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Religious Communities and Sex Abuse View Comments
By Christopher Heffron

Though she has the work history, the education, and the resources to sit back and theorize on the clergy sex-abuse crisis from afar, Monica Applewhite, PhD, has, for over fifteen years, been in the weeds of this crisis, working closely with dioceses, religious orders, and review boards on matters of abuse, abusers, and protecting the innocent.

Renowned as an expert in the prevention and response to abuse of vulnerable people, this Texas resident and Catholic parent of two young children has spent her career working to identify the reasons why abuse occurs, creating ways to prevent it, and responding to accusations appropriately.

A major, though not exclusive, focus of Applewhite’s work has been religious communities. Since the crisis erupted in the media in 2002, dioceses across the country received the lion’s share of scrutiny. Religious communities, on the other hand, were spared much of the negative focus. Why?

Applewhite answered that question and many others when she spoke to St. Anthony Messenger recently. She discussed her work throughout the crisis, the roles of religious priests and brothers, the contributions of Catholic and non-Catholic laypeople, and what the future holds for our Church

Q. Describe your role during the crisis.

A. I started working with religious orders and congregations in 1996. At that time, it was not out of the question for an offender to go back into ministry. So how do you set up a supervised ministry so that offenders can’t cultivate relationships with minors?

One of the things that we learned over the next several years is that you can supervise a ministry, but it’s not possible to identify a “safe ministry” that will allow you to put a person there and never worry about them again. They will find ways to transition that ministry into something that is closer to what they’re looking for.

In 2002 there was not openness about men who had sexually offended but were taken out of ministry. That was normally how I worked: with a handful of men’s communities who wanted to develop safety plans.

Q. Were you shocked when the crisis hit in 2002?

A. It wasn’t a crisis where we suddenly had new cases. The crisis was that more people were coming forward and saying they had been abused. Suddenly we had knowledge about how much abuse had occurred. We knew that it had happened, but the volume had never been recorded to this scale before.

The commitment that was made by the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was that men would be laicized if they had committed sexual offenses. And in some cases that did happen. The religious communities recognized that some of their own had to be laicized because they weren’t living as religious anymore.

But there are a significant number of men who were still part of their communities and wanted to live as religious. We continued our commitment to helping them walk the path, and we wanted to do that properly and safely.

In 2003, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM) contracted with the company I was working with at the time—Praesidium—trying to figure out what could be the standards for prevention, response, and supervising men who had abused. The CMSM adopted accreditation standards that would guide that supervision.


Christopher Heffron is an assistant editor and the social media editor of this publication.

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