Claims of clergy sexual abuse against minors have fixed the attention of the U.S. Bishops for approximately 15 years. The problem has challenged the bishops simultaneously to provide justice and healing for victims, vision and solace for the Catholic community, pastoral leadership to priests, compassion to the accused, and cooperation with civil authorities. Presented here is a chronological account of the assistance offered dioceses through the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/U.S. Catholic Conference.
1982. NCCB/USCC staff assist personnel from two dioceses in appreciating the civil liability risks involved in child molestation cases. Occasional inquiries about specific complaints follow over the next eighteen months.
1984. Misconduct of Father Gilbert Gauthe of Lafayette, Louisiana, focuses public attention. NCCB/USCC staff have limited discussions with diocesan administrative and legal personnel about concerns presented by resulting claims. Additional claimants in other dioceses come forward. NCCB/USCC staff act as resource to Bishops and their staffs who have ultimate responsibility for responding to claims.
1984, continued. Several state legislatures change child abuse reporting statutes. NCCB/USCC legal staff survey and provide summary of statutes to dioceses.
1985. Several state Catholic conferences and individual dioceses begin developing personnel policies governing abuse allegations using their own expert and legal personnel along with consultation with NCCB/USCC staff. Based on operating experiences of dioceses, NCCB/USCC staff begin to make more uniform suggestions to individual dioceses which are: 1) remove the alleged offender from assignment; 2) refer the alleged offender for professional medical evaluation; 3) deal promptly with the victim and his or her family to offer the solace and support of the Church; 4) make efforts to protect the confidential nature of the claim; and 5) comply with the obligations of the civil law and make appropriate notifications.
June, 1985. Sexual abuse claims are discussed in private meeting of diocesan attorneys and in an executive session of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The latter, held in Collegeville, Minnesota, includes presentations by a psychiatrist, a lawyer, and a Bishop on aspects of the problem.
1985, continued. The Reverend Michael Peterson, president of the St. Luke Institute, the Reverend Thomas Doyle, canon lawyer on the staff of the Apostolic Nunciature, and Atty. Raymond Mouton, lawyer for Father Gauthe, draft a resource paper entitled The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy: Meeting the Problem in a Comprehensive and Responsible Manner. This offers the authors' opinions of potential size of the situation facing the Church in the United States and suggestions on how to deal with it. Father Peterson eventually sends diocesan Bishops copies of text of the entire report as an appendix to a document prepared by the St. Luke Institute with a note requesting recipients to "treat the contents of this document as confidential" and saying that it contains "my professional and personal remarks and should not be construed as a national plan" for the Bishops' Conference. An NCCB/USCC staff review finds that, with few exceptions, issues identified in Report have already been analyzed for the Bishops by NCCB/USCC staff and other experts, especially at the Collegeville meeting. Major difference: the Report's suggestion of a national intervention team (a doctor, a canonist, and a lawyer) to respond to complaints in individual dioceses. Dioceses prefer to respond through their own expert personnel, rather than a national team, due to factual and legal uniqueness of each accusation. Media characterizations of the Report as a proposal either ignored or summarily rejected by the Conference are inaccurate.
1986-1988. NCCB/USCC staff continue to assist dioceses and develop more uniform advice for them. Other actions are: in order to aid diocesan attorneys, General Counsel catalogues liability theories and defenses raised in litigation; diocesan training programs are encouraged; updates are offered to diocesan educators, Catholic Charities personnel and administrators. NCCB Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry begins to work with vicars for priests to help develop training programs. Dioceses develop more definitive personnel policies to respond to claims and training programs for policy implementation.
November, 1987. At the Bishops' General Meeting, certain aspects of molestation cases are reviewed, largely from the perspective of canon law. By end of 1987, NCCB/USCC General Counsel is asked to prepare a public statement acknowledging scope and extent of crisis and expressing perspective of the Conference.
February, 1988. At direction of the General Secretary, General Counsel issues statement.
1988-1990. Several important changes mark the situation confronting dioceses and, therefore, the NCCB/USCC: 1) the number of new cases, i.e., cases involving current problems, begins to diminish and be replaced by cases involving misconduct occurring ten or more years before. (Even with claims beyond the period of legal remedy, NCCB/USCC staff continue to advise the priority of pastoral care and that dioceses ascertain that there is no ongoing threat to any person); 2) priests returning to dioceses from treatment programs cause diocesan officials to ask whether these priests should or could be reassigned to ministry or what could be done to laicize them. This raises significant theological, pastoral, canonical, liability, and medical questions.
November, 1989. The Administrative Committee issues a brief statement on child molestation claims. General Counsel is asked to convene, in conjunction with NCCB Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, a staff-level study group on questions of reassignment. Representatives of a variety of disciplines meet over a period of a year and a half for several consultations on various dimensions of the problem.
Late 1989. With regard to canonical remedies to deal with priests who would not return to ministry, NCCB/USCC officers and key staff begin discussing alternative approaches to existing provisions of the Code of Canon Law with representatives of the Roman Curia, especially the Code's statute of limitations and its treatment of culpability. Discussions focus on ways to streamline the penal provisions of the Code and the possibility of an administrative process to remove a priest from the clerical state.
1990. Discussion described above continues. Ecumenical and nonsectarian nature of problem strongly is emphasized and is subject of ongoing discussion with representatives of other denominations in the United States. In these internal discussions, NCCB/USCC staff offer leadership, especially in developing guidelines and strategies for personnel policies and public information.
1990, continued. A presentation on the medical factors to be assessed is made to diocesan attorneys by the NCCB/USCC Study Group, which also begins to compile lists of factors that should be evaluated by Bishops in making individual-specific reassignment decisions.
1991. Ecumenical ties between U.S. Bishops Conference and other Churches and religious organizations in the United States continue as do discussions with the Holy See.
June, 1992. At the General Meeting, following a day-long executive session on aspects of clergy sexual misconduct, NCCB/USCC president issues a public statement announcing the involvement of prominent experts in various disciplines to review latest information on the subject and contributions of specific bishops who reviewed their diocesan approaches during the meeting. He re-states The Five Principles, which have formed the basis of advice given by NCCB/USCC and which the Bishops affirm as the approach which their dioceses are taking to deal with child sexual abuse.
November, 1992, continued. At the General Meeting, NCCB/USCC endorses June statement of Conference president and adds its own words of support. Formation of a subcommittee of the NCCB Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry on sexual abuse, chaired by Father Canice Connors, OFM Conv., is announced. A group of bishops led by Cardinal Roger Mahony meet in Washington with group of victims-survivors of clergy sexual abuse.
February, 1993. The subcommittee convenes a "Think Tank" in St. Louis, Missouri, gathering experts from across the spectrum of the Church and society on the question of clergy sexual abuse.
May- June, 1993. Discussions with the Holy See culminate in a 1993 meeting. The Holy Father issues a letter to the U.S. Bishops condemning child abuse and announcing formation of a Joint Study Commission to address the NCCB/USCC concerns about canonical problems in dealing with priest abusers. (Throughout the first part of 1993, U.S. Bishops have commented on the problem individually during their regular five-year ad limina visits to Rome.)
June, 1993. At the General Meeting, a report on the "Think Tank" is offered at a plenary public session and discussed. The establishment of an Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse is announced. This committee is mandated 1) to look at assisting the membership in effectively dealing with priests who sexually abuse minors and others; 2) to examine what the NCCB can do pastorally nationwide to assist in the healing of victims and their families; 3) to address the issue of morale of bishops and priests burdened with the terrible offenses of a few; 4) to assist bishops in screening candidates for ministry and assessing the possibility of reassignment of clergy found guilty of sexual abuse of minors; 5) to recommend steps to safeguard against sexual abuse of minors by employees or volunteers of the Church; and 6) to address the national problem of sexual abuse of children, coming from many directions, especially from within families. Committee begins to seek expert advice from the medical and psychological community.
September, 1993. Ad Hoc Committee provides Bishops with the Brief Overview of Conference Involvement in Assisting Dioceses with Child Molestation Claims.
November, 1993. The work of the Joint Holy See-U.S. Bishops Study Commission results in recommendations for certain derogations from (exceptions to) canon law which can be applied by the U.S. Bishops.
April, 1994. Pope John Paul II approves some derogations for an experimental period. For cases of sexual abuse, the derogations effectively extend canon law's statute of limitations to the victim's 28th birthday. They also allow for penalties to be imposed for these crimes committed against all minors, not just those under age 16.
November, 1994. Committee issues Restoring Trust Vol. I, which includes a review of 157 Diocesan Policies; description of 10 treatment centers; and articles on topics ranging from pedophilia and victims/families to parishes as victims and expectations of treatment.
November, 1995. Committee issues Restoring Trust Vol. II, which includes description of eight treatment centers, a 42-page presentation on care and concern for victims/survivors, and articles on topics ranging from the offender and effectiveness of treatment to the insurance viewpoint.
November, 1996. The committee issues Restoring Trust Vol. III, which reviews the efforts and activities to that point and notes areas still to be addressed.
June, 1997. Committee promotes a video on boundaries issues developed by the National Organization for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy at the committee's request. The video focuses on intimacy, sexuality, and the development of skills in interpersonal relations.
November, 1997. The Ad Hoc Committee is re-authorized for a three-year period and mandated to concentrate on 1) healing of victims; 2) education; and 3) future options for priest offenders.
Additional Activities since 1997
- Symposium for Bishops on working with victims and healing
- Review of canonical issues related to reassignment of abusers or permanent dismissal from the clerical state
- Meeting with English speaking bishops' conference in Ireland
- Extension for ten years of derogations of canon laws dealing with statute of limitations and age of maturity
- Meetings with victims and victim advisory groups
- Meetings with victims and victim advisory groups
- Meeting with English speaking bishops' conferences in Rome
- Reconstitution of Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse with focus on education, prevention, review of diocesan policies for child-safe environments
- Development of Restoring Trust materials for wider dissemination
- Review of due process issues when returning man to ministry or dismissing from the priesthood after treatment.
- Meeting on procedures for re-admission of candidates into seminaries
Overall, the Ad Hoc Committee has addressed the six mandates as follows:
- Dealing Effectively with Priests Who Sexually Abuse Minors and Others
- Assisting Victims/Survivors
- Addressing Morale of Bishops and Priests
- Screening Candidates for Ministry
- Assisting Bishops in Assessing Possible Reassignment
- Regarding Church Employees and Volunteers
The committee has concentrated on assisting with diocesan policies, evaluating treatment centers, providing education through topical articles by competent authors, and acting as a clearinghouse in matters related to this mandate.
The committee has provided articles focused on victims/survivors of clergy sexual abuse, along with a special section in the report on diocesan policies, and has met several times with representatives of various national organizations and with individual victims/survivors. It also developed a 42-page article, published in Restoring Trust Vol. II, entitled Responding to Victims-Survivors.
The committee has provided a focal point to deal with criticism, responded with solid information, and presented regular reports to Bishops to help the Church to deal effectively with allegations of clergy sexual misconduct. It also urged the Committees for Bishops' Life and Ministry and Priestly Life and Ministry, the National Federation of Priests' Councils, and the National Organization for Continuing Education of Roman Catholic Clergy to address this concern.
Working with the Committee on Priestly Formation and the National Catholic Educational Association (Seminary Dept.), the committee in 1994 undertook a survey of theologates and college seminaries on psychological screening and formation in sexuality issues.
As for the theologates, the survey had a response from 29 of 36 institutions for diocesan seminarians. All respondents indicated that psychological testing was required and 26 of the 29 responding seminaries indicated that the pre-acceptance interview includes specific inquiry about sexual history and experience with relationships. Responses also showed that growth in sexual maturity and questions of relationships are specifically identified and dealt with as formation issues. Every seminary is doing something in this regard, some in a more organized way than others.
As for the college seminaries, 11 of 14 free-standing ones, and 13 out of 28 collaborative college seminary programs responded. As for pre-acceptance interviews, there was considerable variation across the board. However, every responding seminary indicated that growth in sexual maturity and experiences with relationships were specifically identified as formation issues. The committee has proposed some specific goals for consideration by the Priestly Formation Committee. These goals are now under active consideration by that committee.
This issue of possible assignment to some sort of ministry is still under study by the committee.
Much of the material in Volumes I and II of Restoring Trust has application to church employees and volunteers.
Developed from: Brief Overview of Conference Involvement in Assisting Dioceses With Child Molestation Claims, September 1993 and Restoring Trust III, November 1996