November 1, 2005 - Many bishops,
during civil and criminal investigations of priests who abused
minors, claimed that they always thought that abusing clergy could
be “cured.” They claimed that psychiatrists and mental health
personnel misled them. And indeed, that may be a fact in some
instances. It is also true that many bishops and superiors did not
give treating doctors and facilities the whole truth about the men
they sent to them for help. And in some cases bishops and superiors
disregarded the advice offered them.
Already in 1952 Fr.
Gerald Fitzgerald, founder of the Servants of the Paraclete, wrote: I myself would be inclined to favor laicization for any priest,
upon objective evidence, for tampering with the virtue of the young.
In the same letter he said of priests who sexually abuse minors:
Many bishops believe men are never free from the approximate
danger once they have begun. In 1957 he said even more clearly
that he considered that priest abusers of minors could not change.
He stated firmly that priests who abuse even once should be
dismissed from the priesthood.
In their June 2002
meeting in Dallas the American bishops came to a similar conclusion
with their zero tolerance policy. This was only after extreme
public opinion, media exposure, and legal pressure forced them into
In fact, as
Fitzgerald’s apostolate expanded in the 1960s from New Mexico to
California, Minnesota, Ohio, Vermont, Puerto Rico, England, and to a
house of studies in Rome, he became more convinced that religious
measures alone were unable to rehabilitate child abusers. He bought
an island (Carriacon) in the Caribbean on which he proposed to
isolate priest offenders in a life of prayer and repentance and keep
them from any contact with children.
Bishops’ defense of
their actions that blame psychiatrists and lawyers for their actions
have not stood the test of scrutiny by grand juries (Philadelphia,
Boston, New Hampshire, Phoenix, Cincinnati, Suffolk County, NY) or
indeed, by their own National Review Board that all put the burden
of misconduct on the bishops, the failure of their oversight, their
conspiracy to conceal, and their neglect to warn or report abuse.
No American bishop
had to be told by a psychiatrist that sex with a minor is a serious
violation of celibacy. No bishop had to be told by a lawyer that sex
with a minor is a violation of the law. Even here Fr. Fitzgerald in
1963 reminded a bishop: the gravity of this offence (sex
abuse of a minor) has strong civil and even stronger divine
bishops had ample experience of the repetitive nature of sexual
activity by priests who get involved with minors they disregarded
the deeper issues of celibate practice and civil responsibility in
favor of forgiveness without adequate evidence of reformation.
Most of the studies
on repeated sexual activity by men who abuse minors (recidivism)
come from the criminal justice system. These studies have to be
accommodated to the clergy population in which over 5,000 priests
have been credibly accused of sexual abuse over the past 50 years
and yet fewer than 300 have been incarcerated. That fact alone has
profound implications for the culture of abuse within the priesthood
that protects clergy from the civil consequences of their actions.
(Since 1980 the
number of imprisoned sex offenders has grown by more than 7 percent
per year. In 1994, nearly one in ten state prisoners were
incarcerated for committing a sex offence. Cf. Greenfield, L.A.,
Sex offenses and offenders: An analysis of data on rape and sexual
assault. Washington D.C., U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of
Justice Statistics. 1997)
facilities that have treated or even specialized in the treatment of
sexual abusing priests and bishops (Paracletes, Southdown, St. Luke,
Institute of Living, and Seton, etc.) have not yet done extensive
studies of their clientele. At one time some claimed zero relapse.
In 2003 St. Luke claimed that they knew of only 16 of its over 300
patients had re-offended
Five of the most
prominent treatment centers proposed to join together to cooperate
on a statistical study of their collective experience. In 1993,
after giving initial approval, the American bishops pulled their
endorsement and funds for the study on the basis that “the press
could get hold of the results.”
TRI-PART VIOLATION OF CLERGY ABUSERS
and treatment acts of sexual abuse of a minor by a Catholic priest
or bishop consideration of three agencies or dimensions—religious,
mental health, and criminal—must be addressed.
justice system, from which we gather most of our statistics on
sexual offences and re-offences, has a word for repeated acts of the
The mental health
and medical system has a word for an illness that recurs—relapse
(or simply a recurrence in the case a new bout with a previously
diagnosed disease that was suppressed or cured.)
moral/religious system has no one word for the recurring moral acts,
each one forgiven and then repeated. The cycle (sometimes unending)
of repentance, forgiveness, and re-offense is known in religion, but
we do not have a name for it.
A man involved in
such behavior can accurately be called recalcitrant, but that is not
a common designation in talking about priest abusers. The
presumption of redemption (or damnation) in the realm of faith is
more absolute than can be postulated in the areas of mental illness
the word that trumps all others in the realm of religion. It is
freely used to deny civil responsibility or the consequences of
religious superiors, priests, brothers, and nuns are willing to
accept the burden of sin when it comes to sexual activity with a
minor, but they resist the reality that their activity cannot be
isolated in the sanctuary of the church—in a culture that
understands, protects, and forgives them without adequate control
and assurance that they will not continue to harm others. But
bishops and priests are citizens of a larger society and culture
that demands moral conformity and exacts retribution for sins
(criminal acts) forgiven or not.