1. You are known internationally as an advocate on behalf of the
victims of sexual abuse, especially those who have been victims of
clerical abuse. How did you first get involved in this area?
I became involved while I was working as
a canonist at the Vatican embassy. I was asked to manage the file
for a case that had been reported to us from the diocese of
Lafayette in Louisiana. One of the families whose son had been raped
by the priest backed out of a settlement and sued the diocese.
That’s when the matter became public because the media picked it up
right away. My involvement was gradual. I first asked the late Fr.
Mike Peterson, a priest and a psychiatrist if he’d be willing to
help the diocese in their dealings with the accused priest. Before
too long I found myself in contact with the civil attorney engaged
by the diocese to defend the priest on the criminal charges. The
attorney, whose name is Ray Mouton, revealed that the diocese was
actually hiding several other priests who had been reported as
sexual abusers. He was concerned about the impact this would have
on his case but more important, he was, and still is, a very good
and moral man and his main concern was the cover-up and the danger
Things quickly evolved and because of the
publicity, there soon were public reports of sexual abuse by clergy
coming from a number of other dioceses. What was happening is that
the publicity caused people, especially parents, to believe that
clergy sex abuse was a reality. Before they may not have believed
their children but now they took reports more seriously. Also,
there were some bishops who were jolted by the publicity and the
lawsuit and reported cases to the nuncio and asked for help.
By February of 1985 we decided that we
wanted to help the bishops by putting together a manual that would
contain a variety of information about how to respond to individual
cases. We hoped to present it to the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops so that they could take some sort of additional action.
None of us considered ourselves revolutionaries, rebels or
anti-Church. We wanted to help with what we believed was quickly
becoming a major problem. I think it’s also safe to say that all
three of us, especially myself, firmly believed that once the
bishops realized how serious this problem was they would do the
right thing. Tragically, we were wrong on that.
The more involved I became the more
shocked I was at the extent of sexual abuse and the incredible
damage it does to people. When I met a victim for the first time my
life was changed. Seeing all of this on paper is one thing but
actually listening to a victim is a life-changing event. In fact
that’s one of the major reasons the bishops have not responded with
the compassion and understanding that should have been so obvious
but was not and still is not. They don’t really know the victims or
what they have gone through. Some may have had meetings and a few
have actually sat down and listened but historically the bishops
have not really listened to victims nor shown any real interest in
learning what they have gone through, how they feel or how the abuse
has impacted their lives.
It wasn’t too long after I became
involved that I began to suspect that some of the bishops were not
willing to deal with this problem. I believe that the stone-walling
started with the leadership of the U.S. Catholic Bishops conference
in 1985 and has continued. I have documents from officers of the
USCCB including a past president that claimed they knew everything
they needed to know about clergy abuse way back in 1983 and that
they had it under control. I recall one archbishop actually telling
me to cool down back then in 1985 because, as he said, “No one is
ever going to sue the Catholic Church.”
Whatever they have done since, such as
the Dallas Charter, the National Review Board and the John jay
Study...they have been forced to do by the secular media and by the
civil courts. And in general, their efforts haven't made much of a
difference in healing the victims, re-building trust or preventing
2. Did you have any idea the problem was as big as it has turned
out to be?
I had no idea how extensive the problem
was and I am still amazed and even shocked at the fact that
significant numbers of men and women are still coming forward.
These are people who have been severely abused who have taken
decades to find the strength to overcome their fear and shame and
speak out. Some church officials have said that the problem is
under control and the worst is over but nothing could be further
from the truth. It may not be front pages news in the secular
papers but the nightmare is still being played out. We’ve seen a
lot of clergy abuse exposed in the English speaking countries.
We are now only starting to see the
extent of it in African, South American and European countries.
Looking back on my experience I believe that we will continue to see
clergy abuse victims come forward because the sickness is far deeper
and wider than anyone could imagine.
Two things are necessary for a victim of clergy abuse to come
forward: he or she needs to understand the impact the abuse has had
on his or her life, and then the person needs to find the strength
to step forward. Both take a long time and a great deal of effort
3. What sort of response did you get from church authorities when
you first began to campaign on this issue?
At first my former superior, now retired
Cardinal Laghi, was supportive as were several other cardinals and
bishops from whom I sought advice and support. The main opposition
back in 1985 came from the central office holders of the Catholic
Bishops’ Conference. I won't use the term “leaders” because they
weren't! After I left the nunciature in 1986 I was asked by a
number of bishops around the country to give workshops and seminars
on sexual abuse. I did a number of these along with Fr. Peterson
and Mr. Mouton. By then we had teamed up and were still convinced
that the hierarchy would do the right thing.
The real opposition to my advocacy for
the victims became apparent in the early nineties. By that time I
was beginning to testify in court cases. I’d like to add that
although the amounts of the settlements in the U.S. may be shocking
to some, the historical fact is that the victims only resorted to
the civil courts when they grew frustrated by the non-response of
Church office-holders such as bishops, chancellors, vicars general.
These were devout Catholic people who would never think of
criticizing their church. But when their children were harmed
things changed. The bishops obviously never grasped how deep the
feelings or parenthood go. I have spoken to hundreds of people who
said they would never have gone to court if the bishop had only
approached them, acknowledged what happened and offered a sincere
apology. I have never met a victim, and I’ve met thousands, who
wanted money. Their first concern was always that the perpetrator be
stopped and prevented from hurting others.
The fact however, is that people got tired of being manipulated,
lied to, intimidated, ignored and even threatened so they went to
the courts and the courts gave them justice. In fact I have said
all along that in many, many cases the civil lawyers did what the
clergy should have done but did not: they offered support, belief,
understanding, encouragement and hope and most of these lawyers went
far beyond what their profession expected them to do. I find it
both sickening and ironic when I see the victims' attorneys
criticized and vilified by Churchmen because the lawyers have done
what the bishops should have done but either could not or could
not. One of the most sensitive and insightful people I have met as
regards the spiritual damage done to victims is a very decent,
caring Jewish lawyer from Boston.
Why has the Catholic
Church been so slow to face up to and acknowledge the sex abuse
The institutional Church has had to deal
with various kinds of violations of clerical celibacy from the
earliest centuries. It was not always buried in deep secrecy like
it has been in our era. I think the hierarchy has resisted taking
an honest and open approach because the bishops not only been unable
to respond to the pastoral problems caused by clergy sexual abuse,
but have been unwilling. Many have been afraid to meet with victims
and afraid to take decisive action regarding abusing clerics. One
cardinal told me he would not meet with victims because they would
get angry with him. I couldn't believe what I was hearing! Another
cardinal told a grand jury that he had never spoken with a victim of
clergy sexual abuse because, and I quote, “That would not be an
efficient use of my time.”
Another major problem is that the bishops
as individuals and as a group need to admit that they were wrong. I
don't mean by way of the passive apologies such as “If mistakes were
made we regret them.” Cardinal Law said that and it was both
ridiculous and insulting. They need to admit that they were wrong
and why they were wrong. I'm not referring to the blame-shifting
that has been the central part of all official apologies from the
Vatican on down. I mean an honest admission that image, power,
money and the clerical culture were more important than the welfare
of kids. I think if one single bishop would get up and talk
straight and admit that they had lied it would make a major
difference, but that's not going to happen.
I believe that most are so identified
with the clerical world and the institutional church that they can’t
distinguish between their vision of a clericalized church and the
community of lay people.
The reality of widespread sexual abuse by priests and even some
bishops was a shock that has been too devastating for many to bear.
I also believe that far too many bishops are obsessed with their own
power, with the bishops’ collective image and with control. They
quickly realized that they could not control or manage what was
rapidly becoming a major crisis. The response was anger, denial,
minimization, blame shifting...anything but a forthright admission.
By far the most serious deficiency has been the almost total lack of
a compassionate pastoral response. I don’t think the bishops and
most priests know how to adequately respond to victims and their
They have been relying on secular public
relations experts to tell them what to say, how to say it and when
to say it and the purpose is not to help the victims but to maintain
the church's image. I often wonder if many of the bishops have
pastoral instincts that they refuse to act one because of fear or
obsession with the image of the hierarchy. In the U.S. only one
bishop has stood up and publicly aligned himself with the victims
and he was quickly punished by the Vatican. That pretty much sums
up the duplicity of the official church's attitude.
5. Why do you think sexual abuse seems to be such a problem for
the Catholic Church?
I think it’s a problem because the
governing structure, the papacy and the hierarchy, have never faced
it head on and done something effective to find out why clergy
sexual abuse of children, minors and adults has been so much a part
of clerical culture. True, it’s been hidden from many and denied by
others but it’s there and has been there as a significant part of
the clerical culture for centuries.
I also believe that the clerical culture
and the traditional formation process have a lot to do with stifling
authentic emotional and sexual growth. I believe another reason
it’s such a problem is because the hierarchy and the clergy have
tried unsuccessfully to deny it. They either can’t or won’t accept
just how incredibly devastating sexual abuse is for the victims and
their families. By trying to deny it or control it or keep the lid
on, the problem has gotten far worse. In my experience, which spans
almost 24 years, what makes people really angry is not so much the
actual sexual abuse, which is bad enough as it is, but the lying,
cover-up and shabby treatment of victims by the bishops and other
church office-holders or functionaries. If there is a bottom line
as to why it’s such a problem, I think the answer is something I
have heard from many people and it’s this: The institutional
Church, that is, the bishops and many of the clergy and religious,
forgot that they are first and foremost a community in Christ and
focused only on the Church as an organization.
Is it a bigger problem for the
Catholic Church than for other churches or institutions?
I’d say it is a greater problem for
several reasons. In the first place the Catholic Church is larger
than any other Christian denomination. The actual percentage of
sexual abusers among the clergy population is higher than in other
segments of the population. The claims by some churchmen that it's
a minuscule number, 1% or thereabouts, are simply not true and based
on wishful thinking and not fact. Some experts have estimated that
the percentage is about 4.5% yet in some dioceses at certain period
the actual percentage of known sexual abusers was between 15 and 25%
of the clergy. Right now a couple of U.S researchers are finding
that the average percentage, in a diocese by diocese study, is about
9%. That's devastating. Can you imagine the response if the same
kind of information came out about medical schools, teachers,
lawyers or even carpenters.
However the major issue is not so much
the percentage of sexual abusers among the clergy of any
denomination but how the leadership and the community respond. I
have seen stone-walling, denial and retribution against victims or
their advocates in other denominations
so the problematic response isn’t something unique to the
Catholic Church but it’s still disgraceful that any church,
Christian or not, would respond to such a terrible problem in the
way the Catholic hierarchy and the so-called leadership of other
churches have responded.
Another factor is the identity of
victims. The evidence makes it clear that sexual abuse of children
and younger adolescents is more numerous in the Catholic
Church than in other denominations. Much of the abuse among
Protestants for example consists in sexual abuse of vulnerable adult
Another dimension of this question is the
attention given abuse in the Catholic Church. First, we have
mandatory celibacy. Second, we have a stringent and restrictive
approach to sexual morality. Third, we have an official policy that
condemns same-sex relations. The Catholic sexual morality has
traditionally been created by and controlled by male, celibate
clerics who aren’t supposed to have anything to do with sex. When
the sexual abuse of minors was revealed it was bad enough but when
people found out that known abusers were simply transferred from one
place to another it looked way too much like a hypocritical double
This is a bigger
problem for the Catholic Church but not only in terms of the number
of clergy credibly accused but mainly because of the inadequate and
even destructive response by the hierarchy.
ADVANCE \d 5
church’s monarchical structure compounds the problem. In other
denominations, there is more shared leadership and more ‘checks and
balances.’ In the Catholic Church, there are no checks and
balances. Theoretically, thousands of bishops across the globe all
report to the Pope. As one cynical old monsignor said to me when I
worked in the nunciature, “They're all playing for an audience of
one!” But that’s not an effective management structure and in
reality, each bishop is basically the lord of his own kingdom and
acts that way, being held accountable by no one. The most important
person in the kingdom is the king and not the serfs.
7. Do you see any
link between sexual abuse and, for example, mandatory celibacy?
I see a link
between the two but not in the way most would think. Being celibate
does not cause a man to become a pedophile. There are many, many
priests who are celibates who are not sexually dysfunctional. I
think the connection is more subtle and indirect. It has to do with
the attitudes developed in the formation process. Many sexual
abusers are grossly immature both emotionally and sexually. I
remember reading one psych report on a priest who had several sexual
encounters with 13 and 14 year old boys. The report said that the
priest was emotionally the same age as the young boys. That says a
I also believe that
in trying to justify celibacy the church went way overboard in
trying to project a very negative attitude toward sexuality,
relationships, women, marriage and family life.
The whole concept
of sexuality was jammed into a small box that had “mortal sin”
written all over it. Many clerics never achieved a wholesome and
healthy attitude toward sexuality and most, or maybe even all, never
really understood what parenthood means.
spent countless hours with hundreds of parents whose children had
been raped and sodomized by priests or brothers, I can tell you that
if the bishops had any inkling of what parenthood is really all
about they never would have allowed so much sexual abuse and
cover-up to go on. The most painful and disturbing experiences I
have had in this nightmare have been when I have listened to mothers
and fathers try to express the pain, horror and anger they have felt
at learning that their children had been sexually abused by the most
trusted person in their lives, the priest. I know that I can’t even
begin to comprehend the depth of this pain. If I can’t, and I’m
with victims and their families all the time, then I’m sure the
bishops, cardinals and popes don’t have the slightest clue.
promotes even more of the toxic secrecy that infects the clerical
state. Priests are generally not going to tell on each other if
they are aware of each other's sexual issues.
8. How far has the church gone in addressing the scandal of
clerical sexual abuse?
I can start off
by saying not very far at all and certainly not far enough!
Church has been forced by the media, public outrage and the civil
courts to reluctantly acknowledge the reality of widespread sexual
abuse by clerics and religious. The institutional leadership would
never have acknowledged it nor done anything about it had there been
no public reaction. Pope John Paul II referred to it in eleven
statements yet he not only refused to ever receive individual
victims or groups of victims in audience, but never even
acknowledged the requests.
apologists claim that no other institution has done as much as the
Catholic Church to confront sexual abuse and to take precautions to
protect children. Such a claim is a farce. Not one step in any
area would have been taken were it not for the intense pressure put
on the bishops. All that being said I believe that there is still a
long, long way to go. The bishops are focusing almost totally on
getting rid of any cleric or religious accused of sexual abuse in
any degree or kind.
have issued public apologies and a few have reached out to victims
and their families.
pastoral and compassionate responses by bishops are very few and
very far between. The bishops, from the Vatican on down, have
avoided any serious, open and thorough examination of exactly why
they have responded to the nightmare as they have. The excuses that
they didn’t understand it, didn’t appreciate how serious and harmful
it was etc. are useless. The problem has been obsession with image
and a scandalous
absence of a truly Christian, pastoral concern for the most
vulnerable and most devastated in our midst.
I think a decent
start would be for the pope to reach out to victims both at the
Vatican and on his travels. When he visits countries he should skip
the fancy dinners and all the hoopla with the cardinals and big
shots and so what Jesus would do.....sit down with the people whose
lives churchmen have wrecked and try to help them start to heal.
Both Benedict XVI and his predecessor have been obsessed with
orthodoxy but what is more essential to Christianity, orthodoxy or
9. What additional steps, if any, does the church need to take to
ensure that this scandal will not happen again?
I believe the
sexual abuse phenomenon has been a catalyst that has exposed a stark
realization that the institutional Church has not been able to
respond to this horrendous challenge because of some very
deep-seated problems and deficiencies. I’ve seen a lot of
bureaucratic responses such as lay review boards, response policies,
and procedures etc. I’ve seen special liturgies created and
celebrated and public apologies issued by various bishops. The
popes have spoken about it and many leading bishops, archbishops and
cardinals have issued statements. The problem is that it’s all very
superficial when you look at the enormity of the problem and all
that it entails.
For example, Pope
John Paul II expressed regret in some of his statements and claimed
he had concern for the victims. Yet after Cardinal Law resigned he
was given what appeared to be a mammoth consolation prize in the
office of archpriest of St. Mary Major basilica in Rome. This was a
terribly scandalous act that deeply insulted and hurt countless
victims. Yet the defenders in the Vatican curia seemed to be
incapable of seeing how insensitive that act was. The institutional
Church and the clerical culture needs to go a long way to get beyond
the kind of dark thinking that justified something as damaging as
that appointment. The actions don't match the words!
change is essential. I believe that the whole Catholic philosophy
of human sexuality needs to be honestly re-examined. The role of
the bishop and the way the episcopal office is discharged needs some
major re-examination and perhaps a total overhaul. Think about
it. The bishops claim they are the descendants of the apostles and
the official teachers of the Catholic faith. Many still believe
they are ontologically different and superior to lay people. Yet
they responded in an abominably dismal and unintelligent manner to
the widespread scourge of sexual abuse by the very men who are
supposed to bring the word of Christ to the believers.
The concept of
clericalism needs to be seriously looked into. It is a disease that
impedes the spirit of Christ from permeating every aspect of the
Church. The clergy are no different than lay people and should not
be entitled to any deference or privilege simply because of
membership in a sub-class. Yet clericalism is closely related to so
much of the sexual abuse problem. It’s related to everything from
the seduction and grooming process employed to snare victims to the
arrogant and even cruel responses of some prominent Churchmen.
Clericalism is responsible for the fact that far too many law
enforcement officials, judges and civil servants looked the other
way when “Father was caught with a boy.” Clericalism is at the root
of the still-present attitude of haughty denial and it’s responsible
for the mindless responses of some leading clerics that we have seen
in the media. The response of the official church has basically
been “Its all about the bishops” but its not about them. It’s about
the ones they have harmed.
I also believe
that the institutional church...the pastoral ministers and the
hierarchy...needs to seriously study how to respond pastorally to
the many victims of sexual abuse. I refer here not only to the
actual persons abused but to their families, their friends, the
community and the millions of lay people who still can’t comprehend
why this all happened. Along with the pastoral response there is a
dire need for the church's ministers and in fact all Catholics, to
understand just how deep and painful the spiritual harm is that
comes from clergy sexual abuse. This dimension has been hardly
touched. For some the only way to respond to a spiritual need is
with a liturgy or ritual. That doesn’t cut it by a long shot. I
don’t think most clerics or religious even know how to ask the
questions to get on the path to determine spiritual harm much less
the way to begin to foster healing. I have found that those with
the most insight into the spiritual damage and conversely, the path
to spiritual healing, are recovering addicts...alcoholics and drug
addicts who discovered that their addiction is a spiritual disease.
On a more
immediate level the Church governing structure from the pope on down
need to reach out to victims and their families. The secrecy which
still infects the church about this and other painful issues needs
to end. Victims and those who support them are too often treated
like the enemy by the institutional Church and this has to stop.
Some bishops are still hiding sexual predators or reassigning them
even against the advice of their own advisors. (For example,
Cardinal George in Chicago) This must stop. A number of victims
are still involved in civil court processes against dioceses or
religious orders. The church’s attorneys often hammer them
mercilessly. These lawyers need to be fired and the bishops need to
know that there is no excuse for such vicious revictimization.
10. What are the
lessons for the church of the sex abuse crisis?
The first lesson is the simplest yet most
threatening: unchecked power inevitably leads to abuse. The
obsession with power has been at the root of this terrible scourge.
The Church is supposed to be the Body of Christ and not the
Monarchy of the Pope. The only language the churchmen have
understood in all of this is the language of power: the secular
media, the criminal and civil justice systems and the enraged lay
people have constituted a power that is bigger than the
institutional church and that is what made things happen.
Another painful lesson is that the
clerical world has not known how to be pastoral to the men and women
it has harmed. Clerics have not been honest with victims,
themselves, the laity or the general public. The few priests and
religious men and women who have reached out and brought
compassionate help to the victims have either been marginalized by
the bishops, discouraged, or even punished. This is all
backwards.'' It’s true that the Church has responded but it’s mostly
been the lay dimension of the church with some few clerics and
religious. It has not been the hierarchy.
I certainly hope one the lessons learned
is that there is something radically wrong with mandatory celibacy
and with the whole thought process that surrounds it, supports it,
tries to justify it and defends it.
I believe another lesson is that the
institutional church cannot put its power, its structures, and its
clerical aristocracy above the lay people, especially those harmed
by the Church. We have done just that and look at the results.
Popes and bishops have to stop acting like royalty and start acting
like true followers of Christ.
Another lesson is about spirituality.
Through the intense pain of the sexually abused the Church should
learn that spirituality is not an attitude, a bearing, a life of
asceticism. Nor is it a pious attendance at rituals, liturgies
etc. It’s far deeper than the religious externals. The Church
needs to learn that the spiritual connection between the individual
and the Supreme Being cannot be filtered through a human
organization such as an institutional Church. We have created this
dependency relationship between clergy, rituals and people and
convinced them that their spiritual welfare depended on docility and
even blind obedience to clerics. This is a very toxic and even
deadly betrayal of the spirit of Christ. We have seen that when the
clergy betray the trust placed in them the dependency on them is
shattered and the abused are left with nothing because what was
there was too shallow and fragile to support a strong spiritual
There are other lessons that the secular
society needs to learn from the Church's experience. One essential
lesson is that the first
step toward genuinely healing the wounded and protecting the
vulnerable is reforming archaic, arbitrary, predator-friendly laws
(like the statute of limitations), so that victims who want to
protect others have better options than just telling some chancery
official they were hurt and hoping for the best.
Our legal system is quite flawed. But
it’s open, impartial, time-tested, and geared toward uncovering the
truth, however imperfectly. Bishops, on the other hand, are often
biased amateurs dedicated to hiding the truth.
If we open the court house doors, and let
juries (not church staff or volunteers) hear abuse allegations,
I think the final lesson, and I believe the most important one, is
something I have said in one way or another throughout this
interview: we...the clergy, lay people and hierarchy....need to
totally focus on being the community of Christ. We need to
acknowledge the most painful and tragic lesson learned from this
debacle and it’s this: when the churchmen and the lay men and women
who support them identify the power, money, positions and panoply of
the monarchical governing structure with the Body of Christ, the
result will not only be dismal failure but a failure that mortally
wounds the souls of the believers.