"Every State has the undeniable right to defend itself against terrorism, but
this right must always be exercised with respect for moral and legal limits in
its ends and means.”
Oded Ben-Hur, Israel’s
to the Holy See
|By JOHN L.
the sex abuse crisis in the American Catholic Church over?
one level this is almost an absurd question, given that evidence to the contrary
is nearly ubiquitous. To cite just a few recent developments: The Manchester,
New Hampshire diocese in late May settled 61 sex abuse lawsuits for $6.5
million; negotiations have broken down in Boston to settle almost 500 cases,
meaning a new round of litigation seems inevitable; a 44-year-old priest in Utah
was arrested for soliciting a minor over the Internet; four men have sued the
Cincinnati archdiocese for alleged abuse by a priest in the late 1970s and
1980s; a former priest who fled the United States rather than face sex abuse
charges died while trying to evade police in Mazatlan, Mexico; the Los Angeles
archdiocese is invoking the First Amendment to resist demands to turn over
documents related to sex abuse cases; and Phoenix Bishop Thomas O’Brien has
avoided prosecution by signing a statement in early June admitting to
mishandling accusations of sexual abuse against priests.
if the level of public interest is lower now compared to mid-2002, any one of
these stories could catch fire and return the crisis to the front pages.
Moreover, no matter how aggressive a set of policies the Church adopts, no
matter how alert its bishops become, a few priests will always fail. The need
for vigilance will never go away.
there’s another sense in which one can more reasonably ask if the crisis is
over, and that’s whether the Church has learned its lesson. Has the system been
reformed to ensure that priests are less likely to offend and bishops less
likely to look the other way?
question was very much in the air during a two-day seminar at the University of
Santa Clara, May 30-31. Tom Plante, a lay professor of psychology, organized the
event as preparation for a book he’s editing for Greenwood Press tentatively
titled “Sin Against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the
Catholic Church.” Plante invited a roster of clinicians, seminary rectors,
activists and journalists to contribute to the project. (I was invited to
contribute a chapter on the crisis seen from Rome). Plante secured funding to
bring the authors to the beautiful Santa Clara campus May 30-31 to discuss one
another’s drafts, and to talk about where the crisis stands.
group, in addition to Plante and myself, included Nanette de Fuentes, a
therapist who works for the Los Angeles archdiocese; Kirk Hanson, a business
ethicist and expert on crisis management at Santa Clara; William Spohn, a moral
theologian at Santa Clara; Samuel Mikhail, director of therapy for the Southdown
Institute in Canada, a treatment facility for priests and religious; Fr. Gerald
Coleman, rector of St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park; J.A. Loftus, a
therapist and former director at Southdown; David Clohessy of the Survivors
Network of Those Abused by Priests; Michael Rezendes, part of the Boston
Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning team that worked on the sex abuse story;
Richard Sipe, long-time writer on sexuality and the priesthood, and a consultant
in numerous sex abuse lawsuits; and Jesuit Fr. Curtis Bryant, former director of
St. Luke’s Institute in Maryland, another treatment center for priests and
religious. Other authors, such as Kathleen McChesney, head of the U.S. bishops’
Office of Child Protection, will be contributing chapters but were unable to be
at the seminar.
Broadly speaking, there were optimists and pessimists on the $64,000, “Are we
out of the woods?” question.
Optimists, primarily the
clinicians and seminary rectors, argued that factors including better formation,
early identification of risk factors, a new social awareness that will minimize
risky behaviors (for example, parents will be less likely to leave children in
unsupervised settings with clergy), cultural encouragement for reporting abuse,
and the “one strike” policy all mean that men entering the priesthood today are
less likely to abuse, and more likely to be caught early if they do. Thus, when
all is said and done, the first decade of this century should have nothing like
the total number of abuse cases we now have from the 1970s and 1980s.
Plante, who sits on lay
review boards for sex abuse cases in both the San Jose diocese and the Western
province of the Jesuits, offered an encouraging parallel. In the 1960s and
1970s, he said, studies indicated that up to 23 percent of male psychotherapists
had sexual contact with their patients. Within a generation, Plante said, that
number was cut to between 1 percent and 1.5 percent, through a combination of
aggressive one-strike policies, better training and changing sensitivities.
Pessimists, however, argued that because there is a latency period between acts
of abuse and the reporting of those acts, we cannot know how much abuse is being
committed by Catholic priests right now. Moreover, they fear that as the intense
public attention of 2002 recedes, there will be a return to “business as usual.”
They fear fundamental reform of the Church is unlikely. Given that, they say, we
should assume the worst about what the future will bring.
perspectives were given voice in a public forum for the university community on
the afternoon of May 30.
Fuentes, who sits on the lay review board in Los Angeles that examines abuse
cases, said she believes the scandal has made it easier for bishops who want to
address the problem.
“Those bishops who want to be responsible in this area, they now feel they have
more power to implement things they have been wanting to do,” she said. “And
those who have been in denial, I think they are forced out of denial.”
Fuentes and Plante agreed the creation of lay boards demonstrates “a commitment
to do the right thing.”
spoke for those who were less sanguine, arguing that the sex abuse crisis is a
symptom of the Church’s failure to deal with a host of issues involving celibacy
and sexuality, including contraception, homosexuality and premarital sex. Those
issues “will need to be addressed before the bishops can regain any
credibility,” Sipe said.
* * *
Inside the seminar, I found the voice of the clinicians consistently
fascinating. For many the last few months have been difficult, since the
therapists, along with the bishops, emerged in some circles as the chief
villains of the sex abuse story. Some psychotherapists have been accused of
naïve assessments of abusive priests, recommending men for return to ministry
who later committed further acts of abuse. In some cases those accusations are
correct, and no one is more aware of that than the clinicians, who were openly
self-critical during our two days together. At the same time, they have a rich
vein of experience about treatment and rehabilitation that sometimes is drowned
out by the clamor for get-tough approaches.
point that came through loud and clear was that we don’t have the scientific
data to draw conclusions about causes and solutions to the crisis, so that much
public commentary today, from left and right in the Catholic Church, amounts to
Perhaps the most pressing version of this point was made in the chapter
contributed by Loftus. “The paucity of actual research into the sexual landscape
of celibate clergy,” he wrote, “is staggering.”
don’t we know more? In part, the clinicians said, because it’s difficult to find
support for the needed research. Major grant agencies typically don’t want to
invest in research on such a targeted population, the results of which are
unlikely to be generalizable. If the Church pays for it, on the other hand, then
you have the same suspicion of the research as if tobacco companies were paying
for studies on nicotine addiction.
Further, the Church to date has not had an open-door policy to facilitate
research. More than once, serious studies have been proposed and rejected, in
part because the bishops didn’t seem to trust those who would be carrying out
and over, the clinicians exhorted the Santa Clara seminar that solutions to the
sex abuse crisis must be “data driven,” i.e., based on valid social scientific
Plante made the observation that such findings are often counter-intuitive,
meaning that they don’t necessarily coincide with what many observers find to be
“obvious” or “common sense.” For example, Plante pointed to the results of
studies on recovery from heart attacks. Those studies indicate that one’s
exercise regimen or actual physical condition is a less accurate predictor of
recovery that what one believed about one’s condition before the episode. In
other words, if the patient believes he or she is healthy, the odds for recovery
are better than for patients who are actually more “healthy” but also more
Plante’s point was that many explanations and solutions to the sex abuse crisis
that can seem obvious now, at least to some pundits and reformers, may actually
appear counter-productive or unhelpful once the research data is in.
* * *
Mikail, clinical director of Toronto’s Southdown Institute, offered an
especially thought-provoking perspective. Over the past 36 years, Southdown has
treated more than 5,000 Church professionals from across the English-speaking
world who suffer from a variety of emotional disorders and addictions. Half have
been males, of whom 12 percent had sexually abused a minor and 3 percent met the
criteria for identification as a pedophile.
Because the Canadian bishops do not have a “one-strike” policy, Mikail is still
involved in framing risk assessments for priests who may be under consideration
for return to ministry. That decision is not up to the institute, but to the
priest’s bishop or religious superior.
asked how risk assessments work at Southdown. Mikail explained that observations
from group therapy form one important component. How does the offender react
when confronted with stories from victims? Does he show empathy, can he be
transparent about what he did and the consequences of those actions? Is he
honest about the details of his own acting out? Other variables include how old
the victims were when the man started to violate, since this will bear upon
whether he is a classic pedophile or has some other form of arrested sexual
development that may be more receptive to treatment. (In general, pedophilia is
attraction to prepubescents, meaning children under 13).
priest is also given instruments such as the Abel Screen of Sexual Interest,
which rates his attraction to various images. It’s considered a less invasive
and more reliable alternative to penile plethysmography. (The plethysmograph is
a machine that measures changes in the circumference of the penis. A stretchable
band is fitted around the subject’s penis and connected to a machine with a
video screen and data recorder. Changes in penis size are recorded while the
subject views sexually suggestive or pornographic pictures, slides, or movies,
or listens to audio tapes with descriptions of such things as children being
molested. Some studies say the devices have failed to detect nearly one out of
three known sex offenders tested, and plethysmographic evidence has been
declared inadmissible in court.)
Mikail said the following are additional factors used in framing a risk
Distorted thinking regarding minors and sexuality;
Denial, minimization, rationalization, and other psychological defenses
employed to displace responsibility from the self;
Level of empathy, not just for one's victim, but others who were also
victimized (for example, those in their groups);
Level of social skill/competence;
Support systems, ongoing supervision, and availability of ongoing treatment.
the end, how effective is all this in predicting the likelihood that a priest
Mikail said there’s a need for longitudinal studies to track how often priests
re-offend. St. Luke’s Institute in Maryland, a psychiatric hospital for priests
and religious, claims a 4 percent recidivism rate for priests it has treated and
released. Although this figure reflects only instances of abuse reported either
to the police or the Church, and hence the actual number of new acts of abuse
could be higher, nevertheless it suggests that treatment and follow-up
supervision can be successful.
Mikail’s overview led to a lively conversation about “zero tolerance” for
clerical sexual abuse. Broadly speaking, some participants felt that both
clinical experience and a gospel standard of compassion argue in favor of
treating cases individually, and allowing for the possibility that some men may
be capable of returning to ministry with little risk of re-offending. Others,
however, felt that the benefit of the doubt should run in favor of potential
victims. Moreover, they argued, for the Church to regain credibility in the
United States, a “zero tolerance” stance is necessary, even if it means denying
a handful of priests the chance to minister when they might be able to do so
without substantial risk.
* * *
other question that surfaced inside the seminar, without any clear answer: How
representative of the rest of the country on the sex abuse issue is the Boston
Rezendes of the Boston Globe argued that while Church leaders may want to
believe there’s something “in the water” in Boston that produced an aberrant
situation, in truth Boston is fairly representative of the rest of America in
terms of the dimensions of the crisis.
noted that many American bishops with whom I have spoken over the course of the
last year dispute that assertion. Not every American bishop, they say, handled
things the way Cardinal Bernard Law did. Not every diocese ran its affairs like
Boston, and not every priest caught up in this scandal resembled accused serial
pedophile John Geoghan. The fact that Law, Boston and Geoghan became the
template through which the country saw the crisis, the bishops argue, seriously
distorted the story.
in Santa Clara were sympathetic to this argument, while others saw it as a form
of denial that will be exposed as revelations from various parts of the country
continue to emerge. Time will tell.
* * *
I was in San Jose, I had the pleasure of being invited to dinner with a group of
priests gathered by Fr. Al Larkin at his Sacred Heart Parish. Larkin, who knew
me from a presentation Robert Blair Kaiser and I made to priests on sabbatical
at the North American College a couple of years ago, is the chair of the
priests’ council in the San Jose diocese.
Besides Larkin and me, the group included Fr. Steven Brown, pastor of Star of
the Sea Parish in Alviso; Fr. Patrick Browne, pastor of St. Joseph Cathedral
Basilica; Fr. Timothy Kidney, pastor St. Cyprian's; Fr. Randolph Calvo, pastor
of Mt Carmel in Redwood City in the San Francisco archdiocese; Fr. Tom Madden,
director of Vallombrosa Retreat Center at St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park;
Fr. Jack Bonsor, who teaches at Santa Clara University; and Fr. Gary Thomas,
pastor of St. Nicholas.
Beyond teasing out the latest Roman gossip, the priests wanted to talk about
their local situation -- the ethnic diversity in San Jose (100 different
languages in a mid-sized diocese), the wide socio-economic range that runs from
recent immigrants to Stanford Ph.Ds and dot-com millionaires. The priest
shortage is taking its toll, and these guys are worried about how challenges
will be met as they age and fewer candidates emerge to take their place. This is
not an ideological matter, but a meat-and-potatoes issue born of deep pastoral
I’ve written before, the sex abuse crisis has produced a climate in which it’s
fashionable to bash “clerical culture,” as if the only personality types
Catholic seminaries produced over the last four decades are sexually abusive
priests and “hear no evil, see no evil” bishops. It’s just not so. Many of the
most generous, most honorable, brightest and most committed people I’ve ever met
are Catholic priests, and I cannot believe they are exceptions to a
evening in San Jose renewed my conviction that the Catholic priesthood in the
United States, despite all its well-documented challenges, is still one of the
Church’s great resources.
* * *
Monday, June 2, the U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell came to Rome for
meetings with Pope John Paul II and the Vatican’s top diplomats, Secretary of
State Cardinal Angelo Sodano and his deputy, Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran.
visit was a way of underscoring that despite differences over the war in Iraq,
the Bush administration takes the relationship with the Holy See seriously.
Powell certainly had other things he could have been doing -- at the same time
he passed a morning in the Vatican, the G8 Summit was underway in Evian, and
diplomacy over the “road map” was in high gear preparing for the Bush/Sharon/Abu
Powell’s exchange with the pope focused on Iraq and the Middle East. His talks
with Sodano and Tauran also covered Africa and other issues.
Vatican spokesperson Joaquin Navarro-Valls issued the following statement
“Among the themes dealt with in conversation was that of the material and
political reconstruction of Iraq, which must be able to count on the cooperation
of the international community, and which must reserve particular attention to
fundamental rights such as the right to religious freedom.
new prospects for peace that the realization of the well-known ‘road map’ has
opened in the Holy Land and the in the entire region was also discussed. Thanks
to this initiative, it is hoped that the two states, Israel and Palestine, can
finally enjoy the same security and the same sovereignty.
“Finally, there was an exchange of opinions on the situation in Africa, and in
particular on the struggle against diseases and epidemics, which has always seen
the different aid and charitable institutions of the Catholic Church working
Ambassador to the Holy See James Nicholson told me June 3 that the conversation
on Africa among Powell, Sodano and Tauran touched on the use of biogenetically
engineered food crops. Nicholson and the Bush administration are big on biotech
crops, which they believe can increase yields and thereby feed hungry people.
Governments in Africa and Europe have been lukewarm, however, fearing both the
health consequences, as well as the prospect that Third World farmers will
become dependent upon American companies for seed and fertilizer. Both Zambia
and Zimbabwe, despite severe food shortages, have blocked food aid they suspect
to be made up of genetically modified organisms.
Nicholson said that while Powell made a forceful argument that GMOs can save
lives in Africa, there was no immediate movement on the Vatican side. “We still
have some work to do,” he said.
Powell, Sodano and Tauran also discussed inter-religious dialogue, Nicholson
secretary expressed appreciation for the role of the Holy Father in promoting
inter-religious understanding,” Nicholson said. Powell and the Vatican officials
discussed ways to promote dialogue and tolerance among the great religions.
Iraq, Nicholson said the exchange was “prospective, not retrospective,” focusing
not on the Vatican/U.S. over the war but where things go from here.
talked about building a new Iraq, with freedom of worship for all, which would
of course include Christians and especially the Chaldean rite Catholics,”
Powell, Sodano and Tauran also discussed religious freedom generally, Nicholson
said, especially “in countries where it’s difficult.” Though I did not press
Nicholson on the point, this language is often a coded way of talking about the
Islamic world and China.
the Israeli/Palestinian problem, Nicholson said Powell expressed to the Vatican
a basic optimism about the prospects for the road map, while also being
realistic that “we’ve been down this road before.” Sodano and Tauran, Nicholson
said, greeted the plan with the same spirit of “guarded hopefulness.”
Overall, Nicholson rated the Powell visit a success that went beyond his
was very upbeat, very positive,” he said. “There was great engagement, real
* * *
June 3, Israel’s new ambassador to the Holy See, Oded Ben-Hur, presented his
credentials to John Paul II. The pope’s comments on the occasion were taken as a
summary of the Vatican’s position on the Middle East conflict, and they were
blunt and carefully balanced.
“There is absolutely no question that peoples and nations have the inherent
right to live in security,” the pope said, in English. “This right, however,
entails a corresponding duty: to respect the right of others. … Every State has
the undeniable right to defend itself against terrorism, but this right must
always be exercised with respect for moral and legal limits in its ends and
Holy See is convinced that the present conflict will be resolved only when there
are two independent and sovereign States,” the pope said.
June 4, I was invited to a reception at Ben-Hur’s residence to celebrate the
occasion. He delivered a toast in polished Italian, echoing the pope’s desire
for peace and expressing hope that the road map, with the support above all of
the United States, will lead to a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
Monsignor Gabriele Caccia, the assessore, or number three official in the
Vatican’s Secretariat of State, also delivered a toast, wishing Ben-Hur, his
country, and all of humanity shalom.
Ambassador James Nicholson was on hand, as were the ambassadors of several other
nations -- Egypt, Austria, Argentina, Chile, and France, to name just those I
bumped into. The prelate of Opus Dei, Archbishop Javier Echevarría, was also in
Readers of “The Word from Rome” will be interested to know that among Ben-Hur’s
guests was Franciscan Fr. David Jaeger, the spokesperson for the Franciscans in
the Holy Land and a member of the Holy See’s negotiating team with the Israeli
government. This space has recently hosted a rather stern exchange between
Jaeger and Ben-Hur’s predecessor, Neville Lamdan, over Vatican-Israeli
Jaeger told me, however, that he knows Ben-Hur and thinks the prospects for
dialogue with him are good. Ben-Hur, for his part, told Jaeger over a glass of
champagne that he wants his help and input.
Around the room, there was obviously much conversation about the road map. The
consensus seemed to be that it represents a historic opportunity that, if not
realized now, may not come around again for a generation. There was much realism
about all the ways it could go wrong, but also the tender stirrings of hope that
something positive might be in the offing.
* * *
I was in graduate school working on early Christian literature, Robert Wilken’s
book “The Christians as the Romans Saw Them” was important in shaping my
approach. It was a privilege, then, to be able to take Wilken to lunch in Rome
on June 4, as he finished up a guest course at the Gregorian University. Wilken
is Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Virginia.
Wilken, who was raised a Missouri Synod Lutheran, traveled a path into the Roman
Catholic Church similar to that walked by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, well-known
for his journal First Things. In fact, he and Neuhaus were classmates and
were ordained together as Lutheran ministers. Both tried to uphold a vision of
Lutheranism as a reform of the Catholic Church, hence they supported a
“high-church” vision of liturgy, the episcopacy, and other matters.
Eventually, however, Wilken said, they became convinced that they were “living
in a dream world,” that the Lutheranism they believed in didn’t really exist.
argument that finally tipped the scales in terms of his decision to join the
Ctaholic Church, Wilken said, was this. The Reformation presupposed that one
could have apostolic faith through apostolic doctrine. The Catholic view, which
he found persuasive, is that it is the community preserves the faith -- one
needs not just doctrine, but a Church in which doctrine takes shape.
Wilken, whose expertise is Patristics, or the early Fathers of the Church,
offered the example of a famous exchange between a Lutheran scholar and St.
Robert Bellarmine in the years after the Reformation. The Lutheran, he said,
argued against Eucharistic adoration on the grounds that Christ meant for the
sacrament to be used, not reserved. It was, as Wilken put it, a perfectly
legitimate theological point. Bellarmine’s response was that the Church had
adored the Eucharist for a long time, and there was no good reason to abandon
the practice. In fact, Wilken argued, once the Lutherans jettisoned adoration,
they developed a different Eucharistic doctrine that moved away from the
enduring “real presence” of Christ. It’s a case in which the tradition of the
community had protected the faith.
can analyze this argument in different ways, but it is a reminder of how
fundamental a value the idea of community is for Catholics. In an era in which
forces such as nationalism, tribalism, and ideological polarization are eating
away at the Church’s sense of communion, it’s an important testimony.
* * *
the time this column is posted, John Paul II will be making his 100th
foreign trip, this one in Croatia. Watch the Special Update section of the
NCR Web site for my reports.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
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