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As the counts are released,
the scandal's impact

By Richard Higgins

When 12 lay Catholics—including two state justices, a former governor, a former White House Chief of Staff, academics, lawyers, and business executives—delivered their audit earlier this year, as charged by the U.S. Catholic bishops, on the extent of clergy sexual abuse of children in America, the term they used to define their topic was "epidemic." Reporting as the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People, they stated that at least 4,392 priests, or 4 percent of the U.S. total, had reportedly abused more than 10,667 minors between 1950 and 2002, the year that scandals in Massachusetts, New York, California, and elsewhere, and the Church's efforts to suppress them, broke into the news. The scope of the board's research was extensive—with data collected for the project by social scientists at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice from 97 percent of U.S. parishes, and with in-depth interviews of prominent lay Catholics and religious leaders, psychologists, victims, and priests conducted by the board itself. Even so, the board and its researchers have suggested, the report's figures are likely low, because they rely on self-reporting from the parishes and because sexual abuse in general tends to be under-reported.

"Now That We Know, What Do We Do?" was the discussion sponsored on March 15 by the Church in the 21st Century initiative, in response to the board's 158-page report. The panel, which met in Gasson Hall, consisted of a theologian, Kenneth Himes, OFM, chairman of the department at BC; a local pastor, Fr. Paul E. Ritt of St. John the Evangelist Parish in North Chelmsford; an active laywoman, Patricia De Leeuw, vice-chair of the Sacred Heart parish council in Lexington and associate academic vice president at BC; and an academic specialist in child abuse studies, Alberto Godenzi, dean of the Graduate School of Social Work.

The discussion drew about 40 people. One striking feature was the emotion it stirred more than two years after the scandal broke. For priests, said Fr. Ritt, this has been "a season of loss and shame." Ritt described the "multiple losses that we [priests] have had to contend with: the loss of respect and trust of us . . . the loss in the numbers of us." He spoke too of the "insularity" of bishops and of a kind of isolation among priests, who, he said, "need to walk with people who can give us feedback." Calling for reflection on the nature of authority in the Church and for "a model of service, truth, unity, and general collaboration" among bishops, priests, and laypeople, he said many priests feel a new hope now that the truth has been aired.

By contrast, speaking "as someone who sits in the pews," De Leeuw described lay reaction to the report as minimal—in part, she said, because around Boston at least, the scope of the scandal was already well publicized. Dividing Catholics loosely into three groups, she said that those who approach the faith in a private way, focusing on the sacraments, appear to have been little affected by the Church's "institutional problems." Similarly, active parishioners who embrace faith "within a community of believers" are "horrified, but still coming" to church, she said, though for some activists, meetings of the reform group Voice of the Faithful "have become church." De Leeuw identified Catholics on the margins of parish life as being the most turned off by the scandals and most likely to leave the Church as a result. And for them, she said, the board's report holds little immediate hope. Despite calling on the Church hierarchy to show greater responsiveness to the laity, De Leeuw said, the board pointed bishops only to "existing mechanisms"—that is, to the diocesan pastoral and financial councils that bishops already play a large role in appointing.

Dean Godenzi weighed the data contained in the board's report against the vast body of research outside the Church on sexual abusers. First, he said, a 4 percent rate of abuse was "not a big number," given the existence among parish priests of four basic preconditions: suppressed sexuality; the unlikelihood of punishment; access to potential victims; and the traditional cloak of trust available to the clergy. So, now what? Better screening of seminarians won't help, Godenzi suggested, because offenders "have developed very smart ways to deceive." And therapy, which is usually provided to an abuser after a crime, has only "mixed results." What has worked in other settings, including schools, said Godenzi, has been establishing a "code of conduct" that alters the environment for abusers. As an example, he cited the archdiocese of Dallas, where the rule now is that at least two adults must be present at events involving minors.

The panel's theologian, Fr. Himes, described the crisis as an issue not of theology but of "organizational management and educational theory—not what power does the hierarchy have, but how ought they use their power." Himes said he is alternately hopeful and pessimistic about the prospect of real change. His reasons for doubt include the "significant pockets" of the Church, particularly within the Church in Rome, that still minimize the scandal or blame it on the press. The American bishops, he said, do not feel that they have the freedom to take substantive action. And many laypeople, frustrated at the lack of productive avenues for their concern, turn to "passive-aggressive" responses, such as snubbing the collection basket or avoiding church altogether.

The board's report, said Himes, is "a striking example of the institutional Church acknowledging and confessing its own sin"; but, he added, "as every Catholic knows, confession is not enough. There must also be a firm purpose of amendment. I am not certain yet that that firm purpose exists."

In a dialogue after the four panelists spoke, audience members denounced the American bishops in strong terms, calling them "incompetent as managers," and a "burden." James Keenan, SJ, a theology professor at BC and at the Weston School of Theology, faulted the report for implying that the authority to correct the Church's problem rests with the bishops. "How much are we as Catholics fixed [on the notion] that authority solves the question and that authority has to be hierarchical? I know of no other forum," he said, "where if a man attacks a child you go to his boss," instead of to the man. Priests are infantilized in the Catholic tradition, he said, and the board's report ignores this.

To which Fr. Ritt replied, "I think we have a long way to go for laypeople to . . . realize and claim their own authority by virtue of their baptism, charism, and expertise. And certainly clergy must participate in that empowerment. . . . My parishioners regard me as the one in charge of everything."

The board's report may not explicitly empower the laity, said Fr. Himes, but "it does put to rest the idealization of the episcopacy—and that can be empowering." For 2,000 years, he said, the Catholic Church has been an "ongoing experience of the power of the gospel and the ineptitude of the community that gathers in the name of that gospel."

Referring to a statement by Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, that the abuse is "history," Himes said that, in fact, we cannot simply put it behind us. "We are going to have to live with this evil," said Himes, "but we must also live in a community called together in Christ's name despite the evil."


Richard Higgins is a writer based in Concord, Massachusetts, and co-editor of Taking Faith Seriously: Engaging and Evaluating Religion in American Democracy, forthcoming from Harvard University Press.


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