Needs improvement: Readers rate the bishops' response to church sex abuse

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A progress report from U.S. Catholic readers says that bishops still haven’t learned all their lessons on the subject of sexual abuse.

Anger. Betrayal. Sadness. Disappointment. These are just some of the myriad of emotions felt by Catholics in the wake of the sexual abuse scandal that broke in 2002. And a decade later—following a flood of additional details on cases of clerical abuse and cover-ups as well as new efforts to enforce transparency and accountability within the church—many U.S. Catholic readers still hold on to those same feelings of disillusionment.

“Ten years later and we are still seeing unresolved situations. What a shame,” says Mary Ann McCoy of Des Moines, one of more than 300 respondents to a U.S. Catholic reader survey on how the church has addressed the sexual abuse crisis. “It is still being handled poorly in some dioceses,” she says. “The bishops have failed us.”

Many readers expressed frustration over the lack of accountability on the part of church leaders who helped to cover up the abuse of minors by clergy and thus put more children in harm’s way. Eighty-seven percent of respondents say that bishops and priests who were involved in past cover-ups of abuse should be held criminally liable and forced to resign.

“Why should the offending priest be sanctioned but not the bishops who covered up the crimes?” asks Helen Welter of Indianapolis. Peter Waricka of Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey takes a similar stance. “The church as a whole, and some bishops, have displayed what appears to be a disregard or disdain for civil laws and the civil rights of victims,” he says.  “Abusers and those who covered up abuse should be subject to the full consequences of those civil laws.”

Others were discouraged by the way the church has treated the victims who have come forward. “The lack of sympathy for the victims is appalling,” says Los Angeles resident Kris Fuller.

Some readers pointed out that victims and advocacy groups like the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) have been accused of attacking the church and even being vindictive for bringing lawsuits against Catholic dioceses and institutions where the abuse occurred. That’s not how Jack Sitterding of Hazel Crest, Illinois sees it. “Most victims/survivors coming forward do not do it for the money; they want justice,” Sitterding says. “They are not the enemy. The church should have more empathy for the people coming forward and treat them with respect.”

But while readers share a widespread disappointment in the way church leaders handled abuse cases in the past, they are more divided on the effectiveness of efforts to make the church safer for children today and more transparent in its handling of accusations against priests.

Of those surveyed, 55 percent say the bishops are less likely to cover up abuse cases today than in the past, and 34 percent say Catholic parishes and schools are now safer for children thanks to safeguards implemented in the last 10 years.

Paul Maina of Philadelphia believes that the scandal has taught the bishops a valuable lesson. “Bishops have become more careful than before,” he says, “and they have learned from their past mistakes that covering up has injured the church more than exposing the truth.”

Some readers acknowledge that responses from the church hierarchy have varied widely, and even though some bishops have earned their share of criticism, others deserve to be praised. “Some of the bishops are really trying and taking responsibility and working hard to keep children safe,” says B. J. Levad of Yakima, Washington. However, Levad adds, “Some of the bishops and priests are still stonewalling and doing the minimum.”

Tina Flynn of Arcadia Lakes, South Carolina believes the implementation of safe-environment training, which was mandated by the bishops’ 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, has gone a long way in raising awareness of the problem and helping to identify and prevent cases of abuse. “I can tell you that our Catholic churches and schools where I live are now some of the safest places a kid could possibly be,” she says.

For Bill Ramos of Oakland, California it is the willingness of individuals on the parish level to make such changes that is having the most positive impact. “At least we are beginning to address our shortcomings,” says Ramos. “Our parish is very serious about addressing sexual abuse, even with the laissez-faire attitude from the bishop.”

To readers like Nicholas Clifford of Middlebury, Vermont, however, ensuring the safety of children is only part of the solution. What still needs to be addressed, he argues, is the clerical culture that allowed the problem to go on for so long. “No one in authority has the courage to ask the big question,” says Clifford. “Were there ways in which the structures of church governance helped enable the crisis? And if yes, what do we do about them?”

When it comes to the church’s willingness to report accusations of sexual abuse to authorities, respondents credit pressure from outside sources—not a change in attitudes by the bishops—for improvements made since 2002. “Only because they are now bound by civil law to report cases are they forthcoming,” says Laurie Pascutti of Stevens Point, Wisconsin. “If not for that, in my opinion they would continue to cover up abuse cases for the sake of the institution.”

That view is shared by many respondents, as 80 percent say there is still a lack of transparency on the part of church leaders in handling sexual abuse cases. As evidence, several readers point to the case of Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, who is facing criminal charges for failure to report to civil authorities a priest in his diocese who was in possession of child pornography.

“We have just seen in the last year that avoiding public scandal and protecting the institution is still leading to cover-ups by some of our bishops,” says Catherine Sims of Mundelein, Illinois. Rochester, New York resident Judy Conley worries that the public is still unaware of other cover-ups that may be taking place. “I think many of the bishops are still sweeping things under the rug,” she says.

As time goes on and pressure fades, readers like Dennis Egan of Green Bank, West Virginia fear that the bishops will slowly move away from recent efforts to be more forthcoming. “It would be naive to think any of the current move toward transparency is anything permanent,” he says.

The many troubling cases that have come to light in the past decade have changed the way many Catholics view the clergy. Roughly half of all respondents said their personal view of the priesthood has been diminished by the scandal.

“I can no longer look at a priest—any priest—without wondering what secrets he’s hiding,” admits Angela Stockton of Clermont, Florida. Others, like Anne Clifford of Ames, Iowa, feel that the abuse scandal shows that more scrutiny is needed in determining who is admitted to the priesthood. “My view of priests as a whole is not diminished by the sex abuse crisis,” she says. “But I am very concerned about the psychological screening and formation of men who are admitted to the seminary.”

Mike Ghiorso of Daly City, California feels that the crimes committed by some priests have unfairly cast all of the clergy in a negative light. “The vast majority of our priests have endured guilt by association and tragic treatment,” he says.

That’s also a concern of priests themselves. Father Tom Aleksa of Sheffield, Pennsylvania feels that the bishops should have done more to help innocent priests. “The bishops do not understand that the great majority of priests who have never done these bad things are suffering because of the actions of a few,” he says.

The lack of trust created by the abuse scandal has also presented a challenge to the faith lives of some Catholics. Many say they can no longer look to church leaders for guidance on moral issues.

“The crimes, the deceit, the unaccountability, the secretiveness, the immoral behavior by the hierarchy—all have served to make me question everything that they say and do,” says Edward Scahill of Mashpee, Massachusetts. “They have totally lost their moral authority, especially on matters relating to human sexuality.”

Readers like Barbara Miller of St. Charles, Illinois are still struggling to reconcile their personal faith with the actions of their church’s leaders. “I find the topic of sexual abuse within the church a very difficult one that makes me both angry and sad,” says Miller. “I love the Catholic Church, but… it will take me a lifetime to overcome the tragedy.”

Still, respondents like Tom O’Connell of Chehalis, Washington have managed to maintain their faith in spite of the church’s failings in dealing with sexual abuse. “Your faith should be strengthened in Christ as our redeemer,” he says, “and not weakened by the frailties of men.”

"And the survey says..."

1. Since the sexual abuse scandal broke in 2002, I think that the bishops:

71% - Should have resigned if at any time they allowed a known or suspected abuser to continue having access to children.
71% - Should have found a way to pressure culpable fellow bishops to resign.
59% - Have done the bare minimum and should be doing much more.
44% - Have done a terrible job of handling the crisis and its aftermath.
33% - Have done a good job of putting in new safeguards against future abuse.
9% - Have done a good job of being transparent about past cases of abuse.
9% - Have taken responsibility if they allowed abuser priests to continue having access to children.

2. I still think there’s a lack of transparency when it comes to dealing with sex abuse within the church. 

80% - Agree
16% - Disagree
4% - Other

3. The Catholic Church has lost at least some of its credibility to speak on moral issues as a result of the sex abuse crisis.

86% - Agree
12% - Disagree
2% - Other

4. I was/I know someone who was abused by a priest.

44% - Agree
53% - Disagree
3% - Other

5. My personal view of the priesthood was diminished by the sex abuse crisis.

51% - Agree
36% - Disagree
13% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“I have not lost faith in the priesthood, but I have lost respect for the leadership of the church.”

6. The church has shown more concern for its public image as a result of the abuse crisis than it has for the needs of victims.

77% - Agree
19% - Disagree
4% - Other

7. Those who should get credit for the church’s reform after the sex abuse crisis include:

80% - Reporters who exposed the scandal.
76% - Victim advocacy groups, such as SNAP.
63% - Church reform groups, such as Voice of the Faithful.
56% - Lay review boards.
28% - Lawyers.
17% - The bishops.
16% - Other

Representative of “other”:
“The victims themselves.”

This article appeared in the June 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 6, pages 23-26).

Image: Tim Foley