Make your own free website on
Along the Way
Reflections on the abuse scandal
Home | Homilies | Stories | Thoughts along the way... | ATW News | A User's Guide...

It is almost impossible not to hear something about the recent pedophilia scandal every time you turn on the television or read something every time you read the paper, a magazine or one of the news sites on the Internet.

I dont want to add unnecessarily to the sea of ink that has been spilled on this topic. However, I thought it might be helpful to put the latest scandal into perspective.

First of all, the current scandal is not about pedophilia per se. The issue of sexual abuse of children and youth by religious leaders has been an on-going cause of concern and scandal in the Church at least since 1984 when the first major case to go to trial hit the media. The scandal this time around is the manner in which many bishops have handled abuse allegations. The general impression created is that many bishops have been negligent in their handling of abuse allegations. This apparent negligence resulted in seriously troubled priests being shipped from one parish to another leaving a trail of complaints and abused children in their wake.

There has been a lot of talk by pundits on how the pedophilia problem is the most profound crisis ever to his the Church in America. Some argue that it is reflective of inherent problems with mandatory celibacy for priests. There has also been concern of the celibacy issue attracting too many emotionally immature or gay men to the priesthood.

The more I read in the papers or hear over the radio and TV, the more this seems like a media fueled spike in what is really a crisis in the Church that has been brewing for several decades. At root the crisis involves not only the fact of the sexual abuse of children by clergy but also the way the bishops have dealt with allegations of abuse.

It must be remembered that abuse statistics show clergy are no more susceptible to abusive behavior than any other profession. Nor is there any evidence to argue that the number of men with a gay orientation is any more concentrated in the priesthood than in any other profession.

The real issue in the current flap is the negligence of some bishops. Last year there was a media circus in Massachusetts when an elderly priest was arrested and convicted for the sexual molestation of up to 130 young people over his priestly career. Now, if this priest had been a cleric in a diocese out in the boondocks, there would have been a lot of publicity because of the perverse nature of the case but it would have rested there. Everyone would have focused on the perversity of the individual priest. The diocese involved may have been sued for every penny it had and the individual bishop would have been given a co-adjutor bishop in short order. It would not have been seen as a serious systemic problem. You expect problems in the boondocks.

However, the gross negligence in this case wasnt by some bishop with few resources and limited skills. The gross negligence was by a cardinal and head of one of the largest and oldest dioceses in the nation. He has the funds and trained personnel to deal adequately with allegations of abuse made against any of his clergy. Many people see it as inexcusable that with all of the resources available to him, he failed to protect the children of his archdiocese from a sick and deeply troubled priest, especially when the matter was brought to his attention more than once.

The apparent negligence by the Archdiocese of Boston encouraged the media to check out other dioceses. Lo and behold, the apparent negligence of Cardinal Law was not an isolated incident! Similar negligence was alleged to have occurred in other dioceses. Cardinal Egan of New York has been implicated in mishandling allegations. At least two bishops resigned because of allegations that they had been involved in abuse at some point in their careers. The Vatican because of allegations against him removed one bishop in Poland.

So, whats going on?

The manner in which the Church and community in general has been dealt with pedophilia has changed over the years. A developing understanding of the nature of pedophilia, the threat of litigation and changing public perception of the problem have fueled that change.

Prior to the mid-eighties, allegations of child abuse by clergy were generally treated as both a moral failure and a psychological problem. It was handled much the same way as clerical alcoholism. The allegations were investigated quietly and if substantiated, the cleric was removed from the ministry and sent to a psychological treatment center. In some cases, he may have just been sent on retreat and not received any psychological treatment. If he did well in the treatment center, he was returned to his home diocese and reassigned. All of this was done behind the scenes, as quietly as possible to prevent unnecessary scandal.

By the late eighties it was clear that clerical abuse was more of a problem than many people realized. It was clear that pedophilia reflected some fairly serious psychological issues in the offender and treatment was not just an option, it was a necessity. Further, even after receiving treatment an offender could not be assigned to a ministry willy-nilly.

Many dioceses developed policies to deal specifically with the issue of clerical sexual abuse of minors. It was hoped that the policies would provide an adequate structure for dealing with such abuse. The quality of the policies range widely. Probably the best set of policies on this topic was promulgated by the Archdiocese of Chicago, followed by the policies of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee. I say this, because the policy is comprehensive, well structured, and relies on a range of outside professionals at key decision points. I am familiar with the policy because the thesis I did for my degree in canon law was on the topic of such policies. While working on the thesis I reviewed the policies of many dioceses, including the policies of the Archdiocese of Boston. The policies of the Archdiocese of Boston were not among the best. The current situation is understandable in light of the policy under which it operated. It is interesting to note that the Archdiocese of Chicago has not been implicated in any of the episcopal negligence related to the handling of abuse cases. The policy of this diocese is modeled after the Archdiocese of Chicago and the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.

To what extent should a diocese be considered negligent in its handling of allegations of clerical abuse?

In my opinion, the timing of the allegations is critical. If allegations made prior to the late eighties are handled poorly, the degree negligence is mitigated somewhat. The community in general was only then learning of the profound impact of such abuse and how to deal with offenders. At least since the early nineties however, the seriousness of the issue has been very apparent and more information on the treatment of offenders is available. Thus, if a diocese is without competent abuse policies and procedures for handling allegations or does not follow them there is negligence.

Some of the issues raised by the media in recent weeks are debatable. Is a bishop negligent because he doesnt report allegations of abuse to law enforcement authorities? Is a bishop negligent if he assigns a cleric back to active ministry even after receiving psychological treatment? Is a bishop justified in having a "zero tolerance" policy for clergy accused of abuse?

Most state child abuse reporting laws require medical personnel, teachers, social workers, and similar child care professionals to report allegations of child abuse to law enforcement authorities. These professionals have a legal obligation to report suspected abuse. Except for Florida, clergy are not required to report. Thus, except for Florida, no bishop is under the legal obligation to report suspected abuse to law enforcement authorities. Thus, to this limited extent, if a bishop doesnt report allegations of abuse to civil authorities, he is not necessarily negligent.

On the other hand, the sexual molestation of a minor is a crime. By not reporting a crime, especially one as serious and as damaging to the victim as sexual abuse, it can be argued that the bishop is morally cooperating in the crime. The better diocesan policies require the reporting of allegations of abuse to civil authorities.

The assumption of many media pundits and attorneys for the plaintiff seems to be that once it is established that a priest was involved in child abuse he is no longer fit for ministry in any form. Thus, they claim that bishops are negligent whenever they reassign and offending priest to active ministry even after he has successfully completed psychological treatment.

This assumption does not necessarily reflect reality. Psychologists note two basic types of pedophilia. The first is true pedophilia in which the offender focuses on children. The second type is where the offenders focus of interest is adolescents. The two types reflect different causes for the abusive behavior and different openness to treatment. There is substantial research by well-qualified psychologists and researchers, which shows that a person can be treated successfully and return to ministry, especially when his offences were against adolescents. The treatment requires a multi-faceted approach to treatment, as well as comprehensive and extensive follow up with the cleric once he is back in the community.

Those dioceses that provide for the return of offending clerics to ministry after adequate psychological treatment normally require examination of the case by a board of review including psychological professionals. Further, assignments involve ministry where there is not a great deal of temptation. Participation in the follow up program is mandatory. It must be remembered that this is not wholesale return to ministry and the safety of the community is kept in mind in such assignments. To the best of my knowledge this approach is fairly successful, according to the professional literature. The difficulty is the one or two spectacular failures that leave an impression that the problem is untreatable.

Zero tolerance is a nice catch phrase that many bishops are now using. It seems to imply that any allegations brought against a cleric will result in the cleric being forced out of ministry. The policy is a knee-jerk reaction to the current scandal. Frankly, I dont think it is the best reaction.

First of all, not every allegation of abuse is valid. A famous example of that is the charge of abuse that was brought against Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago a few years before his death. After the Cardinals good name was dragged through the mud for over a year, his accuser finally admitted that the accusation was untrue.

Second, Church law provides a court system with due process to investigate allegations and provide a fair disposition. If simple accusations immediately result in suspension and efforts to have a cleric laicisized, such actions are unjust. They are contrary to the demands of church law.

Third, a cleric commits himself to at least five years of graduate school in a field that is almost useless outside of ministry. He then commits himself for the rest of his life to serving the Church in a particular diocese. His commitment bars a marital relationship and becomes an impediment to many of the normal social relationships common to a lay person. Under Church law his boss (bishop) has a great deal more say over where he lives and how he spends his free time than would be tolerated in secular employment. Further, he is doing all of this for relatively little money. The bishop in turn assumes a special responsibility for his clerics and seeing that their needs are met.

A woman in a prayer group of which I am a member came down with breast cancer. The disease was treatable. However, her husband divorced her because of the cancer. It seems that for the husband that marriage was little more than an opportunity legitimately to use the woman for his pleasure. When she no longer served his purposes, she could be tossed aside and the commitment of marriage ignored.

When a cleric is forced out of the priesthood for any reason, I see little difference between the action of his bishop and the husband who would abandon his wife because of her disease. Certainly, the bishop must protect the people from a troubled and dangerous priest. The bishop may even need to be the one who reports the priests actions to civil authorities. The bishop may be burdened with seeing that the priest receives adequate treatment. The bishop may not be able to assign the cleric to any ministry involving young people, thus greatly restricting the range of possible assignments. Yet, is this any different from what the Church expects of the married Catholic whose spouse is troubled? If the Church expects spouses to be faithful to one another through good times and bad, can it justly expect any less from its bishops? How can a bishop be a spiritual leader to anyone, if his own actions are not a model of Christian commitment and compassion?

Fourth, zero tolerance seems to treat all forms of abuse as the same. As we saw above, some forms of abusive behavior are more subject to successful treatment than are others. It is possible for some offenders successfully to return to ministry.

During the days that I worked on this article a read a news account of a priest from Cleveland who killed himself the day before. A few days earlier he had been accused of abusing a minor 22 years ago. He was supposed to meet with the bishop that morning, apparently to be informed of the accusations officially and to be placed on "administrative leave". He never showed up for the meeting. That evening they found his dead body in the parking lot of a convenience store.

Working on annulment cases for a marriage tribunal I have encountered many people who were sexually abused as children. The experience of sexual molestation can be devastating. Frequently it wrecks havoc on the victims sense of self and on their psychological and emotional development, especially regarding sexuality. The psychological literature reports that many victims show the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSS), the same psychological disorder associated with shell-shocked soldiers and disaster victims. A common reaction in women victims has been serious difficulty in trusting men. Marital sexuality is feared and the normal husband and wife relationship is never able to develop. Another reaction, especially in men, as been sexual addiction, which is destructive to marriage. Many adult abusers of children were victims of abuse when they were children, so that a cycle of abuse is created that can continue on for generations.

Family members commit most incidents of abuse. So, the "stranger" offender is not that common, even though that is the myth.

When the abuser is a cleric there are several additional problems for the victim. The first problem is that people dont want to believe the victim. The idea of a cleric being an abuser doesnt fit the role or moral and religious leader. It is not easy to think differently, especially if we respect and like the cleric being accused.

Another problem is that when the matter goes public the victim will be in the center of controversy and ashamed of being involved in any of that businesseven though he or she is the victim!

Third, long after the dust settles victims often find themselves experiencing a crisis of faith. They feel betrayed by Gods representative. Often they associate the priest with God and feel betrayed by God as well. There is a tendency to view the Church as hypocritical and to deny ones faith in God because a representative of the Church hurt him or her.

No matter from what perspective you view the problem of sexual abuse creates tremendous problems for everyone concerned. The bishop is caught up in the whirlwind and must act in a wise, just and Christian manner. It is not easy to do this when the media are looking for the least fault in your decisions, lawyers are filing suits against you and the diocese, police are investigating your clergy, and you still have the responsibility before God and the people to respond as a true pastor! I feel sorry for the many bishops across the nation who struggle with this now. Though through prior mishandling of cases they may have created this problem for themselves.

The bishop has many responsibilities that he must handle as a pastor, especially when allegations of clerical abuse are involved.

First of all, he must be a true pastor to the alleged victim of the abuse. This is a primary responsibility. If allegations are made, the bishop must treat them seriously and keep the victim informed of the progress of the Churchs investigation and response. It is appropriate to assist the victim in reporting the allegations to civil authorities or to inform civil authorities of the allegations. The alleged victim may need a range of services from counseling to medical care and should be assisted in receiving these services. Even the victims family may be in need of counseling to deal with the impact of the abuse. As time passes, the alleged victim and his or her family may also need spiritual counseling and related assistance in dealing with the impact of the betrayal on their faith and spiritual life.

The bishop also has a pastoral responsibility toward his clergy. They have a right to privacy and a good reputation, within the scope of both civil and canon law. If a cleric is accused of abuse the bishop must follow canonical procedures in dealing with the cleric. Church law is flexible enough to allow the bishop to protect the community from a predator, if he is one, yet still provide sufficient protection of the individual clerics rights as a human being and a cleric.

A bishops responsibility extends to the parish and the diocese. The parish staff and lay leadership where the accused cleric was assigned will probably be in shock. They need to be listened to and assisted in dealing with the fall out both to themselves and for the parish in general. It may even be appropriate to have counselors visit with the classmates of the alleged victim to allow them to talk through some of their concerns.

The current scandal is a tragedy in the extent of the abuse and betrayal of Holy Orders that is being unearthed. The abuse of a single child cries to heaven for justice! It is a crime that must be addressed effectively by both civil and church authorities. It is terribly wrong that those to whom they turned for guidance and moral example have hurt so many young people! The apparent mishandling of cases that have come to light in the current scandal contributes significantly to the damage experienced by both child victims and the Catholic community.

However, it must be remembered that all the incidents coming to light represent only a very small number of offenders out of the many thousands of clergy in the United States and the world. I grieve for all the good bishops, priests and deacons who pour out their lives in the service of God and their neighbors. Yet, now they are drawn into this scandal, looked down upon simply because they are clergy. This is a tragedy both for the clergy whose only desire it so serve God and Gods people humbly and faithfully, as well as for Gods people who will have doubts in the back of their mind when dealing with clergy.

What long-term impact will this scandal have for the Church?

Unlike the pundits who are predicting all sorts of adjustments in Church law and practice as a result of the scandal, I doubt if there will be many deep changes in Church structure and discipline.

The most likely changes will be in the development of better policy for handling abuse allegations. This change was already under way before the scandal hit. Dioceses with solid policies seem little effected by the scandal, while the dioceses with poor or no policies seem to be most devastated. After the current scandal there will be no excuse for a bishop to be without good policies in this regard.

I assume that with two bishops resigning because of abuse allegations against them, the screening of bishop candidates done by the Apostolic Nuncios Office will take a close look at a bishops personal background more closely, as well as his handling of crises in prior assignments.

Ever since the early nineties psychological screening of candidates for the seminary has become common practice throughout the Church in America. The goal here has been to screen out applicants with psychological disorders and to ensure that candidates are emotionally healthy. This is a positive development.

I also see most clergy operating under greater psychological pressure, increasingly fearful that an angry parishioner or an mentally ill person will falsely denounce them for some offense. In the current "witch hunt" atmosphere their reputations, careers and lives are likely to be destroyed, even though they are innocent.

Will the scandal have any significant impact on mandatory celibacy or Church structure?

I can only answer "no" to these questions.

Perhaps some day the Church will allow married men to serve as priests in the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, as it does in every other Rite of the Church. There is some experimentation in that direction, with married permanent deacons and married Protestant clergy who have converted to the Catholic Church and want to serve as priests. However, Pope John Paul II is firmly committed to a celibate priesthood in the Latin Rite. However, he is well along in years. What the future brings in this regard is unknown. However, I would be very surprised if there were any drastic changes. Further, this scandal seems to be seen as an American phenomenon at present with little impact beyond our shores. Changing a thousand-year discipline throughout the Church to take into account a problem perceived to be focused in one country is not likely.

Any significant changes in Church structure are even less likely. Those who would like to see changes hope for more lay involvement at the decision-making levels in the Church. Church law provides for a good deal of lay input at every level of decision making in the Church. The key issue is whether the bishop involved implements the structures to provide for this input, as most of these structures are not mandatory. Even those consultative structures that are mandatory only have to be heard, not necessarily followed. Bishops that are supportive of lay involvement will continue to support it, perhaps even expanding it somewhat. Bishops that are against lay involvement will not expand it any more than necessary.

Personally, I feel that the size and complexity of dioceses today require a bishop to encourage lay involvement at every level. No bishop is omniscient. He needs the knowledge and advice of a wide range of learned advisors if he is to administer the diocese competently. Further, the greater the level of lay involvement in diocesan planning and decision making the greater the level of commitment by the laity to the goals and policies of the diocese. However, none of this requires changes in Church structure, only making use of the structures for lay participation already provided for in Church law.

I have spoken a lot about other diocese and their bishops. I will close with a few observations about Bishop Camacho and the Diocese of Chalan Kanoa.

Back in the early nineties when the first wave of the pedophilia scandal was reverberating through the Church, we began to research abuse policies for this diocese. The policies eventually adopted by the Diocese are based on those of the Archdioceses of Chicago and Milwaukee. These are the two best sets of policies, addressing not only how to process allegations providing justice for the accused and accuser but also reflecting the special needs of the victim(s). Our policies have been reviewed positively by legal experts in both civil and church law. Among those cases of which I am aware, Bishop Camacho has done an admirable job of respecting everyones rights and yet seeing that justice has been done. He has also done an excellent job of encouraging lay involvement in diocesan administration, making full use of almost all of the structure provided in Church law for lay involvement. While I took all of this for granted when I was living in the Diocese, my experience with Dioceses in the United States has helped me to appreciate even more the high quality of leadership provided by Bishop Camacho.

Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.