The Catholic Church and Child Sexual Abuse
by Father Stephen J. Rossetti
President of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Maryland
The text of this article appeared in the April 25 issue of America magazine.
Father Rossetti is a psychologist and a consultant to the
U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse.
When complex situations are given simplistic understandings and simplistic solutions, people will inevitably be hurt. The phenomenon of child sexual abuse, in the priesthood and in society at large, is a complex issue that does not admit of simple understandings or simple solutions. It is important that we examine the issue in greater depth; otherwise the church and society will not only repeat past mistakes but also make new mistakes in response. Most important, without a more informed understanding and a more reasoned response, children will be no safer and may, inadvertently, be placed at even greater risk.
I would like to discuss five major oversimplifications and distortions regarding child sexual abuse that have been publicly raised during the past few weeks.
1. All child molesters are pedophiles and all pedophiles are incurable. They are dangerous men who abuse scores of minors. There is no hope for them.
As with all distortions, there is some truth to these statements. There are child molesters who are pedophiles, that is, they are sexually attracted to prepubescent minors, and some molest scores of minors. These high-profile, notorious abusers, who capture public attention, are usually resistant to psychological treatment. One does not speak of trying to change or "cure" their sexual attraction to minors. While some pedophiles can be helped to control their sexual desires, many cannot. Since these persons pose an ongoing threat to society, after serving an appropriate prison term, they ought to live in a kind of lifelong parole setting with absolutely no unsupervised contact with minors.
Fortunately, real pedophiles are the exception among adults who sexually abuse minors. Most abusers are not pedophiles. Most abuse post-pubescent minors and, all things being equal, are much more amenable to treatment. While both pedophiles and those who molest post-pubescent minors have committed a heinous crime, it would be an error to apply exactly the same remedy to them all. With treatment and supervision, many adults who molest adolescents can go on to live productive lives. But prudence would still dictate that these adults should be supervised whenever interacting with adolescents.
John Geoghan, for example, a former priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, reportedly molested over 100 children. He went through several treatment regimens, apparently to no avail. He is now in prison and will remain there for many years. On the other hand, most perpetrators of child sexual abuse are members or friends of the victims' own families, such as fathers, stepfathers, uncles, cousins or neighbors. Would we treat a father who molests his daughter in exactly the same fashion as we would a pedophile like John Geoghan? Indeed, both should be subjected to the law and ought to pay for their crimes. But the ability to rehabilitate the incestuous father is much better than the habituated pedophile. We would be better served if the father could be eventually returned to society with appropriate safeguards.
Dr. Fred Berlin, an international expert on the treatment of child abusers, reported a relapse rate of only 2.9 percent over a five- to six-year period among 173 lay abusers who were treatment-compliant. Similarly, a church-run facility recently followed for one to five years after treatment 121 priests who sexually molested post-pubescent minors. Of those who finished an intensive treatment program and continued in follow-up care, only three relapsed -- 2.5 percent. While we grieve for those who were molested by these offenders who relapsed, treatment and supervision probably saved many other children from being molested.
It is often suggested in the public forum that offenders molest scores of victims and that there is an enormously high rate of relapse. But such high statistics are taken from clinical studies using forensic populations, which is a more disturbed and dysfunctional sample. If we are serious about protecting children, it is time for the public and the psychologists they quote to use more up-to-date and sophisticated clinical data. A father who molests his daughter and a compulsive pedophile are very different in their clinical profiles. To fashion a proper response that is likely to be effective, society needs to understand the complex differences and develop appropriate responses. In the end, child safety depends upon it. Moreover, it is important to note that most priests who sexually molest minors are clinically more like the abusive father than the compulsive pedophile. John Geoghan is the rare exception, thank God.
2. Priests are more likely to be child molesters than others because they are celibate. Celibacy distorts one's sexuality, and a celibate priesthood attracts a larger proportion of men with sexual problems.
The first half of this simplification has been largely discredited in recent media stories. Researchers and clinicians have generally accepted the fact that celibacy does not cause child sexual abuse. In fact, the sexual difficulties and inner psychological problems that give rise to child sexual abuse are largely in place long before a person enters into the formation process for a celibate priesthood. In addition, most adults who sexually molest minors are, or will be, married.
The second half of the statement, "a celibate priesthood attracts a larger proportion of men with sexual problems," is currently being debated. Some have said that we seem to have so many child molesters in the priesthood because celibacy attracts people with sexual problems. Is that true?
It is a complex problem that demands a complex answer. Some people with sexual problems seek out a celibate lifestyle in an unconscious attempt to escape their own sexuality. I know this for a fact because I have counseled some who admit the same. Nonetheless, it is dangerous to summarize from the particular to the general.
By analogy, one might say that it is likely that there are some people who enter the police force because of their own distorted needs for power, authority and violence. But I suspect the mayor and police chief would have some strong words for anyone who tried to suggest that the police force in general is power-hungry, controlling and violent. It is a logical fallacy to generalize based on particular cases.
This brings to light the basic assumption that underlies these distortions -- namely, that priests are more likely to be child abusers than others in society. Is that true? The short answer is: we do not know. There are simply no prevalence rates of perpetration of child sexual abuse either in society at large or in the priesthood. The reason for the lack of data is inherent in the crime. It is very difficult to gather a sample of adult males and ask them if they have ever sexually abused a minor. Even if they told the truth, gathering such data would present thorny ethical and legal considerations.
The best the church can do to estimate the prevalence rate of sexual abuse of minors by priests is to count the number of priests who have "substantial" allegations of child sexual abuse against them and compare this number with the total number of priests.
When the Archdiocese of Boston reportedly released the names of 80 priests who had sexually molested minors over the last 50 years, people asked, "How can there be so many priests who abuse children? There are only about 800 priests in the archdiocese, so this represents 10 percent of our entire presbyterate!" But the numbers were misleading. On March 15 the official publication of the archdiocese, The Pilot, said the number of substantial allegations was approximately 60, and it is important to note that this number represents the total number of accused priests over 50 years. The editorial estimated that there were probably about 3,000 priests who served in the archdiocese during these 50 years, so the ratio is about 2 percent.
Similarly, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia recently went over its records since 1950. There were 2,154 priests who served during this time frame, and there were "credible allegations" against 35. This is about 1.6 percent. Likewise, the Archdiocese of Chicago reviewed its records. In the past 40 years, out of 2,200 priests who served, about 40, or 1.8 percent, had received credible allegations of abuse.
While one case is one too many, especially when perpetrated by a man with a sacred trust -- a Catholic priest -- the suggestion that priests are more likely to be child abusers than other males has yet to be established. In fact, the early statistics challenge that assumption and actually imply that the number of priests who molest could be lower. It would be reasonable to believe that the number of adult males who molest minors in society is at least as large. One need only speak with the dedicated and overworked social workers who staff our child protective services around the country to know that the percentage of adult males who molest minors is not insignificant. I conducted a survey of 1,810 adults in the United States and Canada and found that over 19 percent of them had been the victims of sexual molestation by an adult before the age of 18. This suggests that there are many perpetrators of child sexual abuse in our society. While we are shocked, and rightly so, that there would be 60 priests in the Archdiocese of Boston who have molested minors, we should be equally shocked at just how common child sexual abuse is throughout our society.
3. We have so many child abusers in the priesthood because a celibate priesthood attracts homosexuals.
No mainstream researcher would suggest that there is any link between homosexuality and true pedophilia, that is, sexual attraction of an adult to prepubescent minors. In addition, most adults in society who sexually molest minors are not homosexually oriented.
The rejoinder to this is the fact that most victims of priests are young males. But this, too, is easily open to misinterpretation. Most priests who molest minors were themselves molested as minors; their sexual abuse of minors is for many of them a kind of re-enactment of their own abuse and may have little to do with their sexual orientation. I have known some heterosexually oriented males who molested young males.
Nonetheless, a significant number of priests who sexually molest minors are involved with post-pubescent adolescent males, about 14 to 17 years of age. It appears to be true that many in this subpopulation of priest child-molesters are homosexually oriented. But theirs is a particular kind of homosexuality, which one might call "regressed" or "stunted." These homosexual men are emotionally stuck in adolescence themselves, and so are at risk for being sexually active with teen-age males. The issue is therefore not so much homosexuality but rather their stunted emotional development.
The problem is not that the church ordains homosexuals. Rather, it is that the church has ordained regressed or stunted homosexuals. The solution, then, is not to ban all homosexuals from ordained ministry, but rather to screen out regressed homosexuals before ordination. Preparation for ordination should directly assess the seminarian's ability and commitment to live a chaste, celibate life.
We are in a dangerous period that is intensely emotional. Everyone, inside and outside the church, wants to find simplistic solutions. "Getting rid of homosexuals" from the priesthood will not be as successful as some predict in ridding the church of child abusers and in the end may cause even more human damage.
4. The U.S. bishops continue to be secretive about child sex abuse cases and fail to follow the law and report these cases to legal authorities. They cannot be trusted.
Much of the real energy behind the current furor is anger directed at the Catholic bishops. People feel betrayed. But over the past 10 years I have witnessed bishops tackling scores of cases with great care and solicitude for victims and perpetrators. Yet they are currently being depicted as being grossly negligent. How can we understand this apparent contradiction?
It is true that in a minority of cases, victims have been asked to sign "gag orders." The diocese agrees to settle a civil suit; it pays out a certain sum of money, and it stipulates that the victim will not publicly reveal what happened. In retrospect, this can be recognized as a mistake. While one can understand a bishop's desire not to "scandalize" people and to protect the church's image, such actions promote distrust and allegations of secrecy.
Nevertheless, it is not true that bishops are circumventing the reporting requirements about child sexual abuse. Again, the reality is much more complicated. In most states, child-abuse reporting laws require that suspected incidents be reported only if the victim who comes forward is still a minor. I called one state's child protective services and asked if they would investigate a report if the victim was no longer a minor. The answer was no.
One might then suggest that the bishop report the allegation of abuse to the criminal authorities. There are two problems with this. First of all, the law does not require the bishop to report the allegation if the victim is no longer a minor and the bishop has a concurrent obligation to maintain pastoral confidentiality with those who confide in him, just as a secular counselor would. If the law does not give him "permission" to break confidentiality and report the abuse, then he is obligated to protect confidentiality. Second, even if he did report the allegation of abuse to the criminal authorities, the statute of limitations may well have expired, and there is little hope that the justice system would be of any assistance. Unfortunately, only a minority of cases of child sexual abuse are successfully adjudicated criminally.
Making an analogy with my second profession as a psychologist might be helpful. As a licensed psychologist, I am a mandated reporter of child sexual abuse. If I learn of a case of child sexual abuse, and I know an identified victim who is still a minor, I am obliged to report such cases to child protective services. But if I am counseling a 40-year-old woman, for example, who reveals to me that her uncle abused her 25 years ago, should I report her uncle? In many states, the law does not require this. Most likely the woman would not want it reported. And in a therapeutic setting, I have an ethical and legal obligation to protect this woman's confidentiality and privacy. So since the law does not stipulate that I must break confidentiality to report the abuse, I am obligated by law to maintain her privacy.
The bishops are being excoriated for not reporting cases of abuse. But the laws do not require it in most situations that the church faces. The bishops also have a pastoral obligation to maintain confidentiality. What many dioceses are doing is counseling the victims that they themselves are free to report the incident to civil authorities. In fact, the church should encourage victims to report such an incident. But one can clearly argue that unless the law requires the church to break confidentiality -- which the law usually does not do -- it is up to the victim to report.
A disturbing trend is now appearing. Legal authorities are demanding from Catholic dioceses a complete list of all past allegations against priests of child sexual abuse. In most cases, these legal authorities are going beyond the requirements of the law. They are setting up a kind of double standard that I believe should be tested in the courts. While church authorities may willingly comply, it is a dangerous precedent to have one standard for priests and another for the rest of society.
What is needed for the protection of children is not a different standard of reporting only for priests, but a better reporting system that sets a better standard for all; this ought to include revisiting the length of the statute of limitations in child sexual abuse cases.
5. The safest thing for children is to defrock any priest who is guilty of child sexual abuse. The church has been grossly negligent by continuing to shuffle such priests from parish to parish, where they re-offend.
It is true that the Archdiocese of Boston made a grievous error in reassigning John Geoghan to a parish after he became known as a child molester. There was no excuse for such an action. Any priest who sexually molests a minor should never be returned to parish ministry or any ministry involving minors. But I would say clearly that there have been very few cases of such actions in the last decade. Even in Boston, almost all the priests with substantial allegations of child sexual abuse were either retired early, dismissed from ministry or placed in assignments not involving minors. Even in Boston, the case of John Geoghan is an exception, but it is being portrayed as if it were normal in the church.
This raises a more difficult question: should any priest who has a past history of molesting a minor remain in the priesthood? Clearly, the public is saying no. And I think public pressure will have its way. Around the country, priests with a substantial allegation of child molestation are being dismissed from any form of ministry. The damage to the church's credibility is so large, and the legal and financial fallout is so great, that many of our leaders feel forced to expel them all. This is certainly the safest action for the church.
But is this the safest course of action for children? When priests are dismissed from ministry, they go out into society unsupervised and perhaps even untreated. Then they are free to do as they please. If they have been convicted of a sexual crime against minors, they may have to be registered in compliance with various state or local laws. But, as noted previously, there are few criminal convictions against child sex abusers. Either the statute of limitations has run out, or the victim does not want a criminal trial, or there is simply insufficient evidence. Whatever the reason, when the church "defrocks" these priests, they are no longer supervised. One might recall the case of James Porter, who was expelled from the Diocese of Fall River in Massachusetts and returned to life as a layman. He married and was eventually convicted of molesting his children's baby sitter.
The question of what to do with child molesters is complex. Some bishops have been sending priests accused of child sexual abuse for intensive psychotherapeutic treatment and then, depending upon the man's response to treatment, taking the ones who present the least risk and returning them to a limited, supervised ministry that did not involve direct contact with minors. Of the scores of such cases, very, very few have re-offended. The public has been outraged that these men were still in ministry at all. But I believe that time will show that the bishops' actions were both prudent and in the best interests of all in society, especially our children. If all these priests had been summarily dismissed from the priesthood, it is very probable that more children would have been abused. Putting a priest through treatment and leaving him in a limited ministry, such as that of chaplain to a convent or nursing home, is not without some risk. But there is more risk in releasing him into society.
In general, the bishops of the United States have done well in dealing with most cases of child sexual abuse by priests over the past decade. There have been exceptions, and mistakes have been made. But there will always be mistakes made with such complex and difficult cases. On the surface, the matter seems easy. The public says, "The priest is charged with sexual abuse, so throw him out of the priesthood." But if the civil and criminal authorities will not prosecute the case-- and in most cases they will not -- who decides if the accused is guilty? Unfortunately and unfairly, this falls to the bishops. They have tried to do what is right and best for everyone. But public pressure is forcing them to dismiss them all. The bishops are acquiescing, and now these men become society's problem, not just the church's. I hope that society handles these cases well.
Underlying Issues and Needed Resolutions
As the public furor continues and the intensity of the story continues, it is becoming clear that the presenting issues, named above, are only the tip of the iceberg. The ferocity and duration of the public response suggests that there are other underlying issues that are driving the intensity of the public's response. These underlying issues are harder to ascertain, but some are beginning to surface. I believe that we, as a church, need to determine what these issues are and discern what changes they are calling us to make. I have identified five underlying reasons; I have no doubt that there are more.
One of the underlying reasons, I believe, for the ferocity of the public's response is the emotional response of a parent to child sexual abuse. Parents have a strong, visceral response. There is a kind of healthy "parental rage" when their children are threatened or harmed. At times, when some in the church have not mirrored this rage, it is naturally said that they "don't get it." Our first resolution as church should be to listen to parents. We need to have parents on our diocesan pastoral councils, and these must have a real voice in diocesan leadership; parents need to be on our diocesan child-abuse review boards, and these review boards need to have a significant impact in the decisions of the diocese in abuse cases; and parents need to have the ear of the bishop just as much as do canon lawyers and priests.
A second issue coming through loud and clear is that society does not trust the way the bishops conduct their inner processes. While the bishops have generally dealt responsibly with child sex abuse cases, the public does not know what they have done. It is a general law of human nature that we do not trust what we do not know. Clearly, the current crisis signals the need for greater openness on the part of church leadership in this country. We not only need to deal with cases well, but the very processes we use need to be open to public scrutiny. We cannot presume the trust of the people. This second resolution must be to increase the openness of church leadership to public scrutiny.
Similarly, church leadership ought to couple this increased openness with public accountability. Church leaders must make clear their willingness to cooperate with legal authorities and government agencies. This accountability extends as well to all the people of God. The perception that they have not been responsive to these groups has resulted in their paying a heavy toll in eroding public trust. A third resolution must be to increase communication with and accountability to civil authorities and to the people of God.
Another resolution pertains to a more "spiritual" issue. The public expects church leaders to be who we profess to be. That is, they expect us to be people of integrity. We profess to be celibate priests and Christians. When we are neither, the public is scandalized. In recent days, our church has appeared to be neither humble nor chaste. The media will continue to "flog" us until we are duly humbled and chastened. It is a bitter lesson for us to learn. Our fourth resolution therefore must be one of integrity; we must strive to be the humble and chaste Christians that we profess to be. When we fail, we ought to expect a public chastening.
Finally, I add one last suggested resolution. The Catholic Church has some clear and controversial teachings in areas of human sexuality, such as sexual chastity, birth control, abortion, marriage and homosexuality. Modern Americans, Catholics included, disagree with many of these teachings. The profound disagreement gives rise to considerable distrust, hurt and bitterness. I suspect some of the current furor is a gushing forth of much of this pent-up anger. Nevertheless, the church must stand fast with its teachings and endure the wrath that will come in its wake.
The Gospel of Christ will not always be popular, nor can public opinion determine what we teach. Jesus promised his disciples that they would suffer for his teaching. If we are too well thought of by secular society, one might wonder how faithful we are to the challenging Gospel that Jesus gave us. One of my concerns in the current crisis is that the Catholic bishops of this country will be less willing or able to exercise their responsibilities as teachers. It is a duty they cannot shirk, no matter how they are perceived. The final resolution I offer the church is to continue to preach the truth.
People naturally do not like complexity and uncertainty, especially with upsetting realities like the sexual abuse of children. It may be that the public is currently being fed on simplistic understandings and simplistic solutions because we have great difficulty facing deeper truths. We want child sexual abuse to be the exclusive crime of a few perpetrators who are "out there" and not part of our families. We would like to accuse an identifiable group of deviants who are different from us. We want our lives and the lives of our children to be completely and absolutely free of risk. We want a clear and simple solution, but there is none. Facing the fact that the sexual abuse of children is a crime that not only occurs in the priesthood, but most of the time is perpetrated in our own families, is a most painful truth. Not facing the complexities of child sexual abuse makes our children less safe, and pointing the finger at a few while missing the many ignores the cries of children in our own midst.
It is time for our church and our society, for priests and for families to work together in a new partnership to combat the grave evil that is the sexual abuse of children.