May 20, 2011 – We Are A Better Church

Well as usual the news this past week was inundated with important items – Arnold’s infidelity, Oprah’s farewell, the latest to get booted off of American Idol, etc., etc.  All sorts of world changing events.  In the midst of all of this, it was easy for an item that has garnered quite of bit of reaction from those who cover the Catholic religion to slip through the cracks.  The results of an extensive study done by a research team from John Jay College of Criminal Justice were released this week.  The study is titled The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.  The entire report is 152 pages long, but the USCCB website has a nice summary of what the study found.  Here is the link to the summary and also the full report:

www.usccb.org/comm/archives/2011/11-105.shtml

This study basically looked at the trends of sexual abuse during this time period, possible causes of the abuse, and how effective the policies of the church have been in curtailing the incidents of abuse.  There were several things that stood out in this study.  The first is something that we were pretty well aware of before, but the frequency of abuse was at its highest in the 1960’s and 70’s.  The report went on to say that this was consistent with the mood of society at the time which was rebelious against rules and authority.  When I read this I had a mixed reaction.  It shows that priests are indeed human beings and can get caught in the societal trends of the time, but I also was disappointed because in my mind a priest, or any follower of the faith for that matter, should make every effort to do what they know is right, no matter what society tells them.  I can see how people could get rubbed the wrong way by this statement.  It implies that priests who abused children during this time were not fully responsible for their actions.

The report also stated that there was no clear pattern in the priests’ background, sexual orientation, or other experiences that would indicate that the priest would more likely be an abuser.  I think this mirrors all walks of society – abusers can come from all backgrounds and orientations.  So there was and still is no clear indicator that can be found through testing, etc. that can pinpoint that this particular person may be an abuser. 

As mentioned before, incidents of clerical sexual abuse began to decline in the 1980’s, and that pattern has continued.  It appears that several factors contributed to this.  It was during this time that bishops began to acknowledge that there were pedophile priests, and though the original reaction focused more on rehabilitating these priests instead of providing help to the victims, the acknowledgement of the problem was still an important step.  It also shows that seminaries began to do a better job in their formation of future priests.  Sadly, though, it was not until the mid-1990’s that a comprehensive plan to deal with this problem was implemented, and it was not until 2002 when the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was adopted by the U.S. Bishops that there was a comprehensive and consistent policy for all dioceses to follow.

There are other conclusions from the study, but these appear to be the main points.  Having never been a victim of any type of sexual abuse, and having a personal friendship with several priests, I have to be careful in keeping my objectivity when giving my own opinions on this subject.  But in drawing from what I have observed, and in serving on several diocesan committees at the height of when the church was putting new policies in place to deal with this crisis, I am confident in making the following conclusions:

The bishops erred in a HUGE way in not dealing with this directly much sooner.  Though it was felt at the time that a pedophile could be rehabilitated, the priests who performed these horrific acts should have been removed from ministry, and bishops should have been more forthright with the people.

Despite the amount of public criticism the church received for this, the rate of abuse among priests was still no higher than among clergy of other religions.

The vast majority of priests are good and decent men who would not think about harming children.  Unfortunately many people have placed the entire church on trial when it was the actions of a small minority of priests that performed these terrible acts.  One abuser is still too many, but the steps taken by the church have assurred that any priest who is found to abuse even one child will never minister again.

We cannot go back and change the past – we can only take the necessary steps to assure that children are much safer in the presence of a priest, educator or volunteer now than they were years ago.  This is something that we cannot let our guard down on.  Even though we have policies in place that have worked, we must continue to follow them to the letter of the law.  Slacking off the least bit can be costly to children and to the church as a whole.

This is a part of our church history that we cannot ignore.  Unfortunately, people were needlessly harmed and the church itself has paid the price in losing assets, losing congregants, etc.  But as history tells us, the church has faced challenges before and has continued its mission of spreading the mesage of Jesus and helping those less fortunate.  Objective people will tell you that the steps taken by the church to curtail the problem of abuse are above and beyond anything else that any other religion or sector of society has done.  I am hopeful that in another 10-20 years, that the church will not be known so much as a church that ignored a horrific situation, but as a church that despite not responding in a timely manner, took the necessary steps and can serve as a model for others to follow.

I normally try to keep things light-hearted in my blog, and I try to stay away from subjects that are too “heavy”.  But as I said, this is a part of us as Catholics, and something that we need to continue to address and to set the record straight on.

As I finish this, it appears the rain clouds may be moving in again.  Continue to pray for those who have been victimized by storms and flooding, and for the farmers so they can plant their spring crops.  Have a great week.  Peace.

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