the Lord Jesus. The Church has done a whole lot of more good in its existence than what has been a very small number of sexual incidents by priests. The people who oppose its good and holiness carry a great deal of illicit baggage and can not enter through its narrow gate, as some have experienced the coming in and out of it.

  4. One thing the article pointed out, perhaps inadvertently, is the plight of those who are accused. I have known more than one priest who has been accused and then promptly dismissed by the Church only to scramble about looking for legal counsel at their own expense (no small feat for men who made less than 30,000/year) and then to try to find some kind of work with their accusation chasing them. With all of the understandable and necessary attention given towards the victims and accusers, the Church has sometimes wound up treating her priests with less than Christian compassion in the name of legal protocols or political apprearances. We need to pray (and care for) for all of those involved. Opus sacerdocii has also done a great service here where many bishops seem to have dropped the ball.

  5. Having just finished jury duty in a sexual abuse trial, I was interested in this Washington Post article I found in Google News. My initial reaction to the article was that the reporter either had no idea of the legal concepts they were writing about or that it was a “HIT” piece on the Catholic Church. Even if a person is convicted of sexual abuse, they still have certain rights under the law. Was the reporter suggesting that the Catholic Curch should violate these rights and be open to more lawsuits? I don’t know. If a person is to be monitored after jail, that responsibility is to the State and not the Curch. After some reflection about the article, I came to the conclusion that it was a “HIT” piece against the Catholic Church. The reporter does not mention any other sexual abusers that were not Catholic Church related. Is the reporter suggesting that the only sexual abusers who vanish were Catholic priests? Unfortunately, this is the culture we live in. It’s not easy standing up for the rights of sexual abusers, but they like us were made in the image of Christ. Sexual abuse is a horrible crime and if a person was found guilty of sexual abuse they should be subjected to the full extent of the law. Hate the sin, love the sinner. By the way, myself and eleven other people found the defendant not guilty.

  6. I wonder how various public school systems and youth organizations would hold up under similar scrutiny. Dollars to doughnuts says: not well.

  7. The reason the Post and other press goes after the Church is that the Church appears to be an easy target. No one institution has done more to protect the vulnerable than the Church. However, the media has its own popular agenda, which is to justify that it has the best interest of the public at heart. However, I’m giving too much credit to an institution, namely the media, which has no heart. If it did, it would not disclose classified infoarmation and leaks which jeopardize the security of others.

    As a deacon, and pro-life, I cannot condone killing of any kind, nor can I condone anyone taking advantage of the vulnerable. However, the press likes to make the Church appear as if we do not care for life because we stand up for traditional families, we cannot tolerate euthanasia or wanton killing of the less than convenient, and we can still accept others for who they are in God’s love, in spite of the common cultural methodology. We are in a time of persecution, not only of Catholics, but of any who hold religious faith of any kind, including Jews and Muslims, as well as other Christians. Given time, it will come to pass; history has the precedant and because they don’t recognize their own history, they will be destined to repeat it.

    The best thing we can all do is to continue to address the issues that need to be addressed, no matter how difficult, and to continue to live God’s love, not the self-indulgent love so popularized and so guilty of selling out the future of civilization as we know it. As a Church, we have to continue to be a visible presence. The Church in Washington has continued to do so. Even deacons there are highly visible as they wear grey clericals when working in the Church’s capacity. The Church there has stood up against the DC laws condoning same-sex marriage that was railroaded through by the city council, and stood up for the rights of the city residents to vote on the issue. There have been remarkably few abuse cases in DC and both Cardinal McCarrick and Cardinal Wuerl have served as vioces of reason in the midst of points of of media hysteria. If anything, Certainly we have to admit our errors, and we are not perfect by any means. But the press is going too far in claiming to be the voice of morality when it exercises so little in the face of so many opportunities. Somewhere, the popular media forgot that the baseline of civil law is natural law, and when natural law is superseded, civil law ceases to exist.

  8. Well finding a journalist that either spews anti-catholicism or that misses the point about issues regarding the Church is like finding sand on a beach these days.

    Also I’d ask where all other sex-offenders go? In the US alone there are more than 96.000 cases of sexual abuse of minors each year… and most of the offenders are not caught or prosecuted.

    BESIDES if a priest is condemned for sexual abuse, and his name does not appear in the registry of sexual offenders, it’s the public officials fault, not the Church. The Church has no saying on what the public officials do…

    This article should attack the American Justice system for such sad failures, rather than the Church.

  9. I am impressed w/ your coiuragee Fr. Pope. This is a very complicated issue and it takes a lot of courage to speak on it. Please pray for the people affected by this issue. There are no winners , merely sinners in need of prayer and victims in needs of prayers

  10. Thank you, Monsignor, for writing such a powerful, persuasive, and truthful reply to the Washington Post article regarding the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. During this Advent season, as we try to get closer to God and try to become more holy and spiritual beings, it seems like others try even harder to prevent or “steal” our joy that we are seeking during this time of year.

    I don’t believe that the timing of this Washington Post article appeared during Advent and Christmas seasons by accident. During this time of year, many people began to come back to church, or at least began to make ocassional appearances, and this article by the Post may discourage many who’s faith is nt strong or secure. I hope that I am wrong, but I feel that this was a deliberate attempt by the author of this newspaper article to discredit the authoritative teaching and the moral leadership of the Catholic Church, and I would hope that the vast majority of the people who will read this article will reject its arguments. Maybe you should send your blog to the Post as a rebuttal to this article in the Post? Your rebuttal could be a way of re-assuring the faithful and encouraging and inviting others to visit and worship with us during this Advent and Christmas seasons. This negative article has opened up another door of opportunity for all of us to go forth and evangelize to those who doubt, question, and reject the faith and the Church. Thanks again for your clear and courageous leadership. Your efforts are much appreciated!

  11. Poor Monsignor Pope for having to read the Washington ComPost and then to analyze and respond to it. Horesco referens! You are very courageous! May the Good Lord continue to bless you!

  12. I do not understand why they are not put on a registry with everyone else just because they called themselves Priest can I call my self a car because I am standing in the garage? Church has to much power they should be treated as everyone else then maybe we scan get the laws changed

    There is a huge difference between stealing a candy bar from the local convenience store and robbing a bank”. Both crimes are considered theft. Both are DIFFERENTIATED by law
    the debt to society is never paid with anyone convicted of a sex crime
    A public registry, if used at all, should only be used to list persons who are clearly a risk to public safety, based on proven criteria and tests.

    Most persons who commit non-violent offenses, consensual-but-illegal offenses, or who committed only a single offense within the home, do not present a public safety risk. They should be punished, treated, and professionally monitored for an appropriate period of time, but the general public gains no advantage by knowing their names and locations.

    Persons with sexual behavioral problems need medical and psychiatric treatment and rehabilitation. If they have the opportunity to receive this treatment early, when their problem is first recognized, they will most likely never become offenders. And if they have offended only once, proper treatment in most cases will prevent a recurrence.

    Due to the current hysteria fostered by the media regarding any “sex offender,” public registration has become a punishment above and beyond its original civil regulatory intent. Regardless of the actual seriousness of their offense, registrants
    · are barred from most employment,
    · are constantly harassed by neighbors, by vigilantes, and by law enforcement,
    · often wind up homeless because their landlords are also harassed, and
    · their spouses and children live in constant fear for their own safety and that of their loved one.
    Most Sex Offenders are young Between the ages of 18- 28 they have consensual sex.
    Sex offenders are the new Salem witch of the 21st century. Accused with no evidence, convicted on the word of a child or victim and persecuted for the rest of their and their families lives. No other crime is pursued by prosecutors so vehemently as the sex offender, even murders and drunk drivers that have killed are given second chances, yet the sex offender is offered no redemption.
    These laws are needed for the predator offenders, but there needs to be remedies for those that make the one time only mistake or have shown that they have been rehabilitated, so they are not forced to pay the price with their lives and their families’ lives because of the few true monsters out there.
    What is being created is a class of individuals that is progressively demonized by society and treated in such a way that a meaningful reintegration into society is impossible.
    Yes, sexual abuse is a serious matter. Yes, individuals who commit sexual crimes should be punished. Unquestionably, a small percentage of sex offenders are very dangerous and must be removed from society

    There is a class of people in America today, numbering two million or more, who have been utterly scapegoated, ostracized, demonized and shunned. There is no longer any defense available for these people. Almost no-one on the left or the right, civil libertarians or ordinary citizens, will defend their rights. They are regularly vilified with the most vicious and hate-filled language–language previously reserved for classes now protected: Jews, Blacks, homosexuals. They are fair game as targets of abuse and vandalism. They are subject to utter public scorn. About 600,000 of them have been rounded up and forced to register–many soon to be monitored for life with electronic bracelets and global positioning devices. Nearly 4000 have been locked up for life, not on criminal charges, but by civil commitment, and those numbers are growing by the day. The remainder are mostly in hiding, desperately afraid of sudden exposure and witch hunts by neighbors, fellow-workers and friends, whom they fear will suddenly see them as monsters beyond redemption. They are a class defined not by specific crimes (though they are accused of many offenses) but by their very being, their desires, their constitution, as allegedly broken human beings. Presidents and Governors call them “despicable,” “disgusting,” “incapable of rehabilitation or reform,” “beyond help.”

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