DECEMBER 2003 | VOL. 4 NO. 4  
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Displayed Issue
  SCU Conference on the Crisis
A Conference on the Crisis

Leaders gather at Santa Clara University to dialogue
on the sexual abuse cases in the Church

In May, Santa Clara University (SCU) sponsored a forum, with participants from the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom and Italy that focused on the sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The group, which assembled to dialogue on the challenges of clergy abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, was comprised of key leaders in the fields of journalism, theology, law, ethics, victims’ advocacy and mental health.

Last year, news about sexual misconduct by priests in the Boston Archdiocese swept over the country when the Boston Globe released detailed allegations against several priests and cover-ups by religious superiors.

“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,” said Thomas Plante, the conference organizer and associate professor of psychology at Santa Clara. Plante has conducted research on offending priests and their victims. In addition to being interviewed by national television and radio programs, Plante’s work has been featured in many national newspapers and magazines.

Over the last few years, Santa Clara has hosted several conferences on the topic Church sex abuse. Before this year’s event, the university held a similar gathering in 1998, which resulted in a 1999 book entitled, Bless Me Father for I Have Sinned: Perspectives on Sexual Abuse Committed by Roman Catholic Priests.

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

One of the topics that the group addressed was that more research was needed on the issue.

“A lot more work needs to be done even though we wrote 1,000 stories and won the Pulitzer Prize,” said Michael Rezendes, a member of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team, which won the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for its work on the Catholic Church sexual abuse cases.

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, claimed that “an ideological sort of sport-game has arisen around this entire issue,” with individuals on both sides of the debate pursuing personal 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,” said Loftus. “The first concern I want to raise is that while we have an immense amount of anecdotal information about what 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.”

Loftus further noted that before discussions concerning the abnormal or abhorrent expressions of celibate sexuality can take place, a norm needs to be established against which the abnormal behavior can be compared.

According to John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, part of the problem with fully addressing the sexual abuse issue is the cultural differences between the Vatican and American Catholics.

“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,” said Allen. “I think that the sex abuse crisis illustrates that.”

Allen commented that many American Catholics saw the Vatican’s initial silence on the Boston Globe stories as showing a lack of concern or awareness about the issue. But Allen, who witnessed the Holy City’s response, said that from the very beginning the Roman Curia were watching this story very closely.

“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,” said Allen. “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 the strong American reaction in the heart of the 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.”

One of the responses to the crisis is organizing church review boards that promote accountability. But Nanette deFuentes, a Los Angeles-area psychologist and a survivor of clergy abuse, discussed her concern 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,” said deFuentes. “I think there is a conflict of interest in the whole model in itself.”

deFuentes suggested that the boards include mental health experts as well as clergy abuse victims.

“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,” added deFuentes.

William Spohn, professor of theology and director of the Bannan Center for Jesuit Education at SCU, said that what began as a crisis of priestly church abuse “soon became an issue 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,” said Spohn. “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 Hanson, executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, believes that the process of handling the allegations of abuse must be altered so that there is confidence in the system that has been set up.

‘[The process] affects the confidence that survivors have in coming forward and in choosing between filing lawsuits and not filing lawsuits,” said Hanson. “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,” added Hanson. ”The whole history of corporate scandals indicates that those measures have to be in place in order to begin the process of rebuilding credibility.”

In his summarizing comments, conference organizer Plante expressed his hopes that the media spotlight on sex offending clergy will encourage interventions at the 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,” said Plante. “At stake is the moral and spiritual authority of the Church as well as the well-being of countless priests and laypersons.”

This is an edited version of an article in the Winter 2003 edition of Santa Clara Magazine, www.santaclaramagazine.com.