In 1992 Mark Chopko, then the General Counsel for the United States Catholic Conference, sent the following letter to Catholic Digest’s sister publication Today’s Parish about how the Church was responding to the clergy sexual abuse crisis at that time. (See Catholic Digest, July/August issue pages 46-48.) See his thoughts 18 years later, here.
To The Editor…
Clergy-Child Sexual Abuse: Readers Respond
Response from the United States Catholic Conference
After reading the articles by Fr. Stephen Rossetti surveying reactions to reports of clergy-child abuse, I keep coming back to one central question: What are we doing wrong?
For the last eight years or more, the hierarchy of the American church has struggled with this problem. It has been a difficult and traumatic experience for those responsible for the administration of the church. At the same time that they were coping with allegations of misconduct by those committed to their pastoral care in a special way under the church’s law and tradition, they were faced with anger in the parishes and awareness of the deep and perhaps permanent harm to the most vulnerable of victims, young children. It continues to be a very difficult time. But it also has been a time of learning, a time of redirection, and a time of hope.
Facing the Problem
Five times the National Conference of Catholic Bishops met on the subject. Public statements were made in 1988 and in 1989 and this past June Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, the Conference President, spoke out again. So why is it that even after these years of sometimes very public and painful struggle, leaders of parish communities still doubt either the bishops’ commitment or resolve?
Part of the answer, I believe, lies in the less than public profile that the bishops deliberately chose while they struggled. Answers were not easy, especially eight years ago. Even today leading medical experts say that knowledge is in its infancy. Predicting behavior in this very difficult area of sexual misconduct is impossible. Faced with contentions that public disclosure would violate the privacy of both victims and perpetrators, compromise litigation in both the criminal and civil courts, lead to scandal in the church, and other concerns, bishops sometimes chose to say nothing rather than risk saying the wrong thing. Over time, as is reflected in the deliberate development of the Conference’s own statements, bishops have learned—as indeed we all have—that what was called for was openness, honesty, and a frank admittance of the pain caused by such tragedies. Bishops needed to be freed from their careful and cautious advisors in order to be the pastors that they are. Responding to their pastoral instincts is the best approach. The surveys you published confirm that this is indeed what people want. I write to assure your readers that more is coming.
More than this, it appears that people need to hear that the church is effective in dealing with the problem. Archbishop Pilarczyk’s recent statement reiterated the Conference’s consistent advice in cases where our opinion was sought—respond immediately, remove the accused priest and see that he undergoes a thorough psychological evaluation, and offer assistance to those harmed. What was learned was that the church needed to respond more as church, and less as a potential defendant. When the church reacted perhaps too cautiously, the news media characterized that response as part of a “cover up” as if bishops acted out of dark and evil motives. I assure you and your readers that nothing could be further from the truth.
So what do people want? From my perspective, I believe that people touched by this tragedy want an apology, a sense of shared pain, healing, and reconciliation. They want some understanding of how this could have happened. But more than that, they want assurance that it will not happen again. Our diocesan processes are geared toward addressing these concerns. When there is reason to believe the accusation, those accused are removed from parish assignments. A psychological evaluation follows. Victims and their families are assured of the church’s concern for their welfare. In most instances, church officials did not know it was possible that the accused priest could commit such a heinous act. In more instances than I could possibly relate, such information was simply nonexistent. After all, those afflicted with this disorder live in denial and hide their behavior, from their bishops, their peers, and themselves.
Then what can we say about these priests? Experts tell us that child sexual abuse has nothing to do with celibacy. Indeed, most perpetrators in our society are married and most victims are their own children, stepchildren, or children of their friends. Those who engage in such abuse are ill, and quite often the roots of the illness lie in abuse they suffered in childhood. While there is no “test” that with absolute certainty uncovers the illness, the increased awareness of its existence certainly is leading to much greater attention in the examination of candidates for ordination.
One of the biggest tragedies of this current problem for the American church is the distrust being bred between priests and people. The very few priests suffering this disorder have engaged this atmosphere. These few hundred should not cause us to miss the work of the many thousands of priests who labor tirelessly and under difficult circumstances for our welfare. They need our support and strength.
A Proper Approach
Over these past years, church leaders may have been quiet, but we have not been idle. Again and again, we have strived to keep abreast of the latest medical and psychological developments and, at every turn, built this new medial and psychological opinion into our understanding and our policies and protocols. We have tried to build up a system. We are reasonably confident that now we have a proper approach to dealing with the problem. Indeed, other religious denominations and the church in other countries look to the American church as a leader in trying to combat the problem of child abuse not just in the ranks of the clergy but in all professional ranks. This is the story that does not often get told but yet is one that needs to be fully understood and appreciated.
Difficult times remain. Yet, I am confident, in a spirit of prayerful hope, that we have begun to turn this tragedy around. Fewer new cases are coming to light. We are now in the process of addressing problems created 10, 20, 30, and in some instances 40 years ago. It is not for fear of the past that these actions have occurred. It is for the promise of a brighter and better future. I am proud to have had the opportunity to serve the bishops during this particularly difficult time, and I hope that through these words your readers might take some comfort in the fact that they have not been abandoned or ignored by those who are shepherding their church.
Mark E. Chopko
United States Catholic Conference
Appeared in January 1993 issue of Today’s Parish