Seeking Solutions

Experts visit campus to discuss the issue of clergy abuse and work on a book about the topic.

Seeking Solutions

The issue of clergy abuse garnered headlines last year when the Boston Globe detailed allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by priests in the Boston Archdiocese and the resulting allegations of cover-ups by religious superiors.

By the end of the year, about 400 American priests as well as several notable bishops were accused of sexual misconduct with minors. Large dioceses such as Boston’s were threatened with bankruptcy, and Cardinal Bernard Law and several other church leaders were forced to resign.

“Few topics have received the kind of media attention and heated debate and discussion than the topic of sex-offending clergy and their victims and supervisors,” said Plante, an associate professor of psychology at SCU. “It is a remarkable, complex story about too many bishops (and priests) behaving badly when they are purported to be the moral, religious, and ethical leaders of society.”

“The conference represented an effort to get past the headlines and the frenzy to thoughtfully understand the problems so patterns of abuse can be stopped,” Plante said.

During this year’s conference, participants submitted and discussed chapters they have a scholarly, multidisciplinary book entitled Sin Against the Innocents: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church. It is scheduled to be published by Greenwood Press in April 2004.

SCU’s Bannan Center for Jesuit Education, the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, the SCU President’s Office, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Center for Professional Development funded the conference.

More research is needed

At the conference, Michael Rezendes, a member of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team, which won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its reporting on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, said more research about clergy abuse is needed.

“A lot more work needs to be done even though we wrote 1,000 stories and won the Pulitzer Prize,” he said. “A lot more needs to be written and I think more definitive clinical studies need to be done. It would be helpful also if the Church followed through on a promise it made at the Dallas Meeting of the Bishops last June about being more open about this problem.”

John Allen Loftus, S.J., former president of Regis College at the University of Toronto, where he is a professor of psychology and the psychology of religion, said “an ideological sort of sport-game has arisen around this entire issue,” with people on both sides pursuing agendas.


“I note that the one thing that they seem to have in common to me as a clinician and as a sometimes researcher is that they very rarely know really what they are talking about,” he said. “The first concern I want to raise is that while we have an immense amount of anecdotal information about clergy sex abusers and clinical/therapeutic information, there is an absolute paucity of serious, empirical peer reviewed research. There is an extraordinary need for that. Before we can start talking about the abnormal, if you will, or abhorrent expressions of celibate sexuality that everyone’s writing about, it would be nice to have a norm against which it could be based. We don’t have that.

“So that’s my first concern and plea, that the Church at all levels and the social science community again not drop that ball. No matter what else we do, we need to continue to collect reliable data,” Loftus added. “I don’t want to see all that we’ve gone through and all the pain be lost.”

Cultural differences are a barrier

John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, said part of the problem is that the Vatican and American Catholics do not understand each other very well. “I think that there is incomprehension on both sides of the equation,” he says. “There is a lot about the American culture and the American Church that puzzles people in the Vatican and there is much about the Vatican that puzzles Americans and English speakers generally. I think that the sex abuse crisis illustrated that.”

According to Allen, American Catholics attributed the Vatican’s initial silence on the Boston Globe stories of priest abuse to a lack of concern or a lack of awareness.

“There are two bits of mythology that we can disabuse immediately and I think deserve to be disabused,” Allen said. “One, that the Holy City was out of touch, that it wasn’t aware of what was going on-this is just factually false. I know on a personal basis that all of the officials of the Roman Curia from the beginning of this issue were watching this story very closely. The second bit of mythology is that the Vatican simply didn’t care-that they were indifferent to the situation. Once again, this is simply not true. Whatever you want to make of the policy decisions that were taken, it was not the result of indifference. I don’t know anyone in the Roman Curia that was anything less than horrified by the revelations that came out of the Globe and elsewhere. Frankly, I have not met anyone in the Vatican who would defend Cardinal Law’s handling of the cases in Boston. They might have different analyses of what should have happened to him but I don’t know anyone who would defend the rather shocking lack of oversight that revealed itself.”

Allen said that while there was a “genuine sense of emergency in America, there was also a sense that some of the public reaction in American culture to this crisis was fed by forces that made the Vatican uncomfortable. (The Vatican) was very hesitant to feed what it considered to be that negative energy.”

How is justice served?

Allen said that the dominant American response in the heart of this crisis called for “swift, sure, and final punishment for priests who are guilty of this kind of misconduct.” For many in the Vatican, however, “it meant that everyone’s rights are respected, including the rights of accused clergy and that you cannot remedy the injustice of sexual abuse with the injustice of railroading priests who may or may not be guilty.”

Nanette deFuentes, a Los Angeles-area psychologist, member of church review boards, and a survivor of clergy abuse, said she is concerned about a potential conflict of interest on boards that are only of an advisory nature. “The bishops and the cardinals are the ones who make the ultimate decisions and have the responsibility,” she said. “I think there is a conflict of interest in the whole model in itself.”

deFuentes called for clergy abuse victims and mental health experts to be included on these boards.

“The sexual abuse and misconduct by clergy is not just Catholic, it’s an interfaith, interdenominational, world problem, so we should not look at it as just a Catholic problem,” she added.

David Clohessy, national director of SNAP (The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), said that while “a lot of attention has been paid to official statements of bishops and other church bodies on this issue, not a great deal of attention has been focused on how that translates into the way victims are treated when they go before a review board or when they go to their chancellery offices.

“Self-serving though this may seem, it’s important to remember that writers could not write about this problem, prosecutors could not prosecute, lawyers could not sue, and church officials could not take action, if it weren’t for the courage of men and women who were traumatized as children and who found the strength to break their silence and come forward,” Clohessy said.

“There have been times similar to last year-not as extreme, not as high profile-when there have been periods of intense public and media and Catholic focus on this issue over the past 15 or 20 years,” he added. “What has oftentimes happened is that those periods of interest have waned quickly, and we have been lulled back into a sense of complacency by official pronouncements of the official Church hierarchy. It’s really important from our prospective that we judge what progress is or is not made on the actual behavior of those in decision-making positions rather than their official public statements.”

Cooperation between agencies is essential

Curtis C. Bryant, S.J., a Jesuit priest and clinical psychologist who works at Loyola Marymount University and maintains an independent practice, encourages collaboration between the criminal justice system and the mental health system.

“Through collaboration we can really produce what both systems are looking for, and that is the safety of our community, particularly the most vulnerable-our children,” says Bryant, who formerly was director of Saint Luke’s Institute, a Maryland psychiatric hospital for priests and religious personnel.

“By having a mental health component to the overall adjudication of an individual sex offender-and particularly a clergy sex offender- we can actually have individuals who, after serving their time in jail, can be re-admitted into the community-with supervision and ongoing treatment to keep them responsible so that they don’t have a tendency to re-offend.”

Leadership issues

William Spohn, professor of theology and director of the Bannan Center for Jesuit Education at SCU, said that what started out a crisis of priestly sexual abuse “soon became a crisis of leadership.”

“Without reform in the way in which bishops are selected so that clergy, laity, and regional bishops have a major voice in the selection of bishops, there won’t be the kind of accountability which will re-establish the moral credibility of bishops,” Spohn said. “I’m not saying that bad bishops have been chosen, but I do say that this is a systemic problem that won’t be resolved simply by punishing priest offenders.”

Kirk Hansen, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at SCU, said the process of handling abuse allegations needs modification.

“That affects the confidence that survivors have in coming forward and in choosing between filing lawsuits and not filing lawsuits,” he said. “It affects the confidence that priests who are accused have-or their fellow priests have-in terms of the fairness of the process. And it certainly affects the long-term credibility of the Church if the public is not confident that the procedures are in place that it is predictable what is going to occur, how a case is going to be handled. The whole history of corporate scandals indicates that those measures have to be in place in order to begin the process of rebuilding credibility.”

Plante said he hopes that the media spotlight on sexoffending clergy will encourage interventions at individual and institutional levels.

“We can perhaps never totally eliminate abuse of children among the ranks of clergy or any occupational profession, but we can do much more to minimize the risk,” he said. “At stake is the moral and spiritual authority of the Church as well as the well-being of countless priests and laypersons.”

A May conference brought to campus leading journalists, theologians, lawyers, ethicists, victims’ advocates, and mental health professionals from the United States, Canada, England, and Italy to discuss and better understand the challenges of clergy abuse in the Roman Catholic Church.

In recent years, Santa Clara University has become a center of discussion on the topic. This year’s conference was preceded by one in 1998, which resulted in a book entitled Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned: Perspectives on Sexual Abuse Committed by Roman Catholic Priests, in 1999. Conference organizer and SCU Professor of Psychology Thomas Plante is regularly interviewed by national television and radio programs-as well as newspapers and magazines-about his work treating offending priests and their victims and the research he’s conducted at SCU.

Make AI the Best of Us

What we get out of artificial intelligence depends on the humanity we put into it.

The Co-Op

Santa Clara University has long been a bastion of interdisciplinary learning. A new fund is taking cross-collaboration to new heights.

Human at Heart

How Santa Clara University is distinguishing itself as a leader in one of the fastest-growing industries in the nation.

A Campus on the Rise

New buildings on campus—count ’em, six in total—aren’t the only changes brought by a successful $1 billion fundraising campaign. Come explore what’s new.