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What Were the Bishops Thinking

“What Were the Bishops Thinking?”

Presentation for University of Dayton Series,
The Wounded Body of Christ, March 10, 2004

I am always grateful for an occasion to be at the University of Dayton. It is a highly important element in the life of our local Catholic church, and I am proud to be the diocesan bishop of such an outstanding institution. While I was never a student at the University of Dayton, I did get a summer job here in 1952 and I was awarded an honorary doctorate in 1990. I continue to be grateful for both.

When I was invited to be part of this series, the committee members and I thought it might be helpful, or at least informative, for the public to hear a bishop’s perspective on the whole question of sex abuse by the Church’s priests. We settled on the title, “What were the bishops thinking?” That is, how could the bishops have possibly allowed all this to happen? What principles guided the bishops? I now wish to tweak that title a bit. As it stands, the title seems to promise that the presentation will be an overview of all bishops, or at least all bishops of our country, a kind of general survey that would include an account of the actions and attitudes of the whole episcopate of the United States.

This will not be the case. It is still far too early to expect anybody to be able to survey and analyze what each and every bishop was thinking and doing about this matter over the last fifty years or so. I can only give an account of what some bishops thought and experienced during some of that time, namely, myself and those bishops with whom I happen to be particularly close through bonds of collaboration or friendship. I don’t think that the attitudes and actions of this selection of bishops will prove to have been totally atypical but I suggest that we retitle this presentation, “What were bishops thinking?”

My presentation will have four parts, the first three of which are chronological. The fourth provides some general concluding observations. I need to say in advance that I will not be able, either in my presentation or in the question period that will follow, to go into detail about specific incidents of sexual abuse by priests because I don’t want to run the risk of violating the rights either of victims or of victimizers. My purpose here this evening is not to convict nor to defend but to expound, to describe the principles and events with which bishops were dealing as they came to grips with the realities of clergy sex abuse. I will be dealing with limited human beings trying to do their best in a context of limited certainties and shifting new circumstances, and not always fully succeeding.

Before 1985. Let us now turn to the first of the three periods that I want to speak about. This section of my presentation is entitled, “Before 1985.” What were bishops thinking and doing about the sexual abuse of minors by priests before about 1985? What realities were they dealing with? First of all there was the state of psychological knowledge. The full effect of sexual abuse on the victims does not seem to have been as well known in those years before approximately 1985 as it is today. In fact a supposedly authoritative psychological textbook published in 1984 says, “Early sexual contacts do not appear to have harmful effects on many children unless the family, legal authorities, or society reacts negatively.” (McCary and McCary, Human Sexuality, 3rd. ed. 1984, p. 226.) According to this approach, the best thing that could be done for the victim was to play down the occurrence, or at least not to give it extraordinary importance.

There was a lack of clarity about a superior’s obligation to report the sexual abuse of a minor to civil authorities. It was not at all clear, at least in Ohio law, to what extent representatives of religious communities were obliged to bring information about allegations of sexual misbehavior directed against underage persons to the attention of law enforcement agencies.

Perhaps most clear to bishops of that time was the canon law of the church regarding the removal from ministry of priests who had offended. Such a removal was practically impossible. Simply firing a priest was out of the question because the priest had been ordained for life and his bishop owed him sustenance for as long as he lived. True, a priest could be suspended from ministerial activity, but by definition suspension was and is a penalty that is temporary. True, a priest could have canonical penalties inflicted on him but this generally required a full canonical trial. Moreover, the law stipulated that the gravest penalties, such as removal from the clerical state, could not be applied if there was any circumstance that diminished the defendant’s imputability. Consequently, if the defendant could demonstrate that his sexual misbehavior was a manifestation of a psychological disability that reduced personal moral guilt, he could not be removed from the clerical state.

During those years before 1985, civil lawsuits against priests and their bishops were relatively rare and so were not a prominent consideration in the way bishops dealt with sex abuse on the part of their priests.

Finally, most bishops didn’t have much experience dealing with things like this. There may have been an occurrence or two that had come to the bishop’s attention, but it wasn’t something that most bishops were well up on. Nor, for that matter, was it something that was discussed and dealt with in society at large. It is chilling to think about what we knew then in the context of questions that would be asked now. “Why didn’t you do more for the victims?” “Because we did not understand or appreciate the severe impact of sexual abuse on the victims.” “Why didn’t you call the police?” “Because it was not clear that we were supposed to.” “Why didn’t you fire the priest?” “Because, for all practical purposes, we were not able to. We were not even able to take him out of ministry except temporarily.” As I said, these answers are chilling in the light of present-day awareness, but that’s what we were working with back then.

The ordinary way of dealing with sex abuse of minors by priests before about 1985 was to get the priest out of the situation in which the offense had occurred, consult with the victim’s family to see if there were immediate needs, provide whatever psychological and spiritual help the priest required, and get him into a new assignment in which, it was expected, further acts of abuse would not occur. This was not a self6 serving approach thought up by bishops, but was what psychological experts, some parents, and other concerned parties (including many persons in law enforcement) also thought was appropriate. This may be why many incidents of sexual abuse that occurred at that time were simply not reported to Church or civil authorities.

From 1985 to 2002. We now turn to our second chronological segment, from 1985 to 2002. This period, from the bishops’ point of view, is marked by an increased awareness of the effects of sexual abuse of minors on the victim and greater attention to policy formation for dioceses.

One of the other things that bishops began to think about in these years was the rise of civil law suits aimed not only at the perpetrator of a crime but also at the perpetrator’s superior. The measures that had previously been taken to deal with priest perpetrators were now alleged to have been ridiculously inadequate. The opportunity to sue had already been vastly expanded in American courts in general, and lawsuits against bishops and dioceses were an application to the church of what was already occurring in society at large. In this context, bishops had to face difficult decisions. If they were brought into litigation, should they litigate or should they settle? How did all this fit in with the bishop’s responsibility for the diocesan patrimony, which canon law obliges the bishop to protect? How could the victims best be helped in an atmosphere like this?

Note in this context that insurance companies began to play a part in these legal struggles. If you didn’t fight in the courts, there would be no insurance settlement. Likewise some diocesan attorneys seem to have discouraged their bishop clients from sitting down in a pastoral context with the victim and the victim’s family. Seeking to deal with victims meant acknowledging guilt, which could bring new legal dangers.

During these years, psychological knowledge of the effects of sexual abuse on minors increased. We began to realize that victims of sexual abuse were harmed to a degree that we had not even imagined before.

During this period, the bishops’ conference began to be more active. The bishops discussed the sex abuse matter often in their semi-annual meetings. Through their conference, the bishops issued several statements. One such statement that is of particular significance to me was issued after our June meeting in 1992 – while I happened to be president of the bishops’ conference. By this time there was a new common wisdom and the statement offered a series of five recommendations to bishops: 1) respond promptly to allegations of abuse; 2) if the allegation seems plausible, remove the alleged offender from ministry and get him help; 3) comply with the obligations of civil law about reporting; 4) reach out to victims and their families; 5) deal as openly as possible with the incident. These 1992 recommendations were good recommendations, but only recommendations. The bishops’ conference is not a legislative body (except in some very narrowly defined contexts) and so it cannot generally make its decisions binding on its members. Subsequently, the conference also issued what is in effect a series of handbooks for bishops about the details of dealing with sex abuse and its consequences, Restoring Trust, vols. 1, 2, and 3 from 1994 to 1996.

Also during these years dioceses began to set up policies and structures. Here in the Archdiocese of Cincinnati our first policy statement was prepared in 1991 and 1992 and went into effect in 1993. It was subsequently revised in 1998 (and 2003, as we shall see). As part of our process of instituting diocesan policies and structures, all abuse allegations from the past were reviewed by a predominantly lay board to determine whether the dispositions that had been taken in the past should remain in force.

Notice that at this time psychologists still advised that some priests who had abused and who had successfully undergone treatment could be reassigned to pastoral ministry with some very clearly spelled out restrictions. Our first archdiocesan policy statements incorporated provisions for that. Such provisions were accepted without objection.

Notice also that, at this time, the canon law of the Church about permanently dismissing a priest from ministry had not changed from what it had been before. Representatives of our bishops’ conference had been in touch with the authorities of the Holy See since 1986 about the possibility of some changes in the law, but nothing much happened until some mostly technical adjustments were made in 1994. Not only was it possible to restore offending priests to some sort of ministry; it was, in some cases, practically obligatory.

During this time I believe that most bishops found themselves in a cross fire. Greater care for the victims was being called for, but those who had victimized them had to be maintained in the priesthood. Bishops found themselves facing new levels of legal liability while remaining responsible for maintaining the resources of the diocese. They were being called on to be pastors both to victims and to perpetrators, to be good stewards of diocesan temporalities while reaching out generously to the needs of the victims and their families, while also being energetic litigators when necessary. They were to be leaders in the prevention of further abuse while dealing with the results of what had already happened, sometimes decades in the past.

In spite of the cross fire and in spite of the seemingly contradictory demands that were being made on bishops, I believe that many, perhaps most, bishops felt that by the beginning of 2002, they had succeeded in getting a better grip on the situation.

From 2002 to the Present. Now for our third chronological segment, from 2002 to the present. If bishops thought that they were getting a grip on the situation by the beginning of 2002, they soon found out that there was still more to be dealt with. During the early months of that year it became known that a few bishops had apparently been reassigning priests who had offended without adequate restrictions or supervision. An unparalleled public outcry arose. Obviously something further had to be done.

In their June, 2002, meeting in Dallas, the bishops issued a charter about dealing with sex abuse. This was a kind of consensus statement about how we would all treat these matters. Appended to the charter was a set of norms for dealing with cases of sex abuse of minors by priests. These norms provided that any priest who had offended at any time, even once and in the distant past, would be permanently removed from priestly ministry. Proper safeguards were included to defend the rights of the accused, but the purpose of the norms was to guarantee that sexual abusers of children would no longer serve in the priesthood anywhere in the United States. These norms, however, only became operative after receiving approval from the Holy See. They didn’t go into effect until they were approved by the Vatican some months after our June meeting of 2002, and they only apply to the United States.

One of the consequences of the approval of these norms was that those priests who had been returned to ministry after offending and after receiving treatment that supposedly made them safe for ministry would now have to be removed from priestly service permanently. This necessitated a further revision of our local policies, and that revision was completed and made effective in 2003.

In order to learn whether the consensus statement, i.e., the Charter of June 2002, had been observed, a Review Board established by the bishops called for a compliance study to be initiated in July of 2003. The results of this audit have now been published. The Review Board also called for a study of the dimensions of the clergy sex abuse problem. This study was undertaken by the John Jay College of Criminal Law and was published in February, 2004.

Most bishops cooperated fully both with the audit and with the John Jay study. I believe that Kathleen McChesney will be dealing with these documents in her presentation here later this month.

Conclusion. Now for some concluding observations. First, how can we best describe, from a bishop’s point of view, what we have experienced in the Church in the context of clergy sex abuse over these last decades? It has been called a crisis, a scandal, an epidemic, a catastrophe, a moral panic. I think each of those terms has some element of truth in it. From this one bishop’s perspective, I think we might also consider calling it a tragedy, in the literary sense. There is no one single universally accepted definition of tragedy, but most critics agree on the basics of a definition. Tragedy takes place when basically good people, engaged in what they perceive to be virtuous actions, bring upon themselves and others sorrow and destruction. I believe that it would be appropriate to add “tragedy” to our list of descriptive terms, not to suggest that no mistakes were made or that everybody did everything quite correctly, but to suggest that trying to do the right thing can sometimes bring devastation and that’s what has happened to bishops (and members of their flocks) in this matter of clergy sex abuse.

Secondly, as we think about this sex abuse tragedy and attempt to understand it, I think that there are three fallacies that we need to beware of.

The first is what is called “presentism.” Presentism has been defined as the inclination to react to past actions as though they were occurring in the present, and to judge them on the basis of the standards of our own day. By contemporary standards, we bishops did a lot of things wrong in years past. But in years past we didn’t have today’s knowledge and experience to guide us.

The second fallacy we have to beware of is overgeneralization. Some bishops made egregious misjudgments, and we are all suffering from those misjudgments. But not all bishops did, and we do ourselves and the Church no service if we paint everybody with the same accusatory brush.

The third fallacy we have to be aware of if we are going to understand the sex abuse tragedy is oversimplification. There is no one element that can explain everything that we are experiencing: not celibacy, not homosexuality, not clericalism, not disregard for victims, not bad advice, not personal arrogance. Each of these elements, and others as well, has a part to play, and this whole multiplicity of elements has to be taken into account if we seek some measure of understanding. What are bishops thinking now? I believe that the bishops I know best are thinking that they have to do everything they can to be compassionate pastors to both victims and perpetrators, that they need to take advantage of current psychological knowledge, that they have to be very careful about the demands of both canon and civil law. And they are aware that they have to pray that forgiveness will be forthcoming for whatever mistakes were made in the name of the Church, for the misdeeds perpetrated by its representatives. We are all sorry for what has happened. We are sorry for the damage that our inadequate decisions have caused. I know that I am sorry for what has happened here in our Archdiocese and I expect that I will carry that sorrow with me to the grave. What else is this bishop thinking? This bishop often finds himself thinking that he has been chosen to captain a ship, a ship that is sailing at night in the midst of a storm in a part of the ocean that is basically uncharted. There are passengers, for whom the captain is responsible, and the passengers are all calling out their needs and their advice, and they are not all calling out the same things. It is absolutely essential for the captain and his passengers to keep in mind that he, we, all of us serve a Lord who has shown Himself capable of stilling the storm and restoring calm and bringing to safety and salvation of all those who have faith in Him.