The clergy sex abuse crisis: What you need to know

In our July/August issue, Catholic Digest asked 38 crucial questions about the clergy sex abuse crisis responded to by e-mail by Teresa Kettelkamp, executive director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection. Twenty-four questions were featured in the magazine; the remaining ones are featured here.


 How does the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) study [see question 1, page 51 Catholic Digest, July/August 2010] compare to, and shed light on, what the John Jay study told us about priests?

To make a one-to-one comparison is difficult since the John Jay study covered a 50-year period and the DHHS study was a one-year study. There is no equivalent study to the one carried out by the USCCB. The events of 2002 inspired an unprecedented amount of reporting from the past 50 years. This is part of what makes the data not comparable to other data sources. Abuse reported to agencies is a different kind of data than that collected by surveys of experience.



Is sex abuse of minors by clergy an old problem that is just coming to light today, or is it a newer phenomenon? Is it still a widespread problem?


Sexual abuse of minors by clergy is reflected in the early records of the Church. A mention of sexual abuse is found in the canons of the Latin Church for a Synod at Elvira in Spain in year 309, where presbyters and bishops who commit sexual sins (#18) and those who abuse boys are mentioned. Additionally, St. Basil (330-379) stated: “A cleric or monk who seduces youths or young boys … is to be publicly flogged …. For six months he will languish in prison-like confinement … he shall never again associate with youths neither in private conversation nor in counseling them.” Claims of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy have fixed the attention of the U.S. bishops since at least 1982. With increased knowledge of the psychological sciences, new and better laws that protect women and children, and the Church’s efforts to promote the dignity of human life, this issue is receiving full attention. Much still needs to be done in our society to keep children from harm.



I took a Safe Environments course in order to volunteer in my church, and it said to report suspected abuse to a supervisor. Shouldn’t I report it to the police?


Yes. In many states adults are required to report suspected child abuse to authorities. Frequently, dioceses ask adults to report concerns they have or instances of adults violating the diocesan code of conduct to church personnel.


I sometimes get a creepy feeling around my child’s religious education teacher because he’s single and seems to really like being around kids. Should I pull my child out of class? Go to the parish? Call the police?


Always pay attention to instincts. Being single and enjoying children are not warning signs, however. Questions to consider: What is the teacher doing to make you uncomfortable? Is the person overly friendly to children? Does she or he prefer to be with children rather than adults? Is there too much touching? Too much familiarity? Is a code of conduct being violated? These are the concerns to bring to the attention of the parish director of religious education. At the same time, it is wise to be sure children have attended the Safe Environment program and know the rules of touching. Parents should make sure children know they can tell their parents if the teacher is making them feel “creepy.”


I have heard that only 3 percent of sexual abusers are ever caught. Is this true? If so, does this mean there are many more priest abusers who haven’t yet been caught?


Sexual abuse is a crime of shame and darkness, which means that victims/survivors often do not come forward when the crime occurs; sometimes they don’t come forward until years after the incident; sometimes never. Hopefully, the media emphasis on sexual abuse, and the Church’s outreach, will encourage victims/survivors who are ready for healing and reconciliation to seek help from the Church or go to someone else with whom they are comfortable.


The last eight years’ media attention on the U.S. Church and its efforts to reach out to victims has been intense. Both have led victims to come forward. These efforts and a tightening of the screening process for priests suggest that abusive priests have been identified and out of public ministry. But no system is fail-safe, so the Church continues to insist on implementing the Charter and the annual external audits of compliance with it.


I was a parishioner at a church where abuse occurred in the 1970s. I can’t help but feel somewhat responsible because this apparently was going on under my nose. What should I do?


Society knows more now that it did 10 to 15 years — let alone 40 — years ago. It is clear we all knew little about sexual abuse and especially clergy sexual abuse. Greater knowledge in the past would likely have meant different behavior both within the Church by priests, bishops, and laity, and outside the Church by police, social services, and the courts. Now we know the signs of abuse, how abusers groom their victims and families of victims, and the efficacy of treatment. Most of all, we know that for abuse to be stopped, it must be reported to civil authorities. No exceptions.


I’ve been sexually abused and have great difficulty attending Mass, taking part in parish life, and sometimes even in connecting to God because of traumatic memories. What do I do?


Those feelings are understandable. Someone who has been the victim of sexual abuse by a priest, deacon, or individual representing the Catholic Church in a diocese or eparchy in the United States can do several things.


Contact the appropriate law enforcement agency to determine if the incident falls within the statute of limitations in the jurisdiction where the abuse occurred.


Contact local child protection agencies, a private attorney, or a support group.


Recognize that the Charter and Norms mandate each diocese to have a victim’s assistance coordinator. The contact number for the victim assistance coordinator should be available, usually posted on the diocesan website or in the diocesan newspaper.


There also is a master list of all dioceses’ victim assistance coordinators at These individuals coordinate assistance for immediate pastoral care for those who report having been sexually abused as minors by clergy and other Church personnel. (Immediate pastoral care would be those actions that would help the victim/survivor spiritually heal from the wounds of clergy sexual abuse. This may be different for different people. It might include a specially trained counselor or therapist whose services would be paid for by the Church.) They can help individuals make a formal complaint of abuse to the diocese/eparchy, arrange a personal meeting with the bishop or his representative, and obtain support for specific needs.


The first article of the Charter focuses on the need for the Church to reach out to victims/survivors and their families, and for bishops to demonstrate a sincere commitment to their spiritual and emotional wellbeing. The outreach offer is made no matter when the abuse took place. Outreach never has and never will be dependent on any statute of limitations. 


If someone is abused as a child in one diocese and later, as an adult, faces up to what was done to him or her, but they now live in a different diocese, will their current diocese help them with the spiritual aspect of their recovery, or will they have to go back the jurisdiction where the abuse happened?


This situation is not that uncommon for a number of reasons, one of which you mentioned. Another reason may be that the location where the victim/survivor now resides is now part of a new diocese that did not exists 40 years ago when the abuse took place. When situations like this occur, the two diocesan victim assistance coordinators work out what would work best for the victim/survivor.


What is currently taught in seminaries about sexuality, sex abuse, and proper interaction with youth for priests? What are seminaries currently doing to watch out for possible sexually disturbed people?


The admissions process has been fortified by numerous interviews by clergy, Religious, and laity alike. Applicants also take a battery of psychological exams and are assessed by a psychologist. An obvious part of this deals with psychosexual development. All seminarians go through Safe Environment training and have an annual psychosexual workshop. Sexual morality is covered in other areas, as well, such as in courses on moral theology. Finally, seminarians are evaluated annually by formation teams, who look at their growth and maturity to ensure the Church of the best possible candidates for Holy Orders.


What types of background checks/psychological screening do seminarians under go before they are allowed to become priests?


Dioceses use background checks and screening tests to determine the fitness of men interested in becoming seminarians. The background check often includes a criminal history check of both state and federal records. The psychological screening tests used may include intellectual and cognitive functioning, personality features, psychological health, social effectiveness factors, interpersonal relationship skills, as well as psychosexual development. The Vatican is in support of using these tests along with the recommendations of the seminarian formators to determine the fitness of seminarians.


What happens to a priest who has been accused of sexual abuse? What is the course of action the Church takes?


First, if the victim is still a minor, the diocese is to report the allegation to the public authorities. There are no exceptions to this.


In all cases, including those of a person who is no longer a minor, the diocese is to comply with all applicable civil laws and cooperate in civil investigations in accord with the law. Dioceses also are to advise victims of their right to make a report to public authorities and support this right.


If the victim is a minor, the diocese is to follow the directions of law enforcement. If the victim coming forward is an adult, then the diocese is to conduct a quick preliminary investigation and make a determination about the credibility of the allegation. Based upon that finding, the diocese must decide whether or not to remove the priest from public ministry for the protection of children while a more detailed investigation is conducted. During this time, the diocese is to be open and transparent in communicating with the public within the confines of respect for the privacy and the reputation of the individuals involved. This is especially important with regard to informing parish and other church communities directly affected by ministerial misconduct involving minors.


The cleric has rights too. A priest or deacon accused of sexual abuse of a minor is to be presumed innocent during the investigation and appropriate steps taken to protect his reputation. He is to be encouraged to retain the assistance of civil and canonical counsel. If the allegation is not proven, every step possible is to be taken to restore his good name, should it have been harmed.


 An offending priest or deacon also is to be offered therapeutic professional assistance.


Upon the completion of an investigation when the victim is no longer a minor, the findings are presented to a diocesan review board. Most of its members are to be laypersons not in the employ of the diocese. The board is a confidential consultative body to the bishop and is to advise him in his assessment of allegations of sexual abuse of minors and in his determination of a cleric’s suitability for ministry.


The board is also to regularly review diocesan policies and procedures for dealing with sexual abuse of minors. The board can review these matters both retrospectively and prospectively.


The U.S. Bishops have a position of zero tolerance and affirm the words of Pope John Paul II: “There is no place in the priesthood or Religious life for those who would harm the young.”


For even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor — whenever it occurred — which is admitted or established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon is to be permanently removed from ministry and, if warranted, dismissed from the clerical state.


The diocesan bishop is to exercise his power of governance, within the parameters of the universal law of the Church, to ensure that any priest or deacon subject to his governance who has committed even one act of sexual abuse of a minor shall not continue in ministry. He cannot dress as a priest nor participate in any public administration of the sacraments such as celebrating Mass in a parish, or performing a wedding or baptism.


When the abuse has been reported, the diocese is to reach out to the victim and his/her family. A meeting with the bishop or his designee is to be offered. Victim/survivor healing and reconciliation is extended regardless of the status of the investigation.


The bishop also is bound to follow all norms of the universal Church law that require him to report the allegation to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and follow subsequent instructions of the Congregation.


My parish is lax on the safe environment program. What do I do?


Are they not providing the training? Are they not tracking who has been trained? Are they not holding people accountable to participate in the training who should have the training? Do you consider the training inadequate? All of the above? 


Article 12, which is about Safe Environment training, states that dioceses/eparchies are to maintain “Safe Environment” programs which the diocesan/eparchial bishop deems in accord with Catholic moral principles. “They are to be conducted cooperatively with parents, civil authorities, educators, and community organizations to provide education and training for children, youth, parents, ministers, educators, volunteers, and others about ways to make and maintain a safe environment for children and young people.”


As part of Safe Environment training, policy and procedures for handling allegations of sexual abuse, and the diocesan code of conduct and background evaluation process also can be discussed.


These create a Safe Environment wall around children. If you believe that one or more of these areas are weak, then first speak to the diocesan Safe Environment director. If that does not make a difference, then speak with the bishop, offering your list of written concerns and suggestions for improvement. The bishops have made a commitment to protect children in the care of their diocese and need to know if there is a weakness in their procedures or programs.


I know someone who was abused by a priest decades ago. Is there a statute of limitations? What should I counsel him/her to do?


There are no statutes of limitations in the Church for bringing an allegation to its attention or for being offered outreach. If a credible allegation is made against a cleric, the cleric is removed from ministry regardless of how long ago the abuse occurred. Anyone abused in the past is encouraged to report that abuse to diocesan authorities and civil authorities. Dioceses/eparchies have pledged to offer outreach and healing. Encourage your friend to seek healing by contacting the victim assistance coordinator of the diocese. The coordinator’s number is usually on the diocesan home page and newspaper. It can also be found on the Website of the Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection at


When priests go to Confession, if their confessed sins include sexually abusing children, can the priest they’re confessing to report them and have them removed, especially if the confessor knows the penitent (e.g. face to face Confession)? Why or why not? Shouldn’t they place the safety of the flock above the problems of one sick individual, especially since hiding the crime may lead to many other children being hurt? 


The Sacrament of Reconciliation is inviolable under all circumstances. The confessor is bound by the seal of Confession in such a way that he cannot directly or indirectly betray the confidentiality of the sacrament. He cannot tell others what a penitent confessed nor can he speak or act in such a way that others might infer from him what was confessed by someone. The Church has always held to this practice in order to maintain the absolute confidentiality of the penitential relationship. Within the sacrament, the confessor will offer spiritual guidance to the penitent that might include suggesting that the penitent consider seeking appropriate help in order to protect the penitent from hurting others and him or herself.


Read more coverage of the sex abuse crisis in the July/August issue of Catholic Digest

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