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Failure to act (continued)

Today, Doyle, now an Air Force chaplain stationed in Ramstein, Germany, characterizes the 1985 document as a product of good will. " We were card-carrying Catholics, " he points out. " We just wanted to help the bishops deal responsibly with this. " However well intentioned, though, the report went nowhere. The NCCB failed to adopt any of its recommendations, Doyle says. He adds that not one NCCB member ever discussed the report’s contents with him, Mouton, or Peterson. Instead, it was " summarily shelved. " And that’s where it might have remained if not for the now-infamous 1997 trial of former priest Rudolph Kos, in which a Dallas jury awarded 11 plaintiffs $119.6 million after ruling that the Diocese of Dallas had concealed information about Kos’s sexual abuse of children. (The judgment was later reduced by agreement to $23.4 million to spare the Dallas diocese from bankruptcy.) The 1985 report was part of a battery of evidence used in that trial — making it a public document. Though diocesan officials in Dallas had denied ever receiving the report, Doyle testified at the Kos trial that he had sent copies to every US bishop. Diocesan officials later recanted. But for Doyle, their behavior epitomized the way the Church has responded to his effort all along: " The report was rejected. Somebody [at the NCCB] must have decided that it was too threatening or too controversial and it was dropped. "

Church officials, however, insist that the report wasn’t hushed up. Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, communications director for the NCCB since 1993, maintains that the body’s 300 members never dismissed the manual. " We did not say, ‘Let’s never talk about this report again,’ " he says. " We’re surprised that it’s perceived as being ignored. " The document, Maniscalco says, was distributed to the bishops by the authors; it was then forwarded to the NCCB Committee on Priest Life and Ministry, which often referred to the report when offering advice about clergy sexual abuse. Maniscalco admits that the NCCB failed to heed some of the report’s recommendations: it did not establish a policy group, nor did it oblige dioceses to follow guidelines on how to respond to sexual-abuse allegations. But by the time the document was issued in 1985, he explains, " the bishops were already dealing with a lot of facets of the problem. " He adds, " It wasn’t seen as so widespread a problem that the bishops couldn’t deal with it on an individual level. "

In previous years, that is, bishops had handled sexual misconduct among clergy quietly, behind closed doors. Often, they simply transferred priests to other parishes, in other communities. The Gauthe case exposed what’s been termed " a secret system " for dealing with priest perpetrators. As more and more people went public with their allegations, the Catholic hierarchy felt more and more pressure. Yet bishops managed to snuff out any criticisms through what Doyle describes as " denial responses and pious platitudes. "

The problem became unavoidable, however, in 1992, when the dramatic story of former priest James Porter blew wide open. Porter was charged with assaulting 28 children in three parishes in Bristol County, Massachusetts; he pled guilty and was sentenced to 18 to 20 years in prison. The Porter story turned into a national scandal — partly because of his jail sentence, which many thought too light, and partly because of his lengthy trail of abuse. Before leaving the priesthood in 1979, he had been shuffled from one parish to another in three states: Massachusetts, Minnesota, and New Mexico. All told, he is suspected of abusing 200 victims. For the Church, the case marked what Maniscalco calls " a watershed " revealing how pervasive the problem had become. " The Porter case seemed particularly significant, " Maniscalco says. " The Church felt perhaps the problem was sufficiently widespread, perhaps we needed to establish a national committee to speak directly to it. "

The NCCB finally set up its ad hoc committee on sexual abuse in 1993 — eight years after the idea was put forth by the 1985 report. The group, which consists of five bishops, has consulted mental-health experts about pedophilia and other psychosexual disorders. It has developed manuals explaining the nature of these illnesses, as well as guidelines on how to respond to charges of clergy sexual abuse. In 1992, the NCCB drafted a national plan outlining five principles for handling such abuse. Many of these principles — such as investigating allegations that have merit, suspending accused priests during investigation, enrolling afflicted priests in medical treatment, and drafting a diocesan policy on sexual abuse of minors — sound remarkably similar to those outlined in the 1985 document.

This raises an important question: would the Church have been able to stave off the crisis if it had acted on the 1985 report? Tom Economus, who heads Linkup, a Chicago-based advocacy group for victims of clergy sexual abuse, echoes the attitude among many observers when he says, " Oh! Absolutely! " That proposal " is very prophetic, " he says. " Much of what it stated has come to fruition. " Indeed. The report advised bishops to reach out to victims of clergy sexual abuse by offering to pay for counseling and to provide pastoral guidance. Otherwise, it warned, the Church would face mounting civil lawsuits — it even projected losses in legal fees and settlements of about $1 billion by 1996. Economus and other informed observers estimate that these lawsuits have cost the Church at least that much in legal fees, settlements, and jury awards over the past decade.

But the Church had warnings that it could have acted on long before the problem captured the media spotlight — years, even, before circulation of " The Manual " in 1985. In 1971, psychiatrist Conrad Baars traveled to the Vatican, where he presented the first of two studies about the US priesthood to the Synod of Bishops, an assembly of bishops from around the world. Baars based his research on 40 years’ experience treating 1500 priests. He found that 20 to 25 percent of American clergy members had serious psychiatric problems, while 60 to 70 percent suffered emotional immaturity — by which Baars meant " an insufficiently developed or distorted emotional life. " According to his report, " The Role of the Church in the Causation, Treatment, and Prevention of the Crisis of the Priesthood, " these priests often exhibited a " psychosexual immaturity expressed in hetero- or homosexual activity, " as well as in " masturbation, sexual impotence or frigidity ... or sexual exploits. "

Twelve months later, Baars’s findings were mirrored in an exhaustive study about the state of mind of American priests, " The Catholic Priest in the United States: Psychological Investigations, " which the NCCB had commissioned in 1969. Eugene Kennedy, a former priest and psychologist, spearheaded the effort by interviewing 271 clergymen from different religious orders and dioceses nationwide. He came up with disturbing conclusions: as many as 66 percent of priests were " underdeveloped " psychologically and emotionally, while another eight percent were " maldeveloped. " In a separate interview, Kennedy says his work pinpointed " priests with major psychosexual development problems. " He adds: " That was clear. "

To observers, Kennedy and Baars were sending an unambiguous message to the Catholic hierarchy: Too many of your priests suffer from mental illness, and must get medical treatment. In the words of Boston attorney Stephen Lyons, who has used the Baars study in clergy-sexual-abuse lawsuits, the documents are " a clarion call telling Church leaders, ‘Wake up. You have got a problem here.’ "

Barbara Balboni concurs. As a Northeastern University doctoral candidate in the 1990s, she examined how the institutional Church has shaped bishops’ awareness of what she calls " the abuse crisis. " Her 1998 dissertation — " Through the Lens of the Organizational Culture Perspective: A Descriptive Study of American Catholic Bishops’ Understanding of Clergy Sexual Molestation and Abuse of Children and Adolescents " — traces the earliest warning signs to the 1972 Kennedy study. Its description of an underdeveloped priest, Balboni discovered, matches the traits of clergymen who were convicted of molesting minors. Yet she found no official response to the study. Balboni, who now teaches criminology at Bridgewater State University, maintains that the crisis could have been curtailed if " the bishops had done right by their priests then. " Rather than send problem priests to spiritual retreats, the bishops should have obtained psychiatric treatment for them. They should have used the clinical information in the study to recognize the red flags marking potentially pedophilic priests, as opposed to turning a blind eye to their conduct. " If the bishops had taken this study seriously, " Balboni concludes, " many priest perpetrators would have been identified sooner, or weeded out. They could have nipped this in the bud. "

Maniscalco counters that, although the two studies revealed the prevalence of psychosexual immaturity among priests, neither referred specifically to pedophilia. " Do the reports predict a breakout of pedophilia? " he asks, and then answers: " You cannot use them as evidence that trouble with clergy sexual abuse is building. I don’t see any connection. " Instead of signaling a wave of child molestation by clergy, he says, " the reports dealt with how to prevent priests from leaving the priesthood, and that’s how they were considered. "

It’s true that neither report mentions the word " pedophilia " or the phrase " sexual abuse of minors. " Yet such behavior, observers argue, can easily be inferred from their findings. Says Lyons, " The [Baars] study uses euphemisms for clergy sexual abuse. I don’t think there’s a question as to what it’s referring. " At the time, in fact, the term " psychosexual disorders " was understood within the psychological community to define what are now called " paraphilias " — fetishism, bestiality, voyeurism, and pedophilia. (In the early ’70s, that term would also have included homosexuality.) As Kennedy himself explains, " The things you now find listed under ‘paraphilias,’ that’s the behavior we found in priests with psychosexual conflicts. "

In fact, the reports were released at a time when Church superiors had begun working behind the scenes to address sexual misconduct by clergy. By the early ’70s, some Catholic treatment centers for priests offered psychiatric services, along with medical attention and spiritual counsel, according to A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and former monk who has counseled more than 1000 sexually disordered priests over the past three decades. Sipe has testified on behalf of plaintiffs in clergy-sex-abuse lawsuits. In 1996, as an expert witness in the Rudy Kos case, he drafted a report describing Church programs where bishops could place pedophilic priests " within a more exclusive and secret atmosphere. " Many centers, like the now-defunct House of Affirmation in Worcester, were funded by various dioceses, and had a distinctly spiritual atmosphere. Others took a more medical approach: at the Silver Springs, Maryland–based Saint Luke Institute (founded by Peterson), which opened its doors to pedophilic priests in 1982, clergymen were evaluated before entering by top psychiatrists from the Johns Hopkins University Sexual Disorders Clinic.

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Issue Date: October 4 - 11, 2001

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