Viewpoint: Better policing of clergy and more accountability of bishops is not enough

 From an op-ed piece in the Toledo Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, by Father Jim Bacik

On August 14, 2018, the Attorney General of Pennsylvania Josh Shapiro released a report documenting the sexual abuse of over 1,000 children by some 300 Catholic priests over a 70 year period in the Pennsylvania dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton. The 1,356-page report, compiled by a grand jury which spent more than two years investigating the abuse and the institutional cover-up by Church leaders, summarized their findings: "Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades."

The report, which contains lurid details, has generated various public responses: empathy for deeply wounded survivors; anger at priest predators and complicit bishops; distress over still more scandals, including allegations against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, now restricted from public ministry; dissatisfaction with the apologies of Church leaders who are still fighting changes in the statute of limitations laws that protect abusive priests from prosecution; and support for dedicated priests burdened by the transgressions of their colleagues in ministry.

Shortly after the report was released, James Van Sickle, one of the survivors, did a television interview recounting how a priest of the Erie diocese gradually befriended and mentored him and then sexually attacked him in a hotel room when he was 16 years old. Speaking for other victims, he said that "we all will have a hole in our soul for the rest of our lives." Indeed, abuse by priests is especially damaging because of the connections with God and faith. The Catholic Church has a moral responsibility to assist the healing process of all survivors.  All Catholics, lay and clergy, must do whatever we can not only to help victims but also to prevent future clergy abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.

On August 20, Pope Francis responded with a 2,000 word letter to the People of God, confessing "with shame and repentance," that "we did not act in a timely manner," especially given "the gravity of the damage done to so many lives," and "we showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them." The pope insists that the Church must condemn "the atrocities perpetrated by consecrated persons" against "the most vulnerable," adding: "let us beg forgiveness for our own sins and those of others."

In 2002, the U.S. Catholics bishops adopted the Dallas Charter that mandated both a zero tolerance policy for any child abuse and background checks for Church employees. The bishops also established the National Review Board that commissioned an independent study of clergy sex abuse throughout the whole United States from 1950 to 2002. Every year since 2002, the bishops have issued a report on implementing the Dallas Charter. For example, in the year ending July 30, 2017, there were 695 allegations of clergy sex abuse, of which 173 were substantiated. Six of those allegations were more recent, coming from current minors, and four of those were directed at the same priest, who is no longer in ministry. The annual reports indicate that definite progress has been made in reducing the number of victims over the last decade.  

The problem, however, is much deeper and requires systemic changes. We cannot solve the real problem by better policing of clergy and more accountability of bishops. The Catholic church needs better seminary formation that will help candidates achieve a more mature psychosexual development. This should involve regular interaction with women faculty and spiritual directors as well as fellow female students. Men taking on the responsibility of a celibate life style need a realistic understanding of the challenges and the personal diminishments that naturally occur without a spouse. Celibate clergy do not have a legitimate sex partner or a spouse to offer loving criticisms or a companion readily available for comfort and conversation. Celibates do not have to learn how to manage the daily demands of making an intimate relationship work.

It is crucial to examine the existing clerical culture to identify the dynamics that enable clergy abuse and foster cover-ups. Priests need colleagues open to honest conversation about sexuality and the challenges of celibacy. Bringing honest sharing into the clerical culture is complicated by the fact that many gay priests are reluctant to disclose their sexual orientation, understandably so since the Church officially deems it a disordered condition. Celibate clergy need healthy adult relationships with both men and women - something generally lacking in the lives of abusive priests.

The grand jury report from Pennsylvania has given us an opportunity to extend better care to victims, to build on the progress already made in reducing the incidents of abuse and to begin the radical work of improving seminary education, developing more realistic approaches to celibacy and bringing greater openness and honesty into the clerical culture.