HELENA — Some say preventing future sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy may depend on ending the requirement for celibacy and allowing women into the priesthood.
But if that’s not likely to happen any time soon, then strict screening and psychological testing of those seeking ordination might be the best way to prevent future crimes by clergy against children.
These differing perspectives come in the wake of confirmation by the bankruptcy court of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in March that settled a Chapter 11 bankruptcy and reorganization plan for the Diocese of Helena.
The judge approved a nearly $21 million plan to compensate the roughly 380 people who said they were sexually abused by Catholic priests and the Ursuline Sisters.
The bankruptcy court’s action came after claims against the diocese were filed in 2011 by those who said they had been sexually abused.
The Associated Press reported in March 2015 that the majority of allegations were against Jesuit priests at the Ursuline Academy and the St. Ignatius Mission in St. Ignatius.
The abuses ranged from rape and fondling to perpetrators taking sexual photographs of children, which began in the 1930s and continued through the 1970s, according to court documents cited by The Associated Press.
Attorneys for victims and an outspoken former priest offered little optimism for ending child sexual abuse by clergy without changes in the priesthood.
“As soon as they get good priests in there, the problem will change. When you get rid of the celibacy requirement and allow priests who can be married, have families of their own, you’re going to see a lot less child sexual abuse,” said Craig Vernon, who with Lee James represented about 270 people in the bankruptcy and reorganization plan.
James shared that assessment and said, “In the larger picture, I think what would be most persuasive is to see changes, fundamental changes in the church, that are designed to help assure that child-sexual abuse along with other problems don’t occur in the future.”
In addition to allowing priests to marry and ordaining women, James said lay people need to be put in positions of power over priests.
“Because, after all, for centuries clergy has had an exclusive lock on power in the Catholic Church over lay people,” he continued.
“And what our cases illustrate is they blew it. They used that power in ways that were wrong and inappropriate,” James added.
Diocese of Helena Bishop George Leo Thomas doesn’t dodge the accusation and said, “I think the Catholic Church did blow it. But we’re not alone in that. It’s no consolation. That’s why back in the late ’80s and ’90s I was adamant in the archdiocese of Seattle and here that this culture of privilege and secrecy and internal governance is a big mistake and why the community has to absolutely be involved in this kind of oversight.”
When the diocese in Seattle faced claims of sexual abuse, it turned to the community, Thomas said, and created a committee that tapped the county prosecutor’s office, mental health professionals, parents, law enforcement and those involved in social work to help lead it through the crisis.
Thomas said he relied on those experiences when he was assigned to the Diocese of Helena in 2004.
“We have a review committee in our own diocese here that helps to guide any decisions that I make. Part of it is directed toward policies. I want to make sure that our policies are very consistent with civil and criminal law.”
“It’s a high-level group and they ask very poignant questions of me, and our commitment obviously is to ensure that we do very careful screening and evaluation of seminarian candidates, that we require psychological testing of anybody that’s in seminary candidacy. People that are in any kind of ministry, volunteer or otherwise, we do background checks and fingerprinting,” Thomas said.
“If I get any kind of a complaint involving violation with a minor then our first contact is law enforcement.”
Training to avoid trouble
A.W. Richard Sipe, 83, is from a devoutly Catholic family, according to his website biography. He’s also the author of several books; the most recent is “Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012.”
He spent 18 years as a Benedictine monk and a Catholic priest where he was trained to deal with the mental health problems of priests, his biography noted.
Sipe said he also taught in seminaries from 1967 to 1996.
“The bishops have put out a lot of different words and documents about (sexual abuse). And in a sense the documents in themselves are positive and some of the steps they take are positive in terms of being more careful about who they hire, being more sensitive to victims and victims’ claims,” he said.
“However, basically nothing has changed in the education of clergy that I know of that would change the propensity of priests to abuse.”
The education of those priests, Sipe continued, “has not changed at all.”
Among Catholic priests, 6 percent did get involved sexually with minors, he said of his research.
“The problem can no longer be denied,” Sipe said. “ ... And the problem will not go away because of the system.”
A lack of training in sexual abuse prevention would have been the case in prior decades at seminaries, Thomas said, but the men do receive training to avoid risk and sexual abuse.
“Also when they come into the diocese, I require the recertification, participation recertification, in Virtus training even though they’ve been through it in the seminary. … For everybody. I’m doing everything humanly possible,” Thomas said.
Sexual abuse, Thomas said, is "a societal problem. It’s endemic. It has to be recognized as a societal issue, not a Catholic Church issue.”
Vow of celibacy
Sipe said his long-term research concluded that at no time are more than half of Catholic priests observing celibacy.
“Mandatory celibacy, the fact of requiring a man to promise celibacy before he is ordained a priest is a travesty, and I think is the cause of a great deal of sexual hurt and sexual perversion,” Sipe said. “No question about it.”
“There’s a great deal of sexual activity from the top down. You see, if celibacy were practiced on that level, you wouldn’t have any problem down here in the younger priests practicing,” Sipe said.
“If celibacy is the issue then you’ve got a whole other problem, because the research that I’m familiar with shows that over 80 percent of sexual abuse takes place in the context of marriage and family,” he said.
“So it would be a big leap to say that celibacy is the cause.”
But Idaho attorneys Vernon and James say the vow of celibacy deeply affects an individual.
“It’s more than just sex,” James said.
“You’re asking an individual, a man, to live their life, a lonely life with no confidante, no one close to them who will be with them for their adult life, to share their life experiences with, to speak to in troubled times, to share their life concerns, their worries.
“So they are in a situation where they are in a potentially psychologically disabling situation where people who are allowed to have intimate, emotional and personal relationships, and again I’m talking not just about sex, something way more than sex. The person in the middle of the night that you can wake them up and roll over and wake them up and say 'I’m really stressed, I’m worried.'”
“When a priest is alone, they can’t do that,” James said.
So they live this life of loneliness, and it can create very unstable situations that the experts like Sipe and others can talk about, he explained.
“History has shown us that the vow of celibacy really does not work, that most priests don’t keep their vow of celibacy," said Vernon. "And it’s easier to make little kids not talk than it is a housekeeper, a fellow priest or a nun.
“And so I don’t believe that there’s going to be fundamental change. It’s going to be harder because it’s more out in the open, maybe priests will be more careful because there’s more risk that they’re going to get caught,” Vernon continued.
“Until there’s fundamental change, I think we’re still going to see this problem.”
Thomas doesn’t share their view on the cause for sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church.
“The culture of secrecy and entitlement is probably the lay equivalent of clericalism and that can happen with public school teachers, it can happen with the various denominations, with 4-H or whatever. It puts power over the safety of children, and I’m just not there.”
“We’re doing everything humanly possible” to see it doesn’t happen again, he said.
“We’re using all the resources that we have at hand in the best way,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day I’m asking the Lord to ensure that I’m doing the right stuff.”