By ARCHBISHOP ROGER SCHWIETZ
The recently released study relating to clergy sexual abuse of children and youth by Catholic clergy is the second study researched by the John Jay College for Criminal Justice that was commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. It brings to our attention once again one of the most painful and shameful chapters of the recent history of our church. Permit me to share some thoughts on the origin as well as the context of this study.
Back in 1992, a couple years after I became bishop of Duluth, Minnesota, a discussion at the USCCB resulted in several suggestions of actions that bishops could take in their own dioceses to deal with emerging accusations of clergy sexual abuse.
Besides being appalled by the possibility of such a thing taking place, I, along with many other bishops, was determined to set up a just system of dealing with accusations. I remember setting up an independent review board, toll-free hotline and other elements as recommended. The process of listening to the stories of survivors helped us realize how painful were the experiences of the survivors and how long lasting the wounds.
By 2002, it became clear that we bishops had to do more. So we established The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People with its essential norms to be implemented in the dioceses. But that was not enough. We wanted to know the extent of the abuse that had taken place, why it happened and the context within society. All of this was intended to help us create an atmosphere in the church in which this could never happen again.
We commissioned two studies: one on the nature and scope of the abuse by Catholic clergy, and a second on the cause and context.
The first study, on the extent of abuse incidents over the past 50 years, was completed in 2004. The second study, on the causes and context of these tragic happenings, took longer and was just released to the public. Both are available on the USCCB Website at usccb.org.
Before sharing some of the conclusions of this second study, I want to apologize to each person and their loved ones who have been harmed by ministers of our church. I realize that it takes a lifetime to deal with these devastating experiences and, along with assisting survivors of abuse, I want to renew the pledge to do everything possible to make sure the church is a safe place for children.
What does the study tell us? Going back to 1950, it has become clear that most cases of abuse occurred in the period of 1965-1985 and most current reports are of abuse that took place more than 25 years ago. The study reports that “despite data indicating that the incidence of abuse rose steadily between 1950 and 1980 and fell sharply by the mid-1980s, most of these events were unknown to civil authorities or church leaders before 2002.”
In asking how the rate of sexual abuse of youth in the Catholic Church compares to the same rate overall in the U.S., it must be stated that no other institution has allowed itself to be studied as did the Catholic Church. Thus no similar comparisons can be made. However, using limited data from other institutions, the report concluded that “the incidence of child sexual abuse has declined in both the Catholic Church and in society generally, though the rate of decline is greater in the Catholic Church in the same period.”
The percentage of priests who turned out to be abusers is four percent. There is not evidence that priests abused at higher rates than men in the general population or in other organizations. Some would like to blame the discipline of celibacy in the Catholic Church for the abuse crisis, but the study notes that “celibacy has been a constant in the Catholic Church since the 11th century and could not account for the rise and subsequent decline in abuse cases from the 1960s through the 1980s.” The fact that the commitment to celibacy was constant before, during and after the crisis period suggests that celibacy was not a cause of abusive behavior.
There are many other dimensions of this tragic crisis which are covered in the report. I invite you to seek answers to your questions on the USCCB Web site (usccb.org), where the first and second John Jay reports can be found.
Though this most recent study found no single “cause” of sexual abuse by priests, much information is being given us that will help in our continuing efforts to improve formation programs and safe environment initiatives. These sinful and evil actions of abuse should never have happened, but they did. We must learn from them so that, as far as is humanly possible, we can assure that they never happen again.
In the meantime, let us continue to pray for the survivors of childhood sexual abuse that, through the Lord’s power to heal, peace may come into their lives.
The writer is Archbishop of the Anchorage Archdiocese.