Clergy Sexual Abuse
and the Catholic Church

Bishops Listen to Victims, Experts

San Jose, California, parishioners Ellen and Ray Turner marched with protesters in support of clergy sex-abuse victims Thursday evening in Dallas, Texas. Photo by John Bookser Feister

By John Bookser Feister

On this Feast of St. Anthony of Padua, June 13, 2002, the Catholic bishops of the United States began their two-day assembly to combat the issue of clergy sexual abuse. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops meets twice a year, but this meeting has taken on an unprecedented urgency in the light of a nationwide crisis in Catholicism.

The bishops spent the morning listening to various people—victims and sex-abuse experts—in preparation for a private debate that was to occur in the afternoon and evening.

In his presidential address, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory (Belleville, Illinois) sounded the key themes of the meeting. In the name of his fellow bishops, he asked victims for forgiveness. He also asked that anyone who has been abused step forward now and report it, both to the Church and to civil authorities. He asked any unknown abusers, whether priest, religious or fellow bishop, to turn themselves in now, so that the truth could work to resolve this crisis.

Gregory described a "righteous anger" that exists among many bishops against those bishops who have ignored advice and mishandled cases. He said that he is among those who are angry, but that all of the bishops must move ahead together.

Challenges from Lay Experts
Then the bishops heard from two laypeople who have been thinking and writing about the issue for years. Scott Appleby is a historian who has directed Notre Dame's Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism. He told the bishops that the intense media scrutiny is no disservice to the Church, but rather a service that is "exposing that which was shrouded in darkness." He stated that in its outcry over the Church, though not always balanced or fair, the people are "calling the Church to purify itself and be its best self—the image of the compassionate God in the midst of the world."

In a long talk that covered many points, he stated that the root of the problem is lack of accountability on the part of the bishops which allowed "severe moral failure" on the part of some priests and bishops and "put the legacy, reputation and good work of the Church in peril." That lack of accountability can itself be attributed to "a closed clerical culture that infects the priesthood, isolating some priests and bishops from the faithful and from one another."

Commonweal editor Margaret O'Brien Steinfels challenged the bishops to stop posturing for the Vatican and to be more forthright in what they know to be the pastoral needs of Catholics in America. "Today people lack trust because they lack the truth," she said. "And they cannot find the truth because they no longer have trust in their bishops." She told the 288 bishops in attendance that the sex abuse demonstrates to laypeople that they are powerless: "What layperson isn't brought up short in realizing, 40 years after Vatican II, with its promise of consultation and collaboration, that our only serious leverage is money? That in itself is a scandal."

Steinfels told the bishops that this meeting in Dallas would only be a "down payment" on future actions. "We can no longer indulge the slothful habit of postponing the Church that we need until the next papacy, until the seminaries are full, until the controversies are resolved….We need to breathe life into the project of Church renewal that we have neglected far too long."

Victims' Testimony
There were four moving testimonials from victims of sexual abuse. Craig Martin, of St. Cloud, Minnesota, told a tear-filled story of lifelong anguish, addiction and relationship issues after he was violated by a priest who took him on a fishing trip as a child. He spoke of himself in the third person, indicating the amount of psychological pain that he still suffers.

Paula Gonzales Rohrbacher, of Juneau, Alaska, told a childhood story of being molested by a seminarian-friend of her family. She chronicled how she has suffered lifelong damage in all areas of her family and marriage. She reported that she has been in counseling off and on for 18 years because of the effects of the abuse. The events in the Archdiocese of Boston earlier this year, and the ensuing crisis in the Church, have brought back painful memories that she thought had been healed, she said. She continues as an active Catholic laywoman, seeking consolation and healing in the Eucharist, but unable to bring herself to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. "I urge you to adopt a policy of zero tolerance for all offenders, whether they have abused one child or adolescent or many, whether past, present or future. This policy will send a message to all of us who are victims that we are your primary concern."

Dr. Michael Bland, a former priest, now a psychologist in Chicago, spoke of being abused repeatedly as a boy by a priest. His story focused on how the Church handled his priest-perpetrator. The abuser's reputation was protected, which further victimized Dr. Bland: "The sadness is in the sexual abuse, the anger is the failure to respond humanly, justly or pastorally. This is what causes the the dark shadow of suspicion over the entire Church." He spoke of how, not only he, but his parents and siblings were victimized by the way the Church handled the abuse. Healing for him will take not only action, he said, but, "a transformation of attitudes." "The priesthood lost me, but kept the perpetrator." HIs abuser may not be practicing, said Bland, but he still can be called father. "The Church has taken care of him." Bland called for zero tolerance, for letting the perpetrators blend into the community, but not in a position of leadership.

David Clohessy of St. Louis, president of the advocacy organization Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), was the final victim to speak. "The greatest honor would be for you bishops to radically change your behavior," he proclaimed. He advocated safe touch programs in all Catholic schools, and also a change in approach in the ways victims' cases are handled.

A final presentation to the bishops came from Dr. Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst who is coauthor of the book Treating the Adult Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse. She talked to the bishops about the far-reaching, long-term effects of childhood sexual abuse.

The bishops spent the afternoon in executive session, closed to the media, presumably debating the zero tolerance policy and other proposals for greater accountability, the most controversial sections of the working document from the Ad Hoc Committee on Clergy Sexual Abuse. The session will continue behind closed doors late into the evening and will resume, with media present, tomorrow morning.

In his homily at a morning Eucharist, Bishop Gregory had invoked the intercession of St. Anthony: "St. Anthony of Padua, intercede with us like never before."


John Bookser Feister is editor of AmericanCatholic.org and an assistant editor of St. Anthony Messenger magazine whose 1994 article on clergy sexual abuse was awarded best general-interest magazine article that year by the Catholic Press Association. He holds master's degrees in humanities and theology from Xavier University.

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