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March 6, 2004
Column #1,175

Catholic Scandal Moves Toward Resolution 

     Two new studies commissioned by America's Catholic Bishops document the scale of the sexual abuse of minors by priests that has been front page news for two years - and its causes and proposed remedies.

     From 1950-2002 some 4,392 priests - 4 percent of those who served in those years - sexually abused 10,667 children whose average age was only 12. More than 80 percent of that abuse was of a homosexual nature.

     Those numbers are undoubtedly low. Half of the priests were accused of a single offense. Studies reveal that child molesters violate 60 children before an incident becomes public. Many victims never report the abuse. For example, a fifth of victims say their siblings were also abused.  

     The church paid $572 million to support victims and settle lawsuits, not counting the $85 million recently paid in Boston nor the amounts of 14 non-reporting dioceses.

     What caused the abuse? A National Review Board of distinguished Catholic lay people appointed by the bishops came to two conclusions. 

     First, "Some men became priests over the last fifty years who never should have been admitted into the seminary or...allowed to continue to ordination." For decades, boys aged 13-14 entered the seminary - so young their sexuality was immature. Most "minor seminaries" are now closed, but even major seminaries "yielded to a culture of sexual permissiveness" in the 1970s and 1980s, and were often so dominated by a gay subculture that heterosexuals fled.

     The seminaries actually taught little about sexuality, and that was in Latin, rather than English. Curiously, future priests were not taught how to be celibate, though it was expected. 

     More importantly, when instances of child sexual abuse by priests became known to bishops, "too many failed to respond to this problem forthrightly. Their responses were characterized by moral laxity, excessive leniency, insensitivity, secrecy and neglect." said the National Review Board, made up of distinguished lawyers, psychologists, a judge, a newspaper publisher and Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff. 

     The Board said the bishops "all too often treated victims of clerical sexual abuse as adversaries and threats to the well-being of the Church, not as injured parishioners in need of healing." Offending priests were considered "misdirected individuals in need of psychological treatment or a simple change of environment rather than as criminal offenders to be removed from ministry and reported to civil authorities." These approaches exacerbated the problems.

     Why did bishops rationalize or ignore misconduct, and transfer priests from one parish to another where more children were victimized? Initially, church leaders viewed sexual abuse as an isolated moral lapse. Later they saw it as a pattern that could be cured by therapy. 

     The threat of litigation caused bishops to "disregard their pastoral role and adopt an adversarial stance not worthy of the church." Many bishops did not meet victims, which would have prompted a more pastoral response. Few understood the decades-long impact of the abuse that led to depression, drug dependency, sexual dysfunction and even suicide. "Unless you listen to victims, survivors, you don't really have that sense of horror," one bishop told the panel.

     It must be added that child sexual abuse is far more prevalent outside the church than within it. Studies indicate that up to a fifth of men and a quarter of women were molested as children - often by stepparents, teachers or others with access to children. 

     The Board recommended enhanced screening and training of seminarians, increased sensitivity to victims by bishops, more active lay advisory boards and better selection of bishops.

     However, these remedies seem thin. One poll reveals that 80 percent of Americans favor criminal charges for offending priests and for bishops who covered up the crimes. Yet only 220 of the 4,392 offending priests have been charged with crimes and none of the bishops.

     In the last two years 700 priests have been forced to resign along with several bishops who were also abusers. But only Cardinal Bernard Law has been removed due to transferring molesters from parish to parish. Many more bishops should resign, such as the bishops of New Hampshire and Cincinnati who filed guilty pleas with prosecutors. Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles is allowing ten priests facing abuse charges to remain in parish ministry. The Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska refused to cooperate with the National Review Board.

     No one is holding such bishops accountable.

     Finally, the celibacy issue itself needs to be reconsidered. I will explore that issue in next week's column.

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