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To enable healing.

Professionals make recommendations to lift the church out of sexual-trauma mire

An Aug. 12 and 13 conference on "Sexual Trauma and the Church" in St. John's Abbey, Collegeville, Minn., turned out to be timely. Although two years in the planning, it came on the heels of the bishops' appointment of an ad hoc committee on sexual abuse and related problems. The malaise was reflected by a member of the hierarchy who told me he had "little hope" that the bishops' committee would make a difference. "It's a joke," another senior cleric said to me.

Invitations to the meeting were extended by Benedictine Abbot Timothy Kelly and Benedictine Br. Dietrich Reinhart, president of St. John's University. Benedictine Fr. Dale Launderville, rector of the seminary, and Patrick Carnes, author of Out of the Shadows and Don't Call It Love, coordinated the meeting.

Those present included: Jesuit Fr. James Gill, psychiatrist and editor of Human Development; Fr. Steve Rossetti, research director from St. Luke's Institute, Suitland, Md., and editor of Slayers of the Soul; Fr. Liam Hoare, servant general of the Servants of the Paraclete, who staff the Jemez Springs, N.M., treatment center for clergy.

Bishop John Kinney of Bismark, N.D., chairman of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, was invited but was previously committed to the Denver gathering with the pope. He sent Fr. Kevin McDonough, vicar general of St. Paul, as his personal representative.

The timing of the meeting at Collegeville was determined solely by the professional schedule of the invitees.

The hosts, in the traditional ecumenical spirit of Collegeville, did not restrict themselves to Catholic resources. Dr. Ralph Earle, Scottsdale, Ariz., Church of Christ minister and president of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, gave the keynote for the Protestant churches. Rachel Adler, ethicist from Los Angeles, did the same for the Jewish faith. Her summary was so eloquent, the group selected it as the preamble to their recommendations at the conclusion of the meeting.

Other participants included: Nancy Hopkins from Cumberland, Maine, who has helped congregations heal from clergy abuse; the Rev. Margo Maris and Phyllis Wilderscheidt, from Minneapolis and St. Paul, who have long experience mediating between victims and their clergy victimizers; Marilyn Murray of San Diego, who has treated and organized thousands of women victims and in some cases their abusers. Ant not least: victims of clergy abuse and clergy abusers in recovery.

Kelly's invitation insisted he wanted the truth; we were to resist any temptation at mere image repair or litigation control. He and his community wanted to understand the scope, causes and nature of sexual abuse by clergy, which has resulted in such trauma to the church.

And he wanted action. He expected "this meeting will bring to light not nebulous ideas but concrete programs around which we might plan for a future that will enable healing for all concerned in these issues that have brought much pain to our society."

The group delivered 40 recommendations to Kelly. Among those made public:

1. Host a national meeting of victims of clergy abuse;

2. Become a clearinghouse for all faiths on the issue of clergy abuse, including development of protocols on handling allegations and training of clergy;

3. Establish a research center to explore the issues of sexual misconduct by clergy, focusing on both healing and prevention;

4. Immediately introduce a new sexual-celibate syllabus into seminary training.

The preamble pointed out that the consultants expected action from St. John's: "If there is anything upon which people of faith agree it is that theologies are more than just words. They are commitments that demand to be translated into action." Kelly pledged a response within a month, after he and his counsel had time to study the recommendations.

Asked why the Collegeville initiative should not go the way of other efforts, one participant replied: "Because they have invited a group of pit bulls, not lap dogs, to the table. And we will watch what St. John's does."

The following considerations reflect, I believe, what gives the Collegeville approach strength:

1. Truth must be the preeminent goal wherever found, however discovered, whatever exposed. Anything that impedes unflinching directness or unambiguous communication and confrontation of the facts will perpetuate the secret system in which abuse can continue and flourish.

2. Quit minimizing the problem. Mark Chopko, lawyer for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, says there are "no numbers" kept of clergy who abuse. But even in 1986, while I served on the board at St. Luke's Institute, we were regularly given numbers of accused priests from the office of the apostolic delegate. The final reading in 1988 was 190. Numbers do exist.

Catholics have more accurate estimates of this kind than Protestant denominations. Fr. Thomas Doyle, canon lawyer and coauthor of the 1985 Doyle-Moulton-Peterson report on abuse in the clergy, estimated in 1990 that 3,000 (of 50,000) priests were currently involved sexually with minors.

In April 1993, Fr. Andrew Greeley estimated that "between 2,000 and 4,000 priests" involve themselves sexually with minors. In August he wrote that 3.27 percent of priests in the Chicago archdiocese are known to have abused children. In 1976, Leo H. Bartemeier and I estimated that at any one time 6 percent of Catholic priests will have been involved sexually with minors.

On May 28, 1993, when Cardinal Jose Sanchez, prefect of the Congregation for Clergy, was faced with a summary of my study, he said, "I have no reason to doubt the validity of those figures." His remarks were recorded and aired July 5 on the British Broadcasting Corp.

3. Sexual abuse of minors is only part of the problem. Four times as many priests involve themselves sexually with adult women and twice the number of priests involve themselves with adult men as those involved with children. One consequence of the sexual involvement of a supposedly celibate clergyman is a violation of trust. Litigation has forced child abuse to the fore, but sexual abuse of adults is no less a violation of celibate honesty and trust.

4. Sexual abuse by clergy is a power issue. Many victims speak of subsequently being revictimized by the ecclesiastical system. One Canadian bishop said priest abusers were actually victims of streetwise, sexually experienced youth. Although few American bishops have the gall to repeat the accusation, there is plenty of evidence that many share the sentiment.

5. Quit blaming others. The press has been an easy and frequent target of attack. Cardinal Bernard Law's now famous calling down the wrath of God on the Boston Globe for "causing" the Fr. James Porter problem is only the most extreme and obvious attempt at press intimidation.

More subtle but equally strenuous efforts are being made to rein in an unmanageable media. Some dioceses have threatened to boycott TV channels and newspapers that carried unfavorable stories. Cardinal Hickey has written the presidents of NBC and CBS complaining about "priest bashing" and "Catholic bashing" and authorized his public relations secretary to write to the media complaining of certain individuals who spoke out on the subject of sexual abuse in the church. They made their letters available to Catholic News Service.

The Collegeville experience showed that the more secret and clever the game of blame becomes, the more effectively it promotes corruption. The Vatican issued statements in June 1993 to the effect that "the real culprit" of priest sexual problem is a sexually overstimulating culture. In other words, the devil made them do it.

6. Abuse by clergy concerns all church people. One variant of damage control is to exclude any but the clergy and those professionals who can be co-opted in addressing the problem. But all Christians have a stake in the honesty of their leaders. For example, church officials recently engaged in name-calling, saying that abusive priests need to be protected from the "voyeurism of the laity and the media." Laypeople and the media are not the enemies.

7. Abusive by religion is an ecumenical problem. Catholic leaders have frequently tried to take the focus off offending priests and bishops by saying that abuse occurs among clergy of other faiths and denominations. Of course it does. But bishops cannot hope to use the argument that "other clergy also offend."

Certainly there are comparative data between Catholic priests and Protestant ministers that need study. Not all of it shows favoritism toward Protestants. For instance, Burkett and Bruni said in their book, A Gospel of Shame (Viking, 1993): "In a study of 190 child abuse molesters tried in 1988 and 1989, the average Protestant cleric sent to prison got 11.5 years. The average Catholic priest received only 3.6 years."

8. Certainly celibacy is an issue in understanding abuse. The requirement of perfect and perpetual chastity and therefore celibacy for its priests is particular to the Catholic ministry.

Anyone who has read my study of celibacy knows that I seriously revere this religious achievement. It would be simplistic to suggest that a married priesthood would, in and of itself, solve the sexual problems of the Catholic church. Both Protestants and Catholics must search deeper levels of religious reality for answers to the current crisis.

On the other hand, it is ridiculous to dismiss out of hand the celibate tradition as one causative factor in some of the problems of Catholic clergy. Celibacy and sexuality are not adequately taught in any seminary. Naivete and sexual immaturity are valued and fostered by most training programs. Emotional 13-year-olds favor the system and vice versa.

Celibacy is also a factor in the power system of the church and is intimately connected with abuses of power. A list of competent and dedicated women will be supplied on request to anyone who cannot figure that one out.

9. The problem i us. One of the stated priorities of the bishops' committee is to "screen" candidates for the priesthood. It will not work. Psychological screening has been around since the 1950s. Good in theory, it leaves a lot to be desired in practical value. More importantly, such screening falsely assumes the corrupting influences come from the outside. They do not.

Fully 10 percent of priests report a sexual approach from a priest while they were in training. Typical in the history of a sexually abusive priest is another priest, sometimes a superior, who by his example "gives permission" for the pattern of abuse. Spiritual directors, novice masters, seminary professors often introduce sexual contact into the context of their spiritual office.

Psychological testing, rather, should be required for every bishop, major religious superior or chancery official who has care of priestly training. Responsibility for dysfunction starts with me, not the other guy.

10. The sexual teaching of the church is not credible. It simply is not rational to say that every sexual thought, word, desire and action outside marriage is mortally sinful; that every sexual act within marriage not open to conception is mortally sinful. This is simply not in conformity to what serious and committed Christians experience about life and sexuality.

There are no easy answers, but we do have to discuss sexuality and celibacy and examine human nature and human sexual nature with greater diligence and humility. As E.O. Wilson suggests, "In order to search for a new morality based upon a more truthful definition of man, it is necessary to look inward, to dissect the machinery of the mind and to retrace its evolutionary history." To do this, theologians must become partners with scientists.

All of theology is similarly affected by noncredible moral pronouncements. No one has said it better than Jesuit theologian Christopher Mooney: "In so far as theologians fail to take account of physics and biology, their interpretation of their own data as well as their models of God must inevitably lose credibility."

Priests left without a credible sexual doctrine either to teach others or guide themselves resort too easily to rationalization and duplicity. The sexual crisis of the churches reveals more leaders without a moral gyroscope.

11. There is no reason for triumphalism. No one has all the answers. Currently there is little reason for rejoicing over accomplishments in combating abuse. There is a long-standing tradition in religious circles of articulating an ideal which justifies inaction, disregards real abuse, or defies criticism.

"Love" is always a good cover. Sacrifice, especially self-sacrifice for the other person, is also effective and unassailably noble. At this time there is little reason for trumpeting lofty ideals. One member of the bishops' committee said after a Chicago meeting. "There is probably no single institution or agency in the country that has gathered more information on the subject. We're probably the only major group discussing the topic as such."

Such public relations puffery is unbecoming of a bishop and simply untrue. The most painful revelations are not behind us; the last tear has not yet been shed for or by the church in this crisis.

12. People must come first. It is a problem of men, women, children, priests and bishops together. It is not a problem of us vs. them. Sexual abuse is not a public relations problem. And it is not a problem of litigation. If people have to resort to the courts for truth and compensation, it represents a failure of the people in the church to provide the education, supervision and protection the priests and people deserve.

The sexual problem is not one of image but of truth. The damage control is not about damage to image, but to real people victimized by inappropriate sexual behavior by people they had a right to trust. No person can push the responsibility from self to the system. The system is only people. Is the church a people called by and to the way, the truth and the life or not? When one answers that question, everything else falls into place.

If religion cannot tell the truth about itself, it has nothing to say.

Richard Sipe is author of Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy, and heads a team researching celibacy in literature and life.
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Title Annotation:'Sexual Trauma and the Church' conference
Author:Sipe, A.W. Richard
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Sep 17, 1993
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