As a priest and pastor I work very closely with others: clergy, religious, laity who work for the Church, and laity who volunteer. We all work for the Church because we love her and her people.
At times, though, there is disappointment, hurt, or even disillusionment. Perhaps these feelings result from issues in the wider Church: sexual abuse by clergy, the lack of courage and leadership from some bishops and priests, the scandal of dissent at the highest levels, questionable partnerships with anti-life and anti-Catholic organizations, the breakdown of discipline, and the strange severity of response to some infractions contrasted with the almost total laxity in the face of others. Perhaps they are the result of local problems found in any group of human beings: gossip, hurtful actions, hypocrisy, power struggles, misplaced priorities, favoritism, and injustice.
While these things happen everywhere, many hope that there will be fewer occurrences in the Church. Some who come to work for the Church begin by thinking, How wonderful it will be to work for the Church instead of out in the cutthroat business world! Maybe they envision a place where people pray together and support each other more. Perhaps they think the Church will be a place with less competition and strife.
Alas, such hopes are usually dashed quickly. We are, after all, running a hospital of sorts; and just as hospitals tend to attract the sick, so the Church attracts sinners and those who struggle. Jesus was often found in strange company, so much so that the Pharisees were scandalized. He rebuked them by saying, People who are well do not need a doctor, sick people do. I have come to call sinners, not the righteous (Mk 2:17).
Idealistic notions of working in and for the Church evaporate quickly when the phone rings with an impatient parishioner on the line, or when two group leaders argue over who gets to use the parish hall, or when the pastor is irritable and disorganized, or when the maintenance engineer is found to be drinking on the job, or when certain members of the choir are making anything but harmony, or when some favored parishioners get attention from and access to the old guard leaders while newcomers are resisted.
For all these sorts of situations that engender irritation, disappointment, or disillusionment, I keep a little prayer card near my desk. Sometimes I read it for my own benefit and sometimes I share it with those who feel discouraged at what happens (or doesn’t happen) in the Church. It is a beautiful mediation; it recalls that although great love often generates the deep disappointment, in the end love still abides.
Consider, then, the following words. They are perhaps over-the-top in places, but love has its excesses. Take these words as a kind of elixir that speaks to the pain that love can cause.
How baffling you are, Oh Church, and yet how I love you! How you have made me suffer, and yet how much I owe you! I would like to see you destroyed, and yet I need your presence.
You have given me so much scandal and yet you have made me understand what sanctity is. I have seen nothing in the world more devoted to obscurity, more compromised, more false, and yet I have touched nothing more pure, more generous, more beautiful. How often I have wanted to shut the doors of my soul in your face, and how often I have prayed to die in the safety of your arms.
No, I cannot free myself from you, because I am you, though not completely. And besides, where would I go?
Would I establish another? I would not be able to establish it without the same faults, for they are the same faults I carry in me. And if I did establish another, it would be my Church, not the Church of Christ.
In recent years, the Catholic Church has come under great scrutiny in terms of the sexual abuse of minors. Painful though it has been, it has been salutary in many ways. That such abuse has occurred, even once, let alone with the frequency we have all discovered, is both tragic and scandalous. That the Church has been scrutinized, and called to account by many, has meant that an increasingly serious and comprehensive set of protective measures has been put in place to root out the sexual abuse of minors. This both helps to protect the young and purify the Church.
Consider the graph to the upper right and we shall see that the reports of this sinful and abusive behavior came rather suddenly on the scene in large numbers about 1960, and peaked in the early 1980s. I recall that, about that time (1985), in this Archdiocese we were rocked with some allegations that brought some very painful sins to light. Cardinal Hickey however, began a very through investigation of the problem, and was one of the bishops at that time who undertook a rather sweeping plan to ensure that young people were protected from this in the future. As a seminarian during those years I was expected to attend seminars that alerted us to the problem and we were all given extensive psychological testing and background checks to ensure we were free of any past sins and offenses in this matter, and free of any tendencies toward them.
As you can see by the graph above right, the number of reported incidents drops precipitously after the mid 1980s. While it is true that in 2002 the issue heated up in the news, the incidents that came to light at that time were largely from 20 to 30 years prior. The real anger at that time had more to do with the failure to discipline and remove abuser priests, a failure that had, or was still occurring, in certain dioceses. But in terms of actual incidences, you can see that the number has come dramatically down to its current level. Though not zero, which is the only acceptable number, we do see a remarkable drop. The graph at the left indicates a dramatic drop in the number of abuse cases by priests ordained after 1985. This too demonstrates that, by that time, most dioceses were very careful to do background checks and perform psychological testing that prevented abusers from entering the priesthood.
Hence, the painful period where sin in the Church has been laid bare has had the salutary effect of purifying the Church and, even more importantly, seeing that children are adequately protected from abuse.
So where do we go from here? How serious are we, as a society and a Country, about making sure that children everywhere are protected from sexual abuse? For if our concerns are really about the children, then we must come to see that the Catholic Church is not the only place children have sexually abused. And we must come to see that some non-church settings, children are still being abused in large numbers.
One of the most dangerous places for our children in terms of sexual abuse are the public schools. Consider clicking on this Google news search for stories about arrests for sexual abuse of minors allegations in the last month. You will see page after page of news items about teachers being arrested for sexually molesting the young people under their care. The search “teacher, student, sex, arrest” yields over 550 news reports (30+ Google pages). (Hat tip to Mark Gray for this Google information)
Note two observations of the media coverage of this. First, the stories are being covered. Hence it would be wrong to say the media is “ignoring” the story. Secondly, however, there seems to be no connecting of these stories. They are all considered to be individual cases, unconnected if you will. These stories tend to be framed as an individual teacher who is just “a bad apple.”
And this failure to connect these individual cases and see them as linked to an overall problem that must be addressed, endangers children.
When the abuse cases in the Church arose, they were seen collectively and it was proposed (rightly to some extent) that there was a problem in the Catholic Church, that something linked all these cases together in the wider culture of the Church. Some (incorrectly) blamed celibacy, others the culture of clerical exoneration, still others to the lack of oversight and discipline by the bishops, and “cover-ups.”
Problem in the Public Schools? But in considering these (very) numerous cases in the public school system, few in the media or elsewhere seem to be willing to propose that there is a problem in the public schools, that there is something that links these cases together. What exactly that problem is, is currently debatable. But the point is, who is demanding investigations? Who is demanding a systematic analysis of the public school system or insisting that further measures be instituted to protect children? Who is looking into the kinds of background checks that the schools perform before they hire teachers? Are there psychological tests to weed out potential abusers? Are there seminars for the teachers to help them recognize the signs of potential abuse taking place on their campuses? Are students taught about their rights and what to do in bad situations? Is there a climate of openness and concern that encourages students to report situations which make them feel uncomfortable, or when they feel they are receiving unwanted attention from a teacher or staff member? What are the procedures for dealing with credible allegations? Are public school systems properly vigilant in protecting children from predators?
Who is asking these questions and probing the “wider context” of the school systems in this country? Are we doing enough to protect our children? Apparently not. Look again at the Google link listed above. We are not dealing with a small problem here, it is widespread, and sadly, common.
Are we willing to take this issue of the sexual abuse of minors to the next level?
And while we are at it, are we willing to address the sexualization of children that takes place in our culture especially in ads, on sitcoms, in movies and music? Why do we tolerate TV shows that depict sexually active teenagers? Why is it so difficult for mothers to buy modest clothes for their daughters at most stores? Why do companies like Abercrombie and Fitch which advertise padded bras and swim tops for 8 year olds, and sell thongs to preteen girls, continue to make money? In short, why are we as a culture not more outraged at the sexualization of children and young teenagers? Sexualizing children and teens does not help protect them from predators who are already confused. If we are serious about protecting the young from sexual abuse, then we ought to stop having such a high tolerance for this sort of thing in our culture. We have discussed this previously on the blog HERE.
I realize that some who read this post will want to read it simply as a priest deflecting attention from the Church. I can and will deny this allegation and have stated clearly that I think the Church has received rebuke, properly. But frankly dear reader, my motivations in raising this are beside the point. The questions I raise remain valid, if we are going to be serious about protecting children. Is our concern really about children and, if so, are we collectively willing to take our concern about the sexual abuse of minors to the next level?
I am interested in your responses and observations.
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 (http://blog.adw.org/2010/12/wounded-hearts/details) 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.
Please permit a brief blog from me today. I am just stepping off a plane from Seattle where I have been the past few days and it is rather late.
I would like to cal to your attention a CBS News report on how Catholics are dealing with the Sexual Abuse scandal.
A New Poll indicates that 86% have not allowed it to affect their belief in the Catholic Faith. The writted version of the CBS article with other links can be read here: Catholics Still Loyal
It is more evidence of what I have also come to know that Catholics are more sophisticated in such matters that the some have either allowed us to be or wanted us to be. I think most Catholics know that there is sin in the Church and that this is surely one of the most egregious things we have recently experienced. But I also think that most Catholics know that God associates with sinners as well as saints and that the Church, like any other gathering where humans beings are involved will have significant struggles and well and great aspects.
I know that some will remark that what I have just said amounts to a minimizing of what has happened. It deny that it does and surely intend no such minimizing. However most Catholics know that there is more to the Church that the sexual abuse crisis, more to her than abusive priests, or Bishops who were sleepy. The fact is that there are innumerable good things that are happening in the Church as you will see in this video. There are good priests, bishops, and religious, good lay people. The Lord is being worshipped, the poor are being served, schools continue to operate, and many people find the Lord in the Catholic Church.
Our sins are real and hurtful, but our graces are also real and helpful. Enjoy this video.
Recent revelations of clergy sex abuse cases here and abroad have caused great distress among the people of God. There is simply no excuse for such offenses that can satisfy, and there should not be. The crime is bad enough but further charges of cover up cause even more distress and anger.
But while the Church remains in the media focus, questions should also arise in the minds of all observers.
Is the Church the only place where such things take place?
Are the Church and Catholic Clergy worse offenders than, say, non-Catholic denominations and clergy, or public schools, or sports teams, scouting and the like?
Are celibate Catholic clergy more likely to offend than married men?
Are Catholic settings more dangerous for children than non Catholic or secular ones?
Many have quickly (and I would say unfairly) concluded that the answers to questions like these would generally be “yes.” For them this is a reason to stay away from Church. Or, for those who dislike and distrust the Church it helps them to become even more hardened in their aversion. But are all these charges against the Church fair? Are there no distinctions to be made? Is the exclusive focus on things Catholic appropriate?
Timothy Radcliff, O.P. the former Master of the Dominican Order has written a thoughtful essay in The Tablet entitled Should I Stay or Should I Go?I would like to print excerpts here and make my own comments in RED. I encourage you to read the whole article by clicking on the blue title in the previous sentence.
Why stay? First of all, why go? Some people feel that they can no longer remain associated with an institution that is so corrupt and dangerous for children. The suffering of so many children is indeed horrific. They must be our first concern. Nothing that I will write is intended in any way to lessen our horror at the evil of sexual abuse. But the statistics for the US, from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004, suggest that Catholic clergy do not offend more than the married clergy of other Churches. Some surveys even give a lower level of offence for Catholic priests. They are less likely to offend than lay school teachers, and perhaps half as likely as the general population. Celibacy does not push people to abuse children.The general media present a very myopic picture by focusing almost exclusively on the Catholic Church. Our offenses are real but so are offenses in other sectors which do not make the news. The fact is the sexual abuse of minors is a worldwide problem made even more extreme by the promiscuous and hypersexualized culture in which we live, especially in the West. Children are often sexualized in movies and advertisements. Women for example have commented extensively on the pages of this blog how hard it is even to buy modest clothes for their daughters. Further, children are exposed to sexual imagery far too early. Both adults and children are inundated by sexual imagery and boundaries are very poor in western culture. In the “old days” young people were chaperoned and there was greater emphasis on modesty. We cannot single out the Church. The sexual abuse of minors is a global problem that cuts across every sector and segment of the human family.
It is simply untrue to imagine that leaving the Church for another denomination would make one’s children safer. We must face the terrible fact that the abuse of children is widespread in every part of society. To make the Church the scapegoat would be a cover-up.….. (Here too, the Criminal Justice System is also to blame. During the same era of the 1950s-1980s too many sexual predators were let off easy. This included rapists. Even today, there are many egregious sex offenders walking our streets. Many have long track records and yet get out early. Recently, two women were killed by a sex offender who was out of jail. He had a track record a mile long and yet he walked freely. Why? So if the Church took such things far too lightly that is wrong. But psychologists, therapists, judges and juries also stand accused. The Church has adopted a zero tolerance policy but our criminal justice system still has too many holes. When will attention turn there?).
But what about the Vatican? Pope Benedict has taken a strong line in tackling this issue as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and since becoming Pope. Now the finger is pointed at him….I am morally certain that he bears no blame here. (As the evidence continues to unfold it looks as if Cardinal Ratzinger was one who took this matter more seriously that others and for this reason the matter was remanded to his care. Remember that he had a very strong reputation (and was hated by some for it) of being the enforcer-in-chief!)
It is generally imagined that the Vatican is a vast and efficient organisation. In fact it is tiny. The CDF only employs 45 people, dealing with doctrinal and disciplinary issues for a Church which has 1.3 billion members, 17 per cent of the world’s population, and some 400,000 priests. When I dealt with the CDF as Master of the Dominican Order, it was obvious that they were struggling to cope. Documents slipped through the cracks. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger lamented to me that the staff was simply too small for the job.. People are furious with the Vatican’s failure to open up its files and offer a clear explanation of what happened. Why is it so secretive? Angry and hurt Catholics feel a right to transparent government. I agree. But we must, in justice, understand why the Vatican is so self-protective…..Confidentiality is…a consequence of the Church’s insistence on the right of everyone accused to keep their good name until they are proved to be guilty. This is very hard for our society to understand, whose media destroy people’s reputations without a thought (Some of the most important work of the Church has to include an expectation of confidentiality. Every day people in my parish tell me of things that are going on in their lives. Many of these things are of a sensitive and personal nature. I have no right to share this information freely. If there is a serious crime involved and I learn of this matter outside the confessional I do have reporting obligations. But 99.9% of what I am told has nothing to do with crime. As a priest confidentiality, discretion and respect for people’s reputations is paramount. The secrecy of the confessional is absolute. Professional confidentiality while not absolute is expansive and people would never come to me or the Church if they felt that their information would be freely shared or that files with their personal data etc would be freely opened to a nosey media and a demanding state. Covering up a serious crime is a crime. But calling the Church secretive because we do not open our files without limit is unfair. The Church is not secretive. Rather, we are deeply respectful of the privacy and reputation of people who often come to us in their weakness and struggles. A few years ago media and government officials demanded the right to search our priest personnel files without any limits. But that is unjust. I, for example, have never offended sexually. I have never violated my celibate commitment. I have never committed any crime. This is true of almost every priest I have known. It is unfair and unjust to demand that my files be open to anyone who asks. Even though I have nothing to hide, I do have a right to privacy and that my personal files not be opened without warrant. It is the same with my lay employees at the parish and with any other personal information about parishioners).
But what about the cover-up within the Church? Have not our bishops been shockingly irresponsible in moving offenders around, not reporting them to the police and so perpetuating the abuse? Yes, sometimes. But the great majority of these cases go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when bishops often regarded sexual abuse as a sin rather than also a pathological condition, and when lawyers and psychologists often reassured them that it was safe to reassign priests after treatment. It is unjust to project backwards an awareness of the nature and seriousness of sexual abuse which simply did not exist then
Why go? If it is to find a safer haven, a less corrupt church, then I think that you will be disappointed. I too long for more transparent government, more open debate, but the Church’s secrecy is understandable, and sometimes necessary…. And so the Church is stuck with me whatever happens. We may be embarrassed [at times] to admit that we are Catholics, but Jesus kept shameful company from the beginning. (Yes, in the end the Church is not a “haven for saints” only but is also a “hospital for sinners.” Many of the Pharisees of Jesus time were scandalized at the company he kept. Jesus said, those who are well do not need a doctor but the sick do, but I have come to call sinners (Mk 2:17). So the Church is a hospital. And what do we find in a hospital? We find care, medicine, treatment, healing and love. But we also find disease, hurt, heartache, pain, and even death. So in the Church is to be observed great holiness, healing, love and beauty. But in the same Church is to be found sin, sorrow, heartache, sinners and other unpleasant matters. Thank God that Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brethren and to be found in our company! (Heb 2:11))
So, to be fair there is sin in the Church, and we have handled many disciplinary matters poorly. But again, to be fair, we are not alone in this. The spotlight is on us to be sure. But spotlights have a way of leaving many other things in darkness. There are serious problems elsewhere in our society as regards the sexual abuse of minors. Scrutiny is needed everywhere. For the sins of the Church, Lord have mercy! For the sin of the whole world, Christ have mercy. For the sins of our own hearts, Lord have mercy.
Twenty-five years ago I had just entered the seminary. It was the Mid-1980s and reports of clerical sexual abuse were emerging. While the vast majority of priests were doing good work, some – even one was too many – had caused significant harm.
I am happy to say that the Archdiocese of Washington was one of the dioceses at the time which took the data of these reports very seriously. Archbishop James Hickey instituted a response in increasing stages to bring about a real prevention of any such behavior going forward. I recall how exhaustive the psychological testing was that I had to undergo before entering the seminary in 1984. Through seminary years careful attention was paid to teaching on the celibate commitment and I remember seminarians being dismissed from Mount St. Mary’s due to infractions of that commitment. Any looking the other way that may have occurred in years past was surely not operative in my seminary years.
When I was first ordained in 1989 the Archdiocese had already instituted a yearly meeting of the priests wherein we were frankly instructed in and warned about any boundary violations and that any credible allegations would be taken very seriously. The attention to this topic annoyed some of the priests who dubbed it the “yearly sex talk.” But it was surely necessary and no one was permitted to miss it. The talks were helpful because they not only reinforced our resolve to ensure safe and proper boundaries in our churches and schools but it also helped us to hold each other accountable and to recognize if brother priests or employees were being inappropriate in any way.
As our sophistication and resourcefulness in this new area began to grow, The Archdiocese of Washington began to expand this training beyond priests and school leaders to increasing numbers of lay leaders and employees. For a number of years we have in place a very expansive program called VIRTUS which you will see described in the CBS video below. It trains anyone in the Archdiocese of Washington (paid or volunteer) who has substantial contact with children to both recognize, and even more importantly prevent sexual abuse. No one is to work with minors unless they have been trained and had criminal background checks done.
I say all this with some pride because I think the Archdiocese of Washington was a leader among other dioceses in this country in the education and prevention of the sexual abuse of minors. We are all well aware that some dioceses did seemingly little in response to the growing crisis. But the Archdiocese of Washington was surely proactive and expansive in its response. Cardinal Hickey was quick to recognize the problem and took it very seriously. He set in motion a process to vigorously address the problem and protect the young. He is gone now but the legacy of his action lives on the programs he initiated long before the Dallas Charter of 2002. Ask any priest of this Archdiocese and they will tell you, we’ve been going to classes and meetings for a mighty long time.
Most recently our efforts have expanded to teach young people carefully on these matters and to give them the comfort and capacity to speak out if they are in any way troubled by the boundaries or behavior of others in this regard. Creating safe environments for children means that it is essential that they feel free to report anything that may concern them in this regard. In the past shame and fear limited reporting. We are trying to eliminate that and keep the door open to any who may wish to express concerns. The Web Page for the Archdiocese of Washington’s Protecting our Children Program is here: http://adw.org/youth/protect_index.asp
Last night, CBS news ran a story which detailed not only one man’s story of abuse, but also of the Church’s efforts to prevent this sort of thing going forward. (While the news story says these are “new” programs, they have been in place for several years and similar programs are in place nationwide.) In this sense the story is fair. There are real victims who still have a lot of pain. But the Church has responded in many ways and that too is part of the story that needs to be told.
Wednesday of Holy Week is traditionally called “Spy Wednesday” since it is this day when Judas conspired with the Temple Leadership to hand Jesus over. He would accomplish his task the evening of the next day, but today he makes arrangements to hand Jesus over.
One way to reflect on this terrible sin is to reflect that Judas was among the first priests called by Jesus. We see in the call of the Apostles the establishment of the ministerial priesthood. Jesus called these men to lead his Church and minister in his name. But one of these priests went wrong, terribly wrong, and turned against the very one he should have proclaimed. Among the other “first priests” we also see great weaknesses evident. Peter in weakness denied Jesus, though he repented later. All the others except John fled at the time of the passion. And so here we see the “sins of the clergy” made manifest. Christ did not call perfect men. He promised to protect his Church from officially teaching error but this does not mean that there is no sin in the Church and among those who are called to lead. The story of Judas shows that even among those who were called, one went terribly wrong.
In recent years there has been much focus on the sins of Catholic Priests who went terribly wrong and sexually abused the young. The vast majority of priests have never done such things, but those who did so inflicted great harm. There are other sins of the clergy that have nothing to do with sexuality that may also have caused great harm. Maybe it was an insensitive remark. Perhaps it was the failure of a priest to respond at a critical moment such as a hospital visit. Whatever it might be that has caused you harm or alienation please don’t give up on God or the on the Church. If a priest or Church leader has caused you grief or to feel alienated please know that there are other priests, deacons, and lay leaders who stand ready to hear your concerns and offer healing. Let the healing begin. Ask among your Catholic family and friends for recommendations about helpful and sensitive priests or Church leaders who can listen to your concerns, address them where possible, and offer another opportunity for the Church to reach out to you with love.
On this “Spy Wednesday” pray especially for priests. We carry the treasure of our priesthood in earthen vessels. As human beings we struggle with our own issues. We have many good days and some less than stellar moments too. The vast majority of Priests are good men, though sinners, who strive to do their very best. But some among us have sinned greatly and caused harm to the Body of Christ, as did Judas. Some of us may have casued harm to you. Please accept an invitation to begin anew. If you have stayed away through some hurt or harm caused by any leader of the Church strive on this “Spy Wednesday” to still find Christ where he is found. Among sinners and saints too, in the Church he founded: Perfect in her beauty as the Bride of Christ but consisting of members who are still “on the way” to holiness.
As usual, after all my verbiage, a music video offers this message better than I ever could. Allow this powerful video to move you if you have ever been hurt or know someone who has.