The Scandal at 10

What we have and haven’t learned

In the decade since the scandal of sexual abuse of children by some Catholic priests and its coverup by some bishops erupted in January 2002, thereby startling and disgusting the nation, it’s often been said that at least this disaster should teach Catholics some painful but needed lessons. So what lessons have we learned in these 10 years? And what have we failed to learn up to now?

By far the most important lesson is the one Pope Benedict XVI identified in Light of the World, his book-length interview with German journalist Peter Seewald published in 2010 (Ignatius Press). “Insofar as it is the truth,” the Pope said, “we must be grateful for every disclosure. The truth, combined with love rightly understood, is the number one value.”

As we shall see, in the years during which the sex abuse scandal has unfolded, the lesson of truth-telling been learned imperfectly at best by some in the Church.

With that as background, here are four areas of concern prompted by the scandal, with lessons learned and lessons apparently not learned regarding each. The areas of concern are: protecting children and protecting the rights of priests; the folly of coverup and the need to adopt a universal presumption in favor of openness applying to all areas of ecclesial life; the role of the media and the gulf between the media and the Church; and the tough, resilient fidelity of many Catholics, together with the need to banish clericalism once and for all. (The focus here is on American Catholicism, since with a few exceptions I wouldn’t presume to draw conclusions about the scandal as it has taken shape in other countries.)

Protecting children and protecting the rights of priests

One apparent success story of the bishops’ collective response to the scandal has been the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People and the accompanying Essential Norms for Diocesan/Eparchal Policies adopted by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops at its tense meeting in Dallas in June of 2002. The Essential Norms were subsequently approved by the Holy See and are “particular law” for the Church in the United States. (Some minor changes have been made since 2002.)

The Charter and the Norms supplied the impetus for a network of national and diocesan offices, review boards, personnel procedures, and child protection programs throughout the country. Researchers from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, in their report last year to the bishops’ conference (The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010), said this complex infrastructure of policies, procedures, and programs amounts to “[the] best practices in terms of education about abuse for potential victims, potential abusers, and potential guardians.” Among the results, they concluded, has been a “substantial” drop in the number of abuse cases.

Numbers appear to bear that out. An annual “survey of allegations and costs” conducted for the bishops’ conference by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate and released last April found only seven credible new allegations against seven priests had been reported in the preceding year, 2010. Two-thirds of the allegations concerned events between 1960 and 1984. Of an overall total of 345 alleged offenders, three-quarters were either dead or laicized.

Still, as indicators of progress, these figures may be somewhat misleading. As the John Jay researchers point out, sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the United States has been declining since the mid-1980s (when the fact of abuse first became widely known) and had already fallen precipitously by 2002.

But even so, and no matter what the explanation or combination of explanations for the drop-off may be, the number of new cases of abuse really is way down from its peak, and there’s no reason not to give the new policies, procedures, and programs some of the credit. (As a practical matter, the pressure of public opinion when the scandal broke required adopting them in any case.)

As for what causes abuse, it looks like we’re condemned to ongoing wrangling about that until somebody comes up with explanatory data that satisfy everyone once and for all. Which may be never.

Citing the glaring statistic that 81 percent of the victims of clergy abuse were males, usually boys in their teens, conservative critics say this shows homosexuality was the root of the problem. But the John Jay researchers, who had access to the clinical files of abusers and non-abusers in three treatment centers, say the data doesn’t support that conclusion.

In its place, they offer a complex explanation that includes deficient seminary formation from the 1930s to1950s, along with the values revolution of the 1960s and 1970s and the pressures it generated, which they say led a few susceptible individuals, no more likely to be homosexual than heterosexual, to engage in aberrant behavior. (That so many victims were boys, it’s said, is due to the fact that the clerical abusers had more access to them.)

If there’s any consolation here, it’s that nobody involved in this debate claims either that abuse is okay or that a disproportionate number of homosexual clergy is desirable. For now, it’s probably pointless to carry the argument much further.

If children are being protected, however—and protecting them comes first—it’s not so clear that the same is true of priests. Privacy, reputation, and even livelihood are issues here. Once a priest is publicly accused of abuse, the damage has been done and can never be entirely repaired even by subsequent exoneration. That’s true not only of living priests, but in a special way of dead ones, who have no possibility of vindicating themselves.

Last August, responding to pressure, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston committed the archdiocese to a policy of publishing the names of accused clergy in several categories, including dead priests who were publicly accused but in whose cases criminal or canonical proceedings were not completed, and priests in cases where the diocesan review board had found the allegations to be unsubstantiated. Cardinal O’Malley called this “one more step forward in our efforts to assume responsibility for our past failures.” Perhaps it was that, but others could only wonder whether we have yet to find a fair, workable balance between a high degree of transparency and the right of priests to their good name. 

The self-destructive folly of cover-ups

While covering up was a common tactic of Church authorities reacting to sexual misconduct by clerics in a number of dioceses and religious communities prior to 2002, hardly anyone today would defend it—publicly, at least. Granted, at the time, the motives—especially protecting the image of the Church and preventing scandal—probably seemed overwhelmingly right to those who did the covering up. But they are now recognized as delusory, unjust (to potential future victims and the community at large), and horribly counterproductive, as forced disclosures in courtrooms and the media have shown time and again.

And still the lesson that covering up is wrong seems not to have sunk in everywhere, or else to have sunk in too late. The saddest illustration to come to light up to now was provided in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, which a grand jury last February accused of mishandling the cases of 37 priests who’d been accused of abuse or other inappropriate behavior but hadn’t been removed from ministry. The archdiocese subsequently placed 26 priests on administrative leave; and at the time this is written, court cases are pending against three priests and a lay teacher in a Catholic school, as well as the former archdiocesan official in charge of clergy assignments. (He is the first official of an American diocese to face felony charges on matters related to abuse.)

In his homily at his installation Mass last September as new archbishop of Philadelphia, Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFMCap referred to the “serious challenges” of this ugly episode and reminded his listeners, “There’s no quick fix to problems that are so difficult.” Indeed there isn’t. But although they don’t add up to a quick fix, openness and accountability nevertheless are the best policy in the long run.

Most dioceses and the national conference of bishops seem to have learned this lesson—where sex abuse is concerned—as the proliferation of audits and annual reports suggests. The handful of dioceses and religious institutes that insist on still keeping their cards close to the vest thus are engaged in behavior that’s highly problematical at best. Holdout bishops who refuse to cooperate with the USCCB on grounds of high ecclesiological principle probably need to rethink their position. Upholding the rights of ordinaries in their dioceses is admirable, but so is cooperating on serious issues of shared interest with the body of bishops to which one belongs as a matter of canon law. By and large, it was bishops who didn’t cooperate with procedures for handling abuse cases adopted by the episcopal conference in the 1990s who landed themselves and the rest of the Church in the soup 10 years ago.

Be that as it may, sex abuse isn’t the only problem-area in the life of the Church, and progress on openness and accountability on this single issue leaves untouched other areas such as finances, governance and decision-making, and personnel. Here, unfortunately, ecclesiastical leadership in many places, if not most, appears still to be wedded to closed-door, close-mouthed policies and practices.

The result, of course, is to leave the Church potentially vulnerable to attack in these areas, just as it was vulnerable on sex abuse. Not only does the lack of openness render the Church vulnerable to external attack, however, but it also undermines the Church’s integrity from within. The most important unlearned lesson of the sex abuse scandal up to now is that the abuse of secrecy is a grievous obstacle to realizing the Church’s nature as communio—a community of human beings fundamentally equal in dignity and rights, in communion with one another and with God. That so many people in responsible positions seem not to understand that excessive and unnecessary secrecy conflicts with that vision of the Church is a scandal in its own right.  

The role of media, and the gulf separating it and the Church

The Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking the story of the abuse and subsequent cover-up. Speaking not long ago to a college journalism class, editor Martin Baron took pride in the paper’s early example of “super-distribution” of news—utilizing both the print medium and online technology to offer readers comprehensive access to the entirety of a story, including in this instance incriminating court documents that Globe lawyers had gotten unsealed in late 2001. “It’s not the first time people had written about abuse in the Catholic Church,” Baron said, “but it was the first time you could see everything laid out before you. And the Church couldn’t deny it, because there it was.”

Catholic writer Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal has declared the press to be “the best friend of the Catholic Church…because it exposed the story and made the Church face it.” While rather more restrained, Pope Benedict in his Seewald interview took essentially the same line, expressing his thankfulness for “every disclosure” and stressing that truth is the primary value.

But the Pope didn’t leave it at that. The motivation behind the “press campaign,” he noted, included “not only a sincere desire for truth, but…also some pleasure in exposing the Church and if possible discrediting her.” This mixture of motives has become increasingly apparent over time.

Some media have handled the abuse story responsibly from the start, careful not to overstate the number of priests and abuse victims or exaggerate the degree of institutional protectiveness underlying the authorities’ reaction. Some, but not all. Last year, even the lofty New York Times strained to press the idea that Pope Benedict, in his years as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, knew what was going on but was slow to punish the guilty. On the record, nevertheless, Cardinal Ratzinger appears to have been one of first in the Vatican to grasp the seriousness of the situation and to have done as much as, and possibly more than, anyone at his level to respond appropriately. Possibly he might have done more. So might everyone else.

Others in the media have gone well beyond the New York Times. Cheap shots at “pedophile priests” are now the stock in trade of late-night TV performers who keep Bill Donohue of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights busy fighting the good fight. And not just the TV funny men. A while back, protesting “the factual errors, the stereotypes, the grand omissions, and the melodramatic language”of an article about the scandal in Rolling Stone, Donohue said, “For sheer maliciousness, it is hard to top the piece.”

Malice goes a long way to explain media misbehavior. Yet another factor also is at work: the huge gulf of mutual incomprehension and mistrust separating the media and high-ranking churchmen, not only on sex abuse but much else.

Here’s an illustration. Last spring, a page-one story in the Washington Post suggested that ill-considered remarks by the official papal homilist likening criticism of the Vatican over abuse to the Holocaust might be some sort of weird trial balloon floated deliberately by the Holy See. Assured by a knowledgeable reader that this was fantasy, a Post reporter conceded the paper blew it, but added in e-mail, “It’s just not clear to the typical person what the Vatican is doing, often, and thus it leaves people open to debates like this.” Point well taken. Churchmen at all levels frequently do a poor job—or else no job—explaining themselves, thus giving rise to misunderstanding and misrepresentation by the press. Some of us have pointed that out for years, but the problem persists. It’s another unlearned lesson.

The resilient fidelity of Catholics

Many people expected a big drop in Mass attendance would follow the disclosures of 2002, but it didn’t. The percentage of Catholics regularly attending Sunday Mass has remained stable throughout the past decade, in the 22-25 percent range. That figure is hardly something to write home about, but the point is that the scandal didn’t make it worse. Faithful Catholics, it seems, know how to distinguish between the weakness of Church members, including themselves, and the core of essential goodness and truth at the heart of the Church.

Like people who think well of their own congressman but don’t like Congress, Catholics also tend to take a positive view of their local bishop while viewing “the bishops” collectively in a negative light. A Zogby poll in 2010 found only 45 percent of American Catholics approving of the overall job the bishops were doing, with 72 percent holding a negative view of their handling of sex abuse. That suggests widespread failure to grasp two key facts: that the number of new cases of abuse coming to light each year has been dropping for years, and that the bishops who bungled the problem at its peak were a very different group from the bishops of today.

Even so, a realistic understanding of factors underlying this huge crisis points to an unmet need to get serious about something that sooner or later could erode even the patience of faithful Catholics: clericalism. Clericalism in combination with the abuse of secrecy helped turn what began as a tragedy for some individuals into a towering disaster for everyone.

The National Review Board, the all-lay body set up by the bishops in 2002 to monitor implementation of their new sex abuse policy, got it exactly right: “Clerical culture and a misplaced sense of loyalty made some priests look the other way…. Clericalism also contributed to a culture of secrecy. In many instances, Church leaders valued confidentiality and a priest’s right to privacy above the prevention of further harm to victims…. [C]hurch leaders kept information from parishioners and other dioceses that should have been provided to them. Some also pressured victims not to inform the authorities or the public of abuse.” Absent steps to rid the Church of these festering sore spots, clericalism and secrecy will keep on generating alienation even among faithful Catholics. Add that to the list of lessons yet to be learned.

In the end, though, it’s as Archbishop Chaput said in his installation homily: “The Church is not defined by her failures…. What we do in the coming months and years to respond to these challenges—that will define who we really are…. The Church is our mother and teacher. Everything we do should flow from that.” Including, let’s hope, facing up to hard truths.

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About Russell Shaw 271 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).