Five years into the sex abuse crisis, some Catholics are growing weary, while others are cautiously optimistic.
The priest sex abuse crisis is the U.S. Catholic Church's Iraq War. The comparisons are hard to miss: the mounting list of casualties, the ever-increasing cost, the reluctance of leadership to admit mistakes, the ill-advised strategic moves, the obsession to conceal documents lest the truth come out, the loss of confidence by the public in the top decision-makers, the powerlessness of ordinary citizens to have their voice heard, and the growing conviction on the part of many that it will never end.
It was in the spring of 2003 when President George W. Bush landed on an aircraft carrier and under a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished," announced, "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended." Nine months later Bishop Wilton Gregory, then president of the U.S. bishops' conference, held up two volumes on the history and proposed solution to the abuse crisis, and told reporters, "The terrible history recorded here is history." He assured everyone that no stone had been left unturned to stop that scandal and that no known offenders were still at large.
But the fog of war has enshrouded both these campaigns. It has been five years since the bishops met in Dallas and agreed on a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the National Review Board to monitor the effort, and an office to assess progress. Still the battle occupies the news almost daily with new revelations and accusations, new court filings, new charges of deceit and cover-up, new TV specials. Catholics look on with a wide spectrum of attitudes including outrage, patient endurance, despair, and even confident hope.
Joseph Lynaugh, a retired HMO executive from New Jersey, says this sort of crisis is inevitable in a closed society. "The big problem here is a complete lack of accountability and transparency. And I don't think anything significant is going to happen. When I look to the prospects for the next generation of Catholics, my prognosis is grim."
Lee Ann Roblee, a stay-at-home mother in Cedar Park, Texas, says she understands the anger of victims. "But you can't change the past, and you can't apologize forever. I think it's time to move on and make a difference where you can," she says. "I believe the church is making progress and I'm very hopeful for the future."
How far have we come after five years?
The bomb drops
What provided the early public interest in the crisis were the horrific accounts of predatory priests and innocent victims. The Boston Globe broke the story nationally in early 2002 (it has run over 800 abuse-related stories since), and similar accounts quickly spread like the bubonic plague in virtually every diocese in the country. Perhaps the most complete collection of documentation is the work of two Boston-area Catholics who have been putting online court rulings, survivors' stories, information (and photos) of credibly accused priests, and newspaper accounts-practically everything available about the scandal that exists in print since 2003. Anne Barrett Doyle and Terry McKiernan, creators of bishopaccountability.org have amassed literally hundreds of thousands of pages, which may some day provide the raw material for scholars of the crisis. New material from all over the nation is added to the site daily, and much of it has already been of help to investigators, prosecutors, lawyers, and abuse survivors.
Doyle fears these five years may be just the beginning of the deluge. "From what we've seen," she says, "it seems to take victims 30 years or more to come forth, and we haven't heard much yet from those in the 1980s and 1990s." She wonders if sociologist Father Andrew Greeley's prediction that the number of victims could reach 100,000 may be true.
Though the public outcry against priest perpetrators has been intense, it has been absolutely vehement against the bishops who knew of the abuse yet continued to move clerics from one assignment to another without informing pastors or parishioners. Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston became the best known of these, largely through his denials and incredible lapses of memory under interrogation by prosecutors.
Law's approach seemed to set a standard for other bishops whose apologies were transparent only in their denial of guilt and absence of contrition. New York Cardinal Edward Egan apologized in a letter to his priests, saying, "If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made...I am deeply sorry."
These efforts to distance themselves from the scandal, more than anything else, brought down the wrath of Catholics. Justice Anne Burke, now of the Illinois Supreme Court, was a member of the original National Review Board appointed by the bishops in 2002, and she served as its interim president for two years. "This could have been a teaching moment. The bishops could have said, ‘This isn't about the faith, it's about us as poor administrators.' They could have embraced the people and said, ‘We need you in this time of crisis.' But they didn't, and as far as I can see, they haven't since," she says.
In their defense, many bishops still insist their past handling of abusive priests reflected the best psychological and legal advice of the time-that with therapy, prayer, and medication, deviant tendencies could be controlled, if not cured, and the men returned to service. But the recidivism of many priests should have been a signal to these cautious church leaders.
In 1984 Dominican Father Thomas Doyle, a canon lawyer at the Vatican embassy in Washington, D.C. at the time, produced an extensive analysis of the abuse problem along with comprehensive recommendations for reform. Based on the few high-profile cases emerging at the time, Doyle warned that a strategy of quietly paying off victims and coddling the abusers would result in the greatest scandal in U.S. church history. The bishops dismissed his ideas then and again in the early 1990s, when a new spurt of accusations made the headlines.
The failure of the hierarchy to recognize the problem and stem it sooner may be just one manifestation of a generally poor management style, suggests Frank Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities (FADICA). In a 2003 talk at Yale University, Butler outlined "a sad litany of embezzlements, misuse of charitable collections, bad investments, wheeling and dealing, and poor management undermining confidence that dioceses are run soundly and accountably." Butler says some dioceses are now using excellent management practices.
But there is still a long way to go, as illustrated this year by the Center for Church Management at Villanova University. Of 78 dioceses participating in a management study, 85 percent reported embezzlement had occurred in the past five years. Some 71 percent of these dioceses reported losses of more than $50,000, and 11 percent had losses greater than $500,000. Clearly, says Charles Zech, an author of the study, the need for accountability has not been met.
Weapons of accusation
As in any war, blame for the crisis is not limited to the obvious sources but gets spread all over the landscape. The media have been frequent targets in the abuse crisis-accused of sensationalizing the crimes, harassing priests and bishops, and failing to mention that most priests are doing wonderful work. Father Benedict Groeschel, a frequent commentator on the Eternal Word Television Network, claimed the media actually created the crisis. Archbishop Julian Herranz, then head of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, complained about the "tenacious, scandalistic style of the press," suggesting that anti-Catholic media outlets deliberately "sully the image of the church and weaken the moral credibility of the magisterium." Herranz is also among a host of observers who view homosexuality as the real source of sexual abuse and chide the church for not weeding out gay priests and seminarians.
A tempting target are the lawyers representing victims. Amounts of up to 30 or 40 percent of large compensation payments to victims have been awarded to these lawyers, who are then accused of greed and conspiring with advocacy groups to enrich themselves. The accusations have grown in frequency and indignation as the sums paid out by the church have increased. In a 2005 speech Thomas Doyle called the anti-lawyer attack "baseless and moronic."
"It was the lawyers who essentially did what the clergy should have been doing," he said. "They believed the victims, they supported them, they allowed them to vent, they gave them the beginnings of comfort and assurance that there was nothing wrong with them, that [the abuse] was real, that it did happen."
Organizations supporting victims have been extremely busy throughout the crisis, none more so than the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), whose leaders are quick to challenge any suggestion that the scandal is being satisfactorily resolved. SNAP was founded in 1989 by its current president, Barbara Blaine, herself a survivor of five years of abuse by a priest when she was a teenager. It is the oldest and largest survivor group, with some 8,000 members and support groups in 60 regions of the country.
Blaine is not optimistic about real change. "If bishops are cooperating, it's only because they're under the spotlight," she says. "If they're working hard at public relations, it's to protect the secrets more than the flock. As far as they are concerned, we [the survivors] are the enemy."
Blaine has a fierce, protective instinct for the survivor community, which she regards as still being victimized by powerful, uncaring forces. In her view the oppressors were not just the guilty priests and bishops but all the others who knew but remained silent-the other priests, nuns, lay teachers, school employees, police, prosecutors, judges.
"Many, many knew," says Blaine. "They knew and they protected the predators!" And what of the priests who have been wrongly charged in this accusatory environment? "We've found that that almost never happens," she says. "It's so rare as to be almost meaningless."
It is not meaningless, however, to those priests who have been falsely accused, and their numbers are considerable. The problem, says Father Michael Sullivan, a canon lawyer from the Crookston, Minnesota diocese, is that the standard of judging the credibility of accusations is so low in many dioceses as to be meaningless. "The presumption has switched from the accused being innocent to being guilty," he told the National Catholic Reporter. "I'm reminded of the Salem Witch hunts."
Although hardly noticed amid the crisis, a major, ongoing effort has occurred in scores of dioceses to ensure it will never happen again. The Dallas charter requires-besides compensation and treatment for victims and swift removal of perpetrators from ministry-thorough training of all church personnel in detecting and reporting allegations.
Patricia O'Donnell Ewers is the current president of the National Review Board, which has the responsibility to see that the bishops live up to those commitments. She is well aware of the struggle of the board in its earliest day when the first president, Frank Keating, former governor of Oklahoma, compared the secretive tactics of some bishops to the mafia.
"We've had a definite improvement since then," she says. "Now there's a basic cooperative relationship." Yet Ewers, former president of Pace University, admits the work of the board is not always easy. "Bishops and cardinals have a problem with the laity telling them what to do," she says.
Ewers says the bishops place such high emphasis on their accountability to the pope alone that "they have no idea of their accountability to one another." Nor can the board take action against the few institutions (two dioceses, Lincoln, Nebraska and Baker, Oregon; and two eparchies of the Eastern Rite Catholic Church) that refuse to cooperate with the charter. "The charter doesn't say anything about accountability," she explains.
So far, Ewers says, the bishops have approved every major action the board has proposed and are gradually "coming to recognize the growing desire of the laity to have a say in the direction in which their church is going."
Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the bishops' Office of Child and Youth Protection, which gathers data on charter implementation, says the work "goes well" nationally. Almost 6 million children have received safe environment training, thousands of teachers and church employees are being trained in recognizing danger signs, all new employees must agree to detailed background checks, and every diocese has a safe environment and victim assistant coordinator.
Bishop Gregory Aymond of Fort Worth, Texas, chair of the bishops' Committee for the Protection of Children and Youth, is equally upbeat about the work. "Children are far safer today than 10 years ago, abusive priests are being dismissed from ministry, and the vast majority of the bishops are reaching out to the victimized," he says. "Yes, we lost the trust of the people, but it is being rebuilt."
Aymond's recent meeting with the national president of the activist group Voice of the Faithful was cordial, he says. "We were on the same page on practically everything." The one sticking point is the release by dioceses of all the names of credibly accused priest since 1950. While VOTF, Call to Action, and others insist this is necessary for healing, Aymond's committee has so far opposed disclosure because, he says, many of the priests are dead and there may be questions about the accuracy of some of the accusations. Nevertheless, he says, "I am extremely hopeful we're moving beyond the bad news."
So are many of the bishop's people. "I am energized by what goes on in Austin," says Paulette Stepp, a human resources consultant and volunteer trainer in the diocese's child protection program. "Bishop Aymond's commitment to the children was strong even before the Dallas charter," she says, "and folks around here appreciate that."
Bishop Paul Bootkoski of Metuchen, New Jersey also received kudos for his response in the early days of the scandal. He began meeting with victims and letting them freely tell their stories. He immediately placed on his diocesan review board a person who had been abused by a priest; he met with local leaders of SNAP and sent representatives to their meetings; and he paid $800,000 in diocesan investments to a group of victims even though criminal charges could not be brought against their priest abusers due to the state statute of limitations.
"I did what I did in justice and compassion," he says. "Meeting victims was very uncomfortable at first, but it helped me understand what they went through, and they were very appreciative."
The nuclear option
On another front, five dioceses have attempted to calm hostilities by filing for diocesan bankruptcy. The first, Portland, Oregon, took action in 2004, and the latest, San Diego, California, earlier this year. Bankruptcy halts all suits against the diocese, but it also puts final judgment in the hands of a civil judge who decides how much the church must pay claimants and to what extent diocesan files must be made public.
For Tucson, Arizona bankruptcy has apparently worked in the diocese's favor. Agreement was reached within a year to pay some $22 million to victims, with the bulk of the funds coming from the sale of unused church property and from insurance.
"We were lucky," says Tucson Bishop Gerald Kicanas. "The judge didn't want any haggling over money, we had a positive dialogue with the victims, and we had been forthright in publishing names [of the credibly accused]." As a result, he says, a fair and equitable settlement was reached. "I know we have critics," says Kikanis, "but if we're moving toward forgiveness and recovery, then everyone benefits."
Other dioceses, like Spokane, have not had the legal advantages that benefited Tucson. When it finally declared bankruptcy, it had only $11 million in assets against $75 million in debts.
The assumption that most dioceses will survive by just carving off fat is absolutely wrong, says Villanova's Sergent. With reduced availability of insurance coverage, dioceses will be "slicing into bone and muscle," he declared in Commonweal magazine. "Who then will pay? Not the molesters, not the long-dead or retired bishops and chancery officials.... The bill will be paid by closing and selling off older, marginal parishes...and schools."
It's already happening, though church officials say otherwise. The Archdiocese of Boston said it was closing some 50 parishes in 2004 because of population shifts, the priest shortage, aging and deteriorating buildings, and fewer Mass-goers. Nothing was said about the $85 million the church is paying in abuse claims.
Speaking by phone from St. Francis Cabrini Church in a Boston suburb, John Roberts and his wife, Maryellen, insist everyone knows the truth. "The dollars for the settlement had to come from someplace, and it's coming from our churches," says John. The couple was bedding down in the church for the night. Since the church was closed, a contingent from the parish has been sleeping in it each night in protest.
"It's been two years and four months now," says Maryellen. "There was absolutely no reason in the world to close this young, growing parish except to sell off the property for money." Parishioners at a dozen or more closed Boston parishes are appealing in church and civil courts.
The abuse problem has hit Catholics hard, according to national surveys sponsored by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) and FADICA during the past five years. As of late 2005, 74 percent of Mass-attending parishioners believed it was hurting the credibility of church leaders "a great deal or somewhat." This was almost identical to the view two years before at the height of the crisis.
Only 29 percent of the respondents contributed to a diocesan collection in 2005, down from their giving rate in 2003. And some 39 percent of the Mass-goers had "little or no confidence" that the bishops as a whole were even addressing the sexual abuse problem.
On the other hand, the problem does not seem to have gravely affected Catholics' commitment to the church, especially at the local level. Forty-five percent believed their own bishop had done a "good or excellent job" in handling accusations of abuse. Some 74 percent contributed to collections regularly at their parish church, and a similar percentage had confidence their own bishop was handling finances properly.
The surveys challenge a common perception that anger over the handling of the abuse problem has driven many out of the church or greatly alienated Catholics from church leadership. Mary Gautier, a CARA senior research associate, says the findings suggest Catholic faith is "stronger than the tornado" created by the scandal, or it may prove that "faith, like politics, is essentially local."
Ultimately attitudes toward all aspects of the problem are in the eye of the beholder. In the Cincinnati archdiocese, Christi Miller, a mother of two young daughters, has become the local outspoken critic of the church, challenging its claims of concern for victims and accusing it of concealing facts. When a bill was proposed in the state legislature to open the statute of limitations so that past priest abusers could be prosecuted, "the bishops got together with the politicians and essentially emasculated it," she says.
Miller was abused by a priest as a teenager. Since the crisis became public, she has removed her children from Catholic school and no longer considers herself Catholic. "After learning all I've learned," she says, "I don't want to participate in a hierarchical religion."
Joe Metzger, a transportation consultant in Cincinnati and a father, looks at the same situation Miller sees. "I know what the archdiocese did on child protection even back to 1984," he says. "And I know they've developed a solid child protection program here. But there are people who keep pushing. For them a priest accused is a priest guilty. I don't agree. So how do we move on?" He most regrets the loss of relationship he and his peers once had with priests. "A priest took me to my first ballgame," says Metzger. "That can't happen anymore."
This article appeared in the August 2007 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 72, No. 8, pages 18-23).