What is the Church doing about the sexual abuse among priests?

Dear Friend,

Although I believe few answers or solutions to such a problem can remedy the hurt that has already been incurred, I do see change within the Church and reasons to have hope for youth and those seeking healing.

First of all, I want to let you know that many (including everyone I know) within the Catholic Church has been devastated by the sexual abuse that has taken place - not only because it causes scandal, but more importantly because of the pain suffered by so many victims. I’ve also been personally connected to this atrocity. A priest sexually abused a dear and very close relative when he was young and a priest friend of mine was convicted for sexually abusing a minor. Both of these tragedies have imprinted in my mind disgust and desire for an urgent action. I whole-heartedly agree that the Church should have (and should continue to), act swiftly, firmly and compassionately.

Although the Church is made up of humans who can obviously make mistakes, many of those in leadership have made efforts to deal with this situation appropriately. In addition, I know they are looking into the causes of this situation so we can address the root issues - not just stick a “band-aid” on what has already occurred.

It has helped me to realize that this problem is not just a reflection of the Church but of the culture at large. A random case of homosexuality or pedophilia from the clergy here and there is one thing – the individuals involved need to be dealt with in such occurrences. However, not until recently has this issue become a national, Catholic problem. The larger problem I am more referring to is the overly sexualized condition of our country, which arose out of the sexual revolution. This revolution brought about a societal acceptance of many sexual practices including fornication, homosexuality, pornography and much more. Coupled with a growing acceptance is the constant barrage of sexual acts in the media and in our community, affecting every individual and institution. The Church has not been excluded. Not until recently did the Church and seminaries understand the magnitude of this revolution. Even in my job as chastity educator, I’m still just starting to see how this cultural shift is not just an exterior issue, but has transformed the core of our being. This certainly does not excuse the Church from dealing with the issue more appropriately, but this knowledge has given me a bit more understanding as to why in the world this took place.

Now that we understand there is a problem, it’s the responsibility of the seminaries and leadership of the Church to act. Although I am not aware of everything that has taken place, I would like to lead you to a few resources that provide some answers.

  1. Dr. Rick Fitzgibbons suggests programs for Priests, Religious, Seminarians in his document Seminary Reform Needed in Wake of Sex Abuse Study
  2. Virtus an organization which the Archdiocese of St. Louis joined just a few years ago strictly to protect children. I’m not sure how many other dioceses in the country are also involved in Virtus or something similar. In our Archdiocese, Virtus give seminars that ALL diocesan employees and volunteers who work with children must attend - janitors, priests, cafeteria staff, soccer coaches, etc. Just in our Archdiocese, 525 presentations have reached over 25,000 people as of June 2004. Run by licensed psychologists, these presentations, called “Protecting God’s Children”, are extremely professional, compassionate and practical in helping find signs of and deal with inappropriate behavior. In addition, all employees are part of the Virtus program, which, as you can see by the website, requires on-going training on these important issues. There are articles and a quiz at the end of each article to help me stay updated and continually learning more.
  3. The Office of Children and Youth Protection was created by request of the United States Bishops. This national organization has been doing continuous research and, although new, is making recommendation for action at this time. If national seminary or Church requirements will be made, it will most likely come from this group.
  4. Catholic Answers is a website I often refer to when I seek clear Church teaching. A few things on their site might provide some answers for you.

I often feel that change should be made immediately, and the good news is that some changes have already been made. And, yet I know that some other major decisions take time - for prayer and thorough research and collaboration. As for the swift action being taken, I am aware of many things that have been done quickly - many victim support programs established (an outreach program for every diocese in the country), the Office of Child and Youth Protection organized, a swift increase in psychological exams and evaluations of men hoping to enter to seminary, and an increased focus on teaching practical tips for living celibacy, chastity and having healthy sexuality in the seminaries. Licensed psychologists have been hired and linked to both the Bishop’s committee as well as each diocese to help make and implement the many decisions surrounding this problem. Also, in every case I am aware of, the Church has immediately come through to the victim to offer financial and counseling support.

On a personal note, I have two good friends who have specifically been weeded-out of the seminary. These men do not exhibit any major personal or psychological defects. However, they both admit to some psychological issues surfacing - one during the admissions process, another after three years in seminary - for which they were asked to leave. This gives me hope that the new psychological evaluations, which claim to now integrate the best of modern psychology and theology, are already working.

In addition, we anticipate more Church statements and decisions to be released in the future. This Spring, the Vatican will complete and make public a document outlining more specific norms regarding this issue and it is rumored that specific seminary regulations will increase and become required - although we are unaware of exactly what these might be. Even though most dioceses have already begun moving in this direction, it will be good for precise boundaries to be made.

Some of the questions you asked I simply cannot answer. Your inquiries about prayers, prayer services and homilies fall mostly under the umbrella of “pastoral ministry”. It is a bishop and pastor’s right to discern what he feels is most appropriate in dealing with this situation. For example, in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, it was required by our Archbishop (Rigali at the time), that all priests give at least one homily on the topic and include an encouragement for anyone who has been harmed to approach the police. (In fact, I’m willing to bet that many of the large number of reports in the recent past came from an encouragement from the Church itself.) I know that pastorally, some priests (if not many - I’m not sure) in our diocese have spoken more than once about this from the pulpit - as the focal point of a homily or part of one. The prayers read at Mass have included this issue. Our Catholic newspaper (the paper of the Bishop) has written on this topic repeatedly. Our new Archbishop, Raymond Burke, has been known to sit down with every person, in the diocese he serves, accusing a priest of sexual abuse to share his compassion and commitment to them in the process of healing.

Why have some parishes, priests and bishops not responded as openly as you would like? I do not know. Maybe they fear too much mention of it will affect the innocence and trust of children. And, some priests and bishops are just not handling it as well as they should. I agree with you that a strong response is good, but I also know that some strong responses have taken place and others I leave to the discretion of the bishops and priests.

In conclusion, I am honestly grateful for your question and for your passion in finding answers. I hope and pray that more Catholics view this situation with great concern and actively seek appropriate responses. I know my reply cannot perfectly or adequately answer to the frustration, pain and confusion of this situation, but I hope it might lead you closer to at least some personal resolution and some hope for the future.