Sexual abuse of minors by priests is once again making the national headlines, as well as The Brainerd Dispatch. No news story about the church is more shocking and scandalous than a report of children being sexually abused by priests. No victim is more defenseless than a child being preyed upon by an adult, especially an adult in a position of responsibility and respect.
Sadly, this news is not new. In the late 1980s the U.S. bishops' conference invited legal, canonical and psychological experts to help them understand pedophilia and its devastating effects. Archbishop Pilarczyk addressed his fellow bishops in 1992 with candor and directness. He called sexual abuse of a child "reprehensible conduct directed at a most vulnerable member of our society." He admitted that mistakes had been made in the past when people treated sexual abuse as "a moral fault for which repentance and a change of scene would result in a change of behavior. Far more aggressive steps are needed to protect the innocent, treat the perpetrator and safeguard our children. Where a lack of understanding and mistakes have added to the pain and hurt of victims and their families, they deserve an apology, and we do apologize."
Archbishop Pilarczyk and the conference recommended in 1987 a five-step program for dealing with sexual abuse by clergy of church employees:
1. Respond promptly to all allegations where there is reasonable belief that the incident has occurred.
2. If the allegation is supported by sufficient evidence, promptly relieve the alleged offender of his ministerial duties and refer him for appropriate medical evaluation and intervention.
3. Comply with the obligations of civil law on reporting the incident and cooperating this the investigation.
4. Reach out to the victims and their families and communicate a sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional well being.
5. Within the confines of respect for the privacy of the individuals involved, deal as openly as possible with members of the community about the incident.
By 1994, when Bishop Roger Schwietz of the diocese of Duluth, implemented a policy on sexual misconduct for priests and church workers, and addressed many of the issues raised by Archbishop Pilarczyk. As far as I know, every diocese in the U.S. has implemented similar policies. These guidelines recognized that most victims and their parents want three things: help paying for counseling and therapy, a sincere apology and assurance that the perpetrator will never again harm a child. But problems still arise. How do decide what is a serious allegation? How to investigate an allegation without destroying the reputation of an innocent priest? What do "innocent until proven guilty" and "due process" mean in this context? The allegations against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin were a case in point. The fact that most accusations are true does not mean that all are true.
Confusion and disagreement also surround the treatment and rehabilitation of sex offenders. In 1993 a group of 31 experts, in a recommendation to bishops, didn't rule out the possibility of such priests returning to parish life, but not be allowed to work with minors. The president of St. Luke's, a treatment center in Maryland, would not speak of curing this addiction, but he told the bishops in 1993, "We are accumulating stories of successful recovery from sexual addictions extending over eight to 10 years of sexual sobriety." Today we know that convicted pedophiles cannot return to parish ministry.
The main points I hope I've made with this article are:
a) Bishops take pedophilia as a most serious problem, in spite of what the media sometimes suggests.
b) They have endeavored to educate themselves about the nature of this addiction and its catastrophic effects upon children, society and the Church.
c) Their past efforts to deal with pedophile priests was determined by the best psychological and legal advice available to them at the time.
d) They now know that they must strictly enforce their policy that a convicted pedophile priest can no longer work in a parish.
e) While we deplore the sexual abuse of young people, especially that committed by a cleric, we are confident that the numbers of priests involved in such criminal activity are few. The damage, however, has been immeasurable. There are over 40,000 wonderful priests in our country who get up every morning to give their lives in full service of the Church as witnesses to Jesus Christ in our midst.
(Father Walsh is pastor at St. Francis Church, Brainerd.)
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