Discussions of sexual abuse of minors by clergy are taking a turn. Publications now seek to assess what the U.S. church has done to address it. The magazine Catholic Digest took a major step in its July issue with a Q&A with Teresa Kettelkamp, head of the U.S. bishops’ Office for the Protection of Children and Young People (http://www.catholicdigest.com/articles/newsletter/no_sub_ministry/2010/06-10/the-clergy-sex-abuse-crisis-what-you-need-to-know). She notes, for example, “Now we know the signs of abuse, how abusers groom their victims and families of victims, and the efficacy of treatment. Most of all, we know that for the abuse to be stopped, it must be reported to civil authorities. No exceptions.”
The Digest Website also has an insightful letter from Mark Chopko, now in private practice, but the U.S. bishops’ general counsel, 1987-2007 (http://www.catholicdigest.com/articles/newsletter/no_sub_ministry/2010/06-10/mark-chopkorsquos-2010-letter-on-how-church-has-handled-the-sex-abuse-crisis). Chopko notes “I have often wished there would be reporting on all the positive programs that dioceses and religious orders have in place that serve victims, and serve to prevent new ones. If the programs got even half the attention that decades-old claims continue to get, there might be a better public understanding.”
Both express horror at sexual abuse of children yet acknowledge that the U.S. bishops have done much to deal with this sin and crime.
Several challenges confront writers on clerical sexual abuse.
Overcoming shock. Sexual abuse of a minor is so appalling that when you hear of a new case, it seems like it just occurred, even if it happened 25 or 50 years ago. Last year the church dealt with six instances of minors who were abused in 2009. That’s six cases too many but a far cry from the thousands of cases in the past. No one feels relief that there were so few cases in a church of 68 million people because there shouldn’t be any cases at all. The fact is, however, that the number of cases in the Catholic Church today is drastically fewer than there were in the past and even fewer than found in other institutions such as public schools now.
Figuring out why so many cases occurred from the late 60s to early 80s. Research by the City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice is finding that this crime seems time-bound, or, as they say, historical. As a human problem it can and will occur anytime, anywhere, but data shows that most cases in the church occurred late-‘60s-to early-‘80s. Why then? This was a time when the Western world eschewed society’s rules. Drug use, divorce, disregard of the law and sexual license were prevalent. Is there a connection?
Judging by today’s standards. Society changes, and recent society has changed rapidly. Child welfare used to be tied to the Humane Society and the Society for the Protection and Care of Animals. That’s a staggering fact today, given current awareness of children’s rights. Society has come a long way. Given what we know now, a church leader today who operates from a ‘70s mindset today does so at peril. Give-a-guy-a-second-chance once seemed like the decent thing to do; now it’s practically, if not actually, criminal. There is no way today you can condone reassigning a sexual abusing priest, but is it right to use today’s awareness to condemn decision-makers who acted decades before with the limited knowledge at hand?
Holding the church to a higher standard. The day sexual abuse of a child by a priest is not a page-one story will be a sad day. Church leaders call others to virtue and should be as virtuous as possible themselves. Yet at the same time it is unfair for the government to abandon rules of justice when dealing with the church. It’s tempting to want to dismiss statutes of limitations, which exist for good reason, when it comes to clergy sexual abuse since hearing about the crime invokes a lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key gut reaction. But if justice is to be blind to favoritism, all institutions, such as churches and schools, deserve equal treatment under the law.
Writers now have the benefit of perspective as they look at sexual abuse by clergy. They also can see what the church accomplished once it addressed the problem – including the training of more than five million children and two million adults in safe environment programs. And the training continues.
With the blessing of accumulated time – the period since 2002, when the bishops adopted their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People – media now can view the crisis with perspective. Catholic Digest has risen to the challenge providing insightful coverage of a problem we must never forget.