Thursday, May 19, 2011

Grasping the Causes and Context

When the bishops gathered in Dallas in 2002 to approve the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, part of their response/commitment in dealing with the issue of clergy sexual abuse was to commission two studies to help the Church better understand what happened, what went wrong and how best to respond.

The reports became the task of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice who, along with their expertise in conducting such research, had no prior affiliation with the Catholic Church. In 2004, they issued the Nature and Scope Study. Yesterday, May 18, they issued the second study, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010.

The release of the report generated a great deal of media attention (as a study of this issue unprecedented in any organization should have), and as often the case, the nuances of the findings didn't always make it into the final stories, let alone the headlines.

For instance, a number of stories have reported that the study blames the 1960s or the sexual revolution for the sex abuse crisis. That was the headline of two otherwise fine pieces on the report by the Philadelphia Inquirer and National Public Radio. (Please do, click through and read their stories.)

More precise would be that the report found no single cause underlying clergy sexual abuse or the huge spike in numbers of decades ago, although it does explore trend lines in social upheaval as well as human formation in seminary. This is reflected in the leads of stories from Catholic News Service, the Boston Globe, the Associated Press and the New York Times.

One misconception that seems prevalent in the wake of the report is the notion that the bishops are somehow passing blame or minimizing the crisis. The statement from Bishop Blase Cupich of Spokane, USCCB chair of Protection of Children and Young People, makes it very clear where the bishops stand:

We have a position of zero tolerance of any cleric who would sexually abuse a child. This position must remain in effect, for as the late John Paul II declared, there can be no place in the priesthood for anyone who would abuse a child. Such a position protects children. But, it also protects the tens of thousands of priests who have suffered greatly in this crisis, all the while quietly serving with honor and self-sacrifice every day of their lives.

The study cautions against complacency. There is no room for fatigue or feeling that people have heard enough when it comes to efforts to protect children. The leadership of the bishops is needed now more than ever, particularly by encouraging and supporting those tasked with the responsibility of implementing the Charter in our dioceses, parishes and schools.

The researchers also stress that the sexual abuse of children exists throughout our country and our world. This problem is a human problem. Our Church is committed to be part of the solution. The very fear that abuse would ever recur in the Church compels us to take whatever action is needed to see that it does not arise again. At the same time, we stand ready to build partnerships with leaders in the civic community to rally the entire adult world to put an end to this societal scourge.

We welcome the study and its public release today. In view of its findings and recommendations, the bishops will thoroughly and carefully review our response to the sexual abuse crisis and make whatever adjustments are needed to help us build on the progress we have made. ...

Finally, as individual bishops and our Conference leadership have done, I once again apologize fully and without hesitation for the harm and the suffering caused when some priests took advantage of their moral authority and abused innocent children in a criminal way. It is also important to recall what Pope Benedict XVI said to us bishops about our response to the crisis during his visit to the United States in 2008: “as the President of your Episcopal Conference has indicated, it was ‘sometimes very badly handled.’” The shame of failing our people will remain with us for a long time. It should. Its sting can keep us resolute in our commitments and humble so as to never forget the insight we came to nearly a decade ago in Dallas. We cannot do any of this on our own.