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Posted Friday, February 27, 2004 at 2:27 p.m. CST

U.S. bishops report on clergy sex abuse
Review board report cites unfit priests, negligent bishops for abuse crisis

By Joe Feuerherd

More than 10,000 children were abused by priests over the past half-century because the church failed to weed out candidates unfit for the priesthood while too many bishops put other priorities, such as "fear of scandal," ahead of protecting minors.

The complete reports prepared by the U.S. bishops' National Review Board can be found online:
  • John Jay College of Criminal Justice Research Study Website
  • The US Conference of Catholic Bishops Research Study Website
  • The Catholic Review Board Research Study Website

  • Note: The documents are large and in PDF format. You may need to install Acrobat Reader on your machine.
    Those are some of the central findings of the 145-page report on the causes of the sexual abuse crisis released Feb. 27 by the independent review board established by the bishops in June 2002 to investigate the crisis.

    The report did not spare the church hierarchy -- casting considerable blame for the crisis at the feet of bishops who were all-too-ready to excuse the abusive behavior of priests in their dioceses. Bishops failed to act against abusive priests, said the report, because they "treated allegations as sporadic and isolated," while the "fear of scandal caused them to practice secrecy and concealment."

    Fear of litigation
    Fear of litigation also "caused some bishops to disregard their pastoral role and adopt an adversarial stance not worthy of the church," and bishops relied "too heavily" on psychiatrists and psychologists and lawyers, and they often "placed the interests of the accused priests above those of the victims."

    Further, the "Bennett Report" (named after the Washington attorney, Robert Bennett, who chaired the subcommittee that drafted the study) found that "many sexually dysfunctional and immature men were … ordained into the priesthood" and that the seminaries that trained them did not adequately prepare them "for the challenges of the priesthood, particularly the challenge of living a chaste, celibate life."

    While offering no definitive view of the role of gay priests in the crisis, the report states that "there are … many outstanding priests of a homosexual orientation who live chaste, celibate lives" but "any evaluation of the causes and context of the current crisis must be cognizant of the fact that more than 80 percent of all the abuse at issue was of a homosexual nature."

    Celibate or not?
    The board said it was beyond their mandate to "opine on the relative merits of a celibate or non-celibate priesthood." Still, said the study, "…it is clear that bishops must remain watchful to ensure that priests embrace chaste celibacy as part of their priestly identity and not as a burden imposed upon them or as a means of escape or denial."

    The report also charged that "Bishops and other church leaders did not do enough in the way of 'fraternal correction' to ensure that their [fellow bishops] dealt with the problem in an effective manner."

    The report was one of two released by the review board. A study conducted for the board by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that more than 4,000 priests abused more than 10,000 young people between 1950 and 2002, with the greatest number of cases occurring between 1960 and 1985. Roughly 4 percent of priests in this period had a "credible" accusation of abuse made against them, according to the John Jay report.

    700 removed
    Responding to the reports, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told a news conference that "the picture that emerges sadly is one of those who broke faith with their people, with their priesthood, and their religious vows to use their sacred position to prey on the young and the vulnerable instead of safeguarding them with the tender love of Christ himself." More than 700 priests have been removed from ministry since the bishops adopted their "zero tolerance" policy in June 2002, said Gregory.

    Gregory said it was up to individual bishops and to the Vatican to determine if a bishop who knowingly transferred abusive priests should resign.

    Meanwhile, victim advocates largely dismissed the reports. The John Jay study, said Barbara Blain, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, is "not a sign of greater openness" by the bishops. Rather, she said, the report was "forced on the bishops by years of seemingly endless revelations, removal, prosecutions, admissions, exposes, verdicts, lawsuits, and excuses."

    Joe Feuerherd is NCR's Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

    NCR will offer analysis and commentary on the reports from the National Review Board in its next print issue.

    National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2004

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