clergy sex abuse

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

It was in 1983 that parents told leaders of the Diocese of Lafayette, west of New Orleans, that Father Gilbert Gauthe had molested their son.

Dominos started falling. The bishop offered secret settlements to nine families -- but one refused to remain silent.

The rest is a long, long story. Scandals about priests abusing children -- the vast majority of cases involve teen-aged males -- have been making news ever since, including the firestorm unleashed by The Boston Globe's "Spotlight" series that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

This old, tragic story flared up again in 2018, and Religion News Association members selected the release of a sweeping Pennsylvania grand-jury report -- with 301 Catholic priests, in six dioceses, accused of abusing at least 1,000 minors over seven decades -- as the year's top religion story.

"The allegations contained in this report are horrific and there are important lessons to take away from it," said Michael Plachy, a partner at Lewis, Roca, Rothgerber, Christie, a national law firm that emphasizes religious liberty cases. However, "to be candid, much of what's in this report has been known for years. … It's important, but it's mostly old news."

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia -- a diocese not included in the grand-jury report -- requested an analysis of the 884-page document focusing on the impact of the church's 2002Charter for the Protection Children and Young People. Among the law firm's findings: Of 680 victims whose claims mentioned specific years, 23 cited abuse after the charter -- 3 percent of claims in the grand-jury report. The average year of each alleged incident was 1979.

Much of the year's crucial news about clergy sexual abuse focused on efforts to hold bishops accountable when they were accused of abuse or of hiding abuse cases -- including sexual abuse of adult victims.

Thus, this was a year in which my views clashed with the RNA poll. For me, the No. 1 story was the fall of retired Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, for decades one of America's most influential Catholics. In public remarks, he even claimed to have assisted in efforts to elect Pope Francis. McCarrick was removed from ministry and exited the College of Cardinals because of evidence that he sexually assaulted a 16-year-old altar boy in 1971 and, for decades, sexually harassed and abused seminarians.

My No. 2 story -- the pope's decision to cooperate with China officials when selecting bishops -- didn't make the RNA Top 10.

The RNA Religion Newsmaker of the Year was Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, after his stem-winding sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. McCarrick was not included on the ballot.

Clergy, temptation, sex abuse and the law

Surely one of our world's most endangered species -- right up there with the Mountain Gorilla or the Sumatran Tiger -- is the church "ministerius youthii."

That was the conviction of the late Louis McBurney, a Mayo Clinic-trained psychiatrist who spent decades at his Colorado retreat center helping ministers crushed by the demands and temptations of their jobs. Youth ministers, for example, face stunning parental expectations, low pay, the loss of privacy and a nagging sense of powerlessness.

Plus, it's hard to work with adolescents in a sex-soaked culture. Many older teens think they are more mature than they really are, noted McBurney, in his 1986 volume "Counseling Christian Workers." Consider the case of "Joe," a newly married seminary graduate who was energetic, talented and driven. Then, there was this one girl.

"She was a beautiful 17-year-old who was more mature than her peers," wrote the psychiatrist. "They began to play tennis together, and she was frequently the last to leave group activities. Joe couldn't remember who made the first move to sexual intimacy, but once that happened it snowballed."

Many were hurt in the train wreck that followed, an all-to-common scenario that in the past often played out behind closed doors with parents and church leaders hiding the damage. Times have changed, to some degree, after years of public debate about the sexual abuse of minors by clergy, teachers, coaches and other trusted adults.

The respected evangelical publication Leadership Journal recently unleashed a firestorm of criticism by publishing an anonymous piece -- since taken offline -- entitled "My Easy Trip from Youth Minister to Felon." One passage was particularly galling to Twitter critics who used #TakeDownThatPost and #HowOldWereYou as hashtags.

Catholic dad's fight against abuse

It wasn't hard to connect the dots when, after decades of lurid news about the sexual abuse of the young, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered a Good Friday sermon bemoaning "how much filth" was in the church, including "the priesthood." Weeks after that signal in 2005, the cardinal became pope. Then at World Youth Day 2008, he said, "I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured. ... These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation."

The pope's recent letter to Irish Catholics also made headlines, of course. After new cries for repentance, Benedict XVI told the victims: "I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. ... It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church."

All of these words were spoken in public and, thus, led to debates and discussions around the world. However, in recent months tuned-in Catholics have been reading about a private, strategic statement -- by a Catholic layman -- that may have had the greatest practical impact in American sanctuaries. The St. Louis Beacon, an independent online newspaper, recently published the document.

The 10-page memo (.pdf here) was written by David Spotanski, vice chancellor of the Diocese of Belleville in Southern Illinois, and given to his bishop on Feb. 22, 2002.

It's crucial that Bishop Wilton D. Gregory had recently become president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops -- just as another wave of abuse reports hit the news. When the bishop began scanning the document, Spotanski took it back and read it aloud, behind closed doors.

"The truth is that our bishops are not doing all they CAN to stop sexual abuse of minors by their brother priests; they're doing all they CARE TO," wrote Spotanski. "Like most Catholics I'm stunned and horrified that there's a distinction. ... For a Church that can be so outspoken and uncompromising about the splinters in the eyes of our culture, She has apparently for decades hypocritically concealed a plank in Her own eye from which one could hew an ark."

In addition to handing the bishop the memo, Spotanski provided a photo of his daughter and two sons, who were 14, 11 and 9 when it was taken. He then placed a copy of the photo in Gregory's briefcase before every major meeting the bishop attended that year -- including a face-to-face meeting between Pope John Paul II and the president of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Gregory also met with Cardinal Ratzinger and other top Vatican officials.

This led to a crucial Vatican summit on the abuse crisis and, eventually, much tougher policies to protect children in American churches.

While that charter didn't take every action advised by Spotanski, noted commentator Ross Douthat, it's safe to say that "while the princes of the American church were immobilized by denial ... the rough draft of the policy that righted the ship was being written by a middle-aged layman in the Midwest, in consultation with the Catholic dads on his local softball team."

The New York Times columnist, who is an active Catholic, called Spotanski, the "man who saved American Catholicism."

If so, the key to the memo was its blunt, personal tone and its emphasis on the damage done to the lives and faith of ordinary Catholic children and their parents. For example, Spotanski asked, what Jesus would say to a cardinal who has "shown himself to be dishonest about his knowledge of the forcible anal rape of children?" He then quoted a bishop as observing, "I don't think I'd like hell very much."

Most of all, he argued, Catholic bishops needed to start thinking about their own vows and the church's future and, thus, stop treating victims like "lepers, sinners, nuisances or threats." At some point, faithful Catholics would close their hearts and their checkbooks.

When that happened, warned Spotanski, bishops in "tainted dioceses" would have to "choose between their missions and their mansions, their food buses and their limousines, the 'least of their brothers' and Brooks Brothers. ... The depleted bottom line is that you simply can't run a major American archdiocese for very long on 30 silver coins."

Archbishop kicks Gray Lady

Maureen Dowd of the New York Times has long enjoyed flaunting her Catholic schoolgirl pedigree like a badge of honor. Still, the Pulitzer Prize winner took her game to another level in a recent column attacking Rome for its investigation of religious orders that shelter sisters who oppose many of the church's teachings.

Wait, is "investigation" the right word?

"The Vatican is now conducting two inquisitions into the 'quality of life' of American nuns, a dwindling group with an average age of about 70, hoping to herd them back into their old-fashioned habits and convents and curb any speck of modernity or independence," she wrote.

Dowd rolled on. Reference to the fact Pope Benedict XVI was once a "conscripted member of the Hitler Youth"? Check. Reference to his Serengeti sunglasses and trademark red loafers? Check. Strategic silence on the fact that many traditionalist orders are growing, while liberal orders are shrinking? Check.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan fired back at Dowd and her editors, going much further than the low-key criticism that mainstream religious leaders usually crank out when they are mad at the press. His "Foul Ball!" essay was as subtle as a whack with a baseball bat.

Anti-Catholicism is alive and well, he argued. Check out the New York Times.

"It is not hyperbole to call prejudice against the Catholic Church a national pastime," wrote Dolan. "Scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Sr. referred to it as 'the deepest bias in the history of the American people.' ... 'The anti-Semitism of the left,' is how Paul Viereck reads it, and Professor Philip Jenkins sub-titles his book on the topic 'the last acceptable prejudice.' "

A clash between the conservative archbishop and the Gray Lady was probably inevitable. After all, the newspaper is currently led by an editor who -- months after 9/11, when he was still a columnist -- accused Rome of fighting on the wrong side of a global struggle between the "forces of tolerance and absolutism."

Calling himself a "collapsed Catholic," well "beyond lapsed," Bill Keller said the liberal spirit of Vatican II died when it "ran smack-dab into the sexual revolution. Probably no institution run by a fraternity of aging celibates was going to reconcile easily with a movement that embraced the equality of women, abortion on demand and gay rights."

The archbishop offered his "Foul Ball!" commentary to the Times editors, who declined to publish it. Dolan then posted the essay on his own website, while also offering it to -- which promptly ran it.

Dolan was, of course, livid about Dowd's broadside, calling it an "intemperate," "scurrilous ... diatribe that rightly never would have passed muster with the editors had it so criticized an Islamic, Jewish or African-American religious issue."

The archbishop also accused the newspaper of various sins of omission and commission, asking the editors if they were printing stronger attacks on the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church than on other groups -- religious and secular -- that have struggled with sexual abuse. The Times, he claimed, was guilty of "selective outrage."

For example, he noted a recent report on child sexual abuse in Brooklyn's Orthodox Jewish community that, after addressing the facts, "did not demand what it has called for incessantly when addressing the same kind of abuse by a tiny minority of priests: release of names of abusers, rollback of statute of limitations, external investigations, release of all records and total transparency."

Dolan also accused the Times, and other media, of downplaying public reports in 2004 and 2007 that documented the problem of sexual abuse of minors by educators in U.S. public schools. It seems, he said, that major newspapers "only seem to have priests in their crosshairs."

This prickly dialogue is sure to continue. After all, the 59-year-old Dolan was installed as New York's 13th Catholic archbishop last April -- so he isn't going anywhere. And while America's most powerful newspaper faces a stunning array of financial challenges, the New York Times is still the New York Times.

Stay tuned.

"The Catholic Church is not above criticism," stressed Dolan. "We Catholics do a fair amount of it ourselves. We welcome and expect it. All we ask is that such critique be fair, rational and accurate, what we would expect for anybody. The suspicion and bias against the Church is a national pastime that should be 'rained out' for good."

Where does the Baptist buck stop?

The clergy sexual abuse statistics were staggering.

Local reports from angry, hurt and humiliated laypeople were too horrifying to ignore.

So the assembled church leaders decided that they had to say something, they had to call for some kind of action because they were facing a nasty moral crisis.

"We encourage those religious bodies dealing with the tragedy of clergy abuse in their efforts to rid their ranks of predatory ministers," said their June 12 resolution. "We call on civil authorities to punish to the fullest extent of the law sexual abuse among clergy and counselors. ...

"We call on our churches to discipline those guilty of any sexual abuse ... as well as to cooperate with civil authorities in the prosecution of those cases."

Thus, the "messengers" to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention acknowledged that America's largest non-Catholic flock has been hit by waves of clergy sexual abuse affecting untold numbers of women, men, teen-agers and children. The resolution, which passed with little opposition, called for "ministers of the gospel -- whether they are pastors, counselors, educators, missionaries, chaplains or others -- to be above reproach morally, both within the body of Christ and in the larger community."

The intent of this is clear. Yet the statement also demonstrates why it will be hard for freewheeling and autonomous Protestant congregations to attack clergy sexual abuse.

While news media have repeatedly focused on abuse among Catholics, Protestant insiders have also long known that many of their own clergy -- especially youth workers and pastors who do counseling -- were breaking the laws of God and man.

"The incidence of sexual abuse by clergy has reached 'horrific proportions,' " according to a 2000 report to the Baptist General Convention of Texas. It noted that studies conducted in the 1980s found that about 12 percent of ministers had "engaged in sexual intercourse with members" and nearly 40 percent had "acknowledged sexually inappropriate behavior."

Sadly, this report added: "Recent surveys by religious journals and research institutes support these figures. The disturbing aspect of all research is that the rate of incidence for clergy exceeds the client-professional rate for both physicians and psychologists."

Where does the buck stop, when sexual abuse hits Protestant pulpits? The Southern Baptist resolution calls on local churches to discipline sex offenders. Yet the most powerful person in modern Protestantism is a successful pastor whose preaching and people skills keep packing people into the pews. Can his own church board truly investigate and discipline that pastor?

Once that question is asked, others quickly follow.

If the board of deacons in a Southern Baptist congregation faced an in-house sex scandal and wanted help, where could it turn? It could seek help from its competition, the circle of churches in its local association. Or it could appeal to its state convention. In some states, "conservative" and "moderate" churches would need to choose between competing conventions linked to these rival Baptist camps. Or could a church appeal for help from the boards and agencies of the 16-million-member national convention?

Everything depends on that local church and everything is voluntary. One more question: What Baptist leader would dare face the liability issues involved in guiding such a process?

"Just think of all the places where this process could go off the rails," said historian Timothy Weber, dean of Northern Baptist Theological Seminary near Chicago. "One church would have to take the initiative to voluntarily report the information on a bad pastor. Then another church would have to voluntarily go through the process of asking for information so that they can screen a pastor that it is thinking about hiring."

Some state conventions might have the staff and know how to create a data bank of information of clergy sexual abuse. But for Baptist leaders to do so, they would risk clashing with their tradition's total commitment to the freedom and the autonomy of the local congregation.

"The fact is," said Weber, "there is no Baptist clearing house for this information -- anywhere. There is no one keeper of the files, nobody out there who has the power to intervene when something goes wrong and people start pointing fingers. There is no there, out there."