January 19, 2006

Treating priests who abuse: Then and now

The Tidings

Why would a bishop let a priest continue to serve in ministry knowing the priest had been credibly accused of abusing a minor? How could he in good conscience simply give that priest another assignment?

These questions have been posed over and over again since the January 2002 Boston Globe article broke the story of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. Since that time, the media have been relentless in repeating this accusation. With this barrage of attention, the Catholic faithful have picked up the mantra, "Why would a bishop reassign a priest when he knew the priest had been identified as a perpetrator?"

Is there a plausible explanation for such episcopal conduct? There is indeed an explanation, if this question can be placed in a historical context. The media, with their repetitive approach to emphasizing the wrongdoing of the Catholic hierarchy in this regard, have failed to address some of the underlying historical realities that made such decisions by bishops understandable. The media have continued to blur timelines, thus bearing responsibility for resultant misinformation.

In the period prior to the 1980s, society at large was ignorant of the compulsive nature of the sexual abuse of minors by a perpetrator. One author has called the period before the 1980s the "dark ages of sexual abuse." Certainly society and the bishops recognized the seriousness and the sinfulness of sexual abuse of minors, but, as with other psychological problems, stern warnings, self-discipline and medical treatment were seen as solutions. If a priest expressed sincere sorrow and a commitment to "sin no more," bishops --- trained as pastors and not therapists --- were inclined to forgive the priest, send him away for a retreat and refer him for counseling.

Posted by kshaw at January 19, 2006 04:29 PM