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Posted February 26, 2004

The dilemma between scientific study and the political ramifications of the sexual abuse cases of priests for the Church in the U.S.

Experts' Report at Vatican Faults Sex Abuse Policy in U.S.

By Frank Bruni
Published: February 24, 2004
New York Times

Vatican City, Feb. 23 — A report on child sexual abuse that the Vatican issued Monday found fault with and challenged the American bishops' zero-tolerance policy of seeking to remove from the ministry any Roman Catholic priest who has abused a child.

The 219-page report, titled "Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: Scientific and Legal Perspectives," casts that policy as an overreaction to the public outcry over the issue by Catholic Church leaders in the United States and as potentially counterproductive in trying to keep children safe from sexual abuse.

The report included expressions of concern that sexually abusive priests who are cast out of the ministry and pushed away from the church might be more likely to continue their abusive behavior because they would be isolated and their behavior would be less likely to be monitored.

"Although until now the phenomenon of abuse was not always taken seriously enough, at present there is a tendency to overreact and rob accused priests of even legitimate support," one the editors of the report, Dr. Manfred Lütz, wrote in its conclusion. Dr. Lütz, a German psychiatrist, is a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity here.

The other two editors are not connected to the Vatican, and the report mainly presents the perspectives of those two scientists and six others, who are all experts in the study or treatment of sexual abuse. None of the eight are Roman Catholics.

Their conclusions are distilled from the papers they presented and the comments they made at a private four-day conference here in April that was sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life, which also printed the report. Copies of it were made available to journalists here on Monday.

The report does not present any one prevailing viewpoint, and Vatican officials said it should not be considered a set of Vatican-stamped rules for how to think about and respond to sexual abuse by priests.

But one of those officials said Monday that the report, which will be published in late March, might indeed serve as "a point of reference" for the development of church policy.

The report is sure to be read widely by senior Vatican officials, some of whom still have qualms about the American bishops' zero-tolerance policy.

Senior Vatican officials approved that policy in late 2002 only after ordering some crucial tinkering that made it more flexible, and it is destined to be examined anew at some point.

While the report repeatedly challenges the wisdom of that policy, recounting the scientists' reservations about it, it also represents an unusually unblinking, expansive acknowledgment by the Vatican of the problem of sexually abusive priests.

It furthermore shows the Vatican's interest in looking to science, and not just prayer, for answers. Many critics of the church's past response to sexually abusive priests have said bishops too often believed that penance alone could keep a priest who had molested a child from doing it again.

The report ranges over many topics, including the causes of sexual abuse, the array of possible treatments for it and how all of that does or does not apply to the priesthood.

It paraphrases one of the eight experts as saying some men may be drawn to the Catholic priesthood "for the access it grants them to children."

It includes an article, presented at the conference by another of the experts, that asserts that Catholic priests as a group are more likely than child sexual abusers in general "to report an adult homosexual orientation."

That article, by Dr. Martin P. Kafka, a professor at the Harvard Medical School, goes so far as to question whether "Catholic clerical education and socialization could be associated with an increased risk of expressing or experimenting with socially immature but aberrant sexual behaviors."

Dr. Kafka is the only American on the conference's panel of eight experts. Three others are Canadian, and four are German.

The report suggests that all of them had concerns of one kind or another with the way that many American bishops were reacting to sexually abusive priests in the wake of what became a devastating scandal for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States over recent years.

"I think it would be fair to say that none of the experts was enthusiastic about zero tolerance," one of them, Dr. Karl Hanson, who does research on sex offenders for the Canadian government, said in a telephone interview on Monday.

If an abuser is at high risk of hurting another child, Dr. Hanson said, "he may be better off in the church, where there are strong supervisory structures, than in somebody else's backyard."

The report paraphrases other experts as saying zero tolerance might discourage abusers from seeking treatment and might deprive church leaders of using an abuser's future work opportunities in the church structure as leverage for getting them to enter and remain in treatment.

Many critics of the church's handling of sexually abusive priests have promoted the zero-tolerance policy as the only way to make sure that bishops do not cover up the crimes of priests, as some of those bishops did, time and again, in the past.

One of those critics, David Clohessy, a leading advocate for people abused by Catholic priests, called the report issued by the Vatican on Monday "a terribly depressing development."

"Zero tolerance has barely been enacted, and it has been very sporadically enforced," Mr. Clohessy said, "so the notion that we ought to rethink it at this early juncture is very distressing."