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Failure to act (continued)

The most sophisticated center could be found among the Servants of the Paraclete, a Catholic order in Jemez Springs, New Mexico. Since 1949, the monastery had served as a spiritual retreat for clergy suffering such ills as alcoholism and depression. And by the early ’70s, Sipe says, the Paracletes were training in psychology and sexuality at the San Francisco–based Institute for Advanced Study of Sexuality. Four years later, in 1976, the order launched two programs specifically for pedophilic priests — the first in the world. According to Sipe, Catholic treatment centers were " on the cutting edge, " using advanced techniques to treat those who had molested minors. Court records in the Kos case show that Church superiors relied heavily on the Paraclete center (which stopped treating pedophiles in 1995 because of the escalating number of lawsuits). In a 1997 deposition for the Kos trial, Jay Feierman, the psychiatrist who worked at the monastery, testified that he had evaluated 300 sexually disordered priests from 1977 to 1984 alone. By 1995, he had cared for 1000 priests.

Such revelations suggest that the Catholic hierarchy had all the information and expertise it needed to tackle the problem of clergy sexual abuse — yet it failed to protect its victims. The Church, critics charge, did not safeguard children by prohibiting priests from taking camping trips alone with kids, or forbidding minors to sleep at rectories. The Church, they say, did not encourage clergymen to report suspicious behavior on the part of their peers; it did not warn parishioners about the signs of sexual assault. " They did not do anything to protect victims, " says Sylvia Demerest, the Dallas attorney who represented three of the 11 plaintiffs in the Kos case. Demerest speaks for many detractors when she suggests that, early on, the Catholic Church knew more about the psychological profile of a serial child molester than any other organized group in the United States that worked extensively with children — including the schools. Still, thousands of children were repeatedly placed in harm’s way.

" This has been a consistent problem within the Church, " Demerest says. And yet, unconscionably, Church leaders continue to claim that they did not have enough knowledge to protect young parishioners. " These people knew they were sitting on a powder keg, " says Demerest. " They knew priests were doing unspeakable things to kids. They chose to ignore it. "

NOT SURPRISINGLY, Church leaders bristle at the notion that the Catholic hierarchy has turned its back on this long-simmering problem. Maniscalco denies that the NCCB leadership " swept the issue under the rug, " let alone encouraged bishops to cover it up. To him, such criticisms simply are not relevant. " They are germane only if the bishops had been saying, ‘We don’t care if people get hurt,’ " he explains. Would he concede that not everyone responded to sexual abuse of minors by clergy in an effective pastoral manner? " Obviously, " he replies, " we weren’t as successful as we would have liked. " He adds: " Would the Church like to go back and do things differently? Probably. " Still, Maniscalco maintains that bishops tried to do what they believed was best. " To the extent that the Church didn’t always realize its ramifications, " he says, " we might not have been as effective as we should have been. But we never condoned [clergy sexual abuse]. We knew it was wrong. "

Even some mental-health professionals believe the Church did not deliberately deceive its flock, but was instead misled by the experts it relied on. Fred Berlin is among them. Berlin, who founded the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic in 1971, has advised the NCCB on treating pedophilia since 1993. That the Church once stood ahead of the curve in recognizing the need to treat sexually disordered priests seems, in his words, " one of the greatest ironies of this whole story. " Unfortunately for the Church, he explains, " bishops deferred to mental-health people whose knowledge about pedophilia was wrong " by modern standards. Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, the psychological community defined pedophilia as a form of arrested development. The pedophile had gotten stuck prematurely in his psychological growth. He gravitated toward minors sexually because, in emotional terms, he was one himself. Pedophiles, the theory went, could be cured if they received treatment — primarily, talk therapy — to figure out what had gone wrong and to learn how to function as adults.

This clinical view, according to Berlin, caused experts to give bishops what would now be considered bad advice. Back then, after months of therapy, a pedophilic priest might have returned to his diocese — only to be reassigned to another parish, with unfettered access to kids. " We would never allow this today, " Berlin notes. " We appreciate the tenacity of this illness. We talk about supervision. We talk about control, about avoiding temptation. This idea that you can send the person off to the doctor and he’s magically cured doesn’t exist. "

Ultimately, Berlin echoes the notion that Cardinal Law expressed when he wrote in the July 27 issue of the Pilot, a newspaper published by the Boston archdiocese, that society and the Church have been " on a learning curve " regarding sexual abuse of minors. " We all know more about pedophilia, " he says — about its deep-seated nature, about its resistance to treatment. If people want to assign blame for the crisis of clergy sexual abuse, he implicates the mental-health community as well: " Those treating the priests were just as culpable as the bishops for sending the priests back into the community. "

To be sure, critics of the Church recognize that awareness has evolved — both inside and outside the Church — when it comes to sexual abuse of minors. And some detractors acknowledge that Church superiors probably were honest people who didn’t intend to inflict harm. Psychologist Eugene Kennedy, who argues in the recently released The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality (St. Martin’s, 2001) that Catholicism suffers as a result of its failure to deal with sexual intimacy, makes a point of defending Law, whom he first met in the 1960s. " I have known Bernie Law for many years, " he says, " and I must say that I simply do not believe that he would ever deceive others in such a grave matter. "

This is not to say that the Church has no culpability in the existing crisis. Balboni, the Bridgewater State criminologist, explains just how the Church’s institutional culture served to cultivate a disastrous silence during the pre-Gauthe era between 1970 and 1985. After interviewing 20 bishops nationwide, she found that cultural factors overwhelmingly shaped their responses to child molestation by priests. Bishops saw discipline as an internal matter to be shared only with top personnel in their dioceses. It would have been anathema for them to attend NCCB meetings and " air their dirty laundry, " she says. Bishops also view themselves as Church defenders, as institutional bureaucrats. To disclose their priests’ sexual misconduct in a public arena — even in closed NCCB sessions — would have been tantamount to bringing scandal down on the Church. And so, rather than push for reform, she says, " bishops protected themselves and their dioceses. " She adds, " Bishops aren’t appointed to change the Church. They’re appointed to maintain it as it is. "

That, of course, is why Cardinal Law’s much-repeated lament — " I only wish the knowledge that we have today had been available to us earlier, " he wrote in the Pilot — is so bothersome. After all that the Church has endured since the Gauthe case — watching its priests go to jail, funneling millions of dollars toward settlements, hearing its reputation maligned — observers cannot help but interpret talk about learning curves as an excuse. Or even worse, as a desperate attempt to evade legal and moral responsibility. " It’s smoke and mirrors, " as Tom Economus puts it. " Church officials will say anything to get themselves off the hook. "

In the end, it might not really matter what the Church knew or didn’t know about sexual misconduct among clergy in 1970 or 1980 or 1990. For centuries, it understood one crucial piece of information: such conduct is a moral crime. As Doyle says, " We may not have known how the sexual disorder develops, or how to care for our priests. But we knew about the harm. We knew priests were running loose on our kids. "

Everything else, in other words, should have been irrelevant.

Kristen Lombardi can be reached at klombardi[a]

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Issue Date: October 4 - 11, 2001

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