Since the sex-abuse crisis entered the national discussion in 2002, the bulk of the media attention has been on how individual Catholic dioceses have responded and the steps they have taken over the years to remove abusive clergy from ministry and protect minors and vulnerable people.
But this spring, a religious order put the spotlight on fresh concerns about Church handling of sexual abuse: Criminal charges were filed in Pennsylvania against three Franciscans friars, related to their roles in supervising a brother friar who was accused of molesting more than 100 children.
Though they have not garnered the same attention as dioceses until now, religious orders in the United States say they have also implemented new policies and practices over the past 14 years to hold abusive members in their communities accountable and protect victims.
“We were completely committed to the principle that no one who has been established as an abuser will ever practice a public ministry and certainly will not be in a position to have access to children, to youth and to vulnerable people,” said Capuchin Father John Pavlik, president of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men, an association of the leadership of men in religious and apostolic institutes in the United States.
Father Pavlik told the Register that almost 90% of institutes representing approximately 17,000 men in religious life have gone through an independent accreditation process of their sexual-abuse prevention policies and practices. Father Pavlik said the institutes agree to be scrutinized by an outside firm because they want to follow the bishops’ example in protecting minors.
“The religious certainly wanted to be in the same place the bishops of the United States were when it came to promulgating safeguards that would seem to actually work to protect minors and youth and vulnerable people,” Father Pavlik said.
To perform public ministry, religious brothers, monks and priests are also required to abide by norms established by the local diocesan bishop. For example, a brother or friar who works in a parish or in other diocesan facilities must undergo the same sex-abuse prevention safety training as regular diocesan priests and lay personnel.
However, some observers note that the policies and practices, as well as the accreditation process, are still voluntary and not really enforceable, since the religious orders, including the individual provincial leaders, do not answer to each other.
“The bottom line is that they are completely independent from one another. It’s like herding cats. They all do what they want,” said Patrick Wall, a former Benedictine monk who investigates clergy sex abuse for victims and their lawyers.
Wall told the Register that he believes the orders have done a comparatively poor job of handling sex-abuse cases, and he said there is no real enforcement mechanism to ensure that provincial leaders do the right thing, apart from the civil and criminal courts.
The Pennsylvania Scandal
The criminal proceedings in western Pennsylvania, where the three Franciscan friars will stand trial for child endangerment and conspiracy charges, could serve as a cautionary tale.
The Pennsylvania grand jury that returned indictments against Fathers Giles Schinelli, Robert D’Aversa and Anthony Criscitelli concluded that the defendants, who headed the Third Order Regular Franciscans of the Province of the Immaculate Conception from 1986 to 2010, should have done more to protect minors from Brother Stephen Baker, who killed himself in January 2013 after he was accused of sexually abusing dozens of teens in at least three states.
Pennsylvania’s Attorney General Office — which released a scathing report earlier this year detailing decades of abuse in the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown — is prosecuting the friars. News reports indicate that federal prosecutors are also considering filing racketeering charges against the diocese.
“This is a brand-new world where you have both state and federal authorities looking at the Franciscans and looking at the diocese, both, for allowing this to happen,” Wall said.
Father Pavlik said one of the most significant facts of the Pennsylvania grand-jury investigation to emerge thus far is that the TOR Franciscans had allowed their sex-abuse prevention accreditation to lapse.
Said Father Pavlik, “Why would you allow that to lapse, especially when you had people who had committed horrible crimes? You had people who were credibly accused. What were you thinking?
“You’ve got to ask the question: Why did they stop participating? I don’t know the answer to that question.”
The TOR Franciscans of the Province of the Immaculate Conception did not return a message seeking comment. In a March 15 statement, the province said it was “deeply saddened” to learn of the criminal charges.
“The province extends its most sincere apologies to the victims and to the communities who have been harmed,” the Franciscans said in the statement. The province also encouraged prayers “for healing and understanding and for all the priests and brothers who honor their vocations and the Church.”
If there is a weakness in the accrediting system, Father Pavlik said, it is that the accrediting agency, Texas-based Praesidium Inc., does not publicly report the religious institutes that have failed to be accredited or that have let their accreditation lapse.
“It seems to me that if there is a weakness somewhere in the system, it’s here,” Father Pavlik said. “If there is something that could be improved, it’d be some effort to know who isn’t accredited.”
Christy Schiller, vice president of religious services for Praesidium, told the Register that the TOR Franciscans of the Immaculate Conception Province were accredited in 2009. The accreditation lasted for three years, and the institute allowed the accreditation to lapse in 2012.
While Praesidium does not formally publish a list of institutes that are accredited or that have let their accreditations lapse, Schiller said the firm will provide that information to anyone who inquires.
“We’re happy to share that,” she said. “We can’t give any more details about the specifics of the institute because of the confidentiality clause in our contract. But a particular group’s status: That is information we’re willing to share.”
Many of the major religious orders in the United States are forthcoming if they have been accredited by Praesidium. On their websites, several orders post information about their accreditation. For example, the Society of Jesus says each province in the United States maintains Praesidium accreditation through periodic audits by independent auditors and ongoing training for each Jesuit to establish awareness, prevention and proper responses to allegations of sexual misconduct.
Christian Brother Timothy Coldwell, general councilor of the Institute of the Brothers of the Christian Schools, told the Register that the De La Salle Christian Brothers in the United States are also accredited by Praesidium.
“Meeting and complying to their standards of accreditation became our first and primary goal,” Brother Timothy said. “Every one of our districts (provinces) earned early accreditation, and each have maintained it to the present.”
In August 2002, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men unanimously approved the statement “Improving Pastoral Care and Accountability in Response to the Tragedy of Sexual Abuse.” That statement facilitated the framework for CMSM’s official response, which was entitled: “Instruments of Hope and Healing: Safeguarding Children and Young Adults.”
Father Pavlik said the religious orders’ leaders, including him, who gathered in August 2002, were “appalled” at the preponderance of evidence that pointed to priests and religious in the United States who had sexually abused minors over the course of several decades.
“We quickly formed relationships with some survivors,” Father Pavlik said. “When you listen to their stories, you actually become angry, upset and disturbed that people who were committed to doing good violated the innocence and goodness of vulnerable people.”
According to Praesidium, more than 130 religious institutes, representing 90% of order priests and brothers in the United States, have attained accreditation. The agency’s work has been presented to the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life at the Vatican.
While the vast majority of religious orders participate in the system, some observers point out that Church law does not compel the individual institutes to do so. Father Pavlik said he has personally appealed three times in the last five years to smaller institutes, which do not have the same financial resources as larger institutes, to become accredited. Father Pavlik said that is still no excuse for not seeking accreditation.
Said Father Pavlik, “From my point of view, you go out and creatively find a way to do this. This is the right thing to do. You have to stand with the rest of the Church.”
Praesidium’s “Standards for Accreditation” cover three main areas: prevention, response to abuse allegations and supervision of offenders. Prevention standards review how new members are screened, educational programs for initial and ongoing formation, systems of support and accountability and how the institute manages internal reports of potential boundary violations.
Responding standards review the institute’s response to reports of suspected abuse and the role of external review boards, while supervision standards review the management and supervision of a member who is known to have abused a minor.
Unlike U.S. dioceses, religious orders allow some members with substantiated allegations against them to remain in community, with restrictions — known as safety plans — that depend on the seriousness of the incidents and on their evaluations.
“We agreed to supervise those who were credibly accused. We set up stringent requirements for what the supervision amounts to, and every institute that agreed to do this for its members has to always be vigilant to make sure it is maintaining what it promised,” Father Pavlik said, adding that the religious orders also created an independent review board that annually reviews the safety plan. Praesidium evaluators visit the institutes to review the safety plans and speak with the supervisors and the members under supervision.
“Obviously, the people responsible have to be deeply committed to the concept that protecting children is an absolute good that cannot be compromised in any way,” Father Pavlik said. “They have to hold themselves accountable to what is required. If you do that, you will see that the statistics show we have an overwhelmingly high successful rate of preventing recidivism.”
Brother Timothy said a brother who has admitted to his offense or has had a credible accusation against him is allowed to live only in the community assigned by the provincial, or in another appropriate supervised place of residence where there is no unsupervised contact with minors or vulnerable adults.
“No separate apartment, private home or other domicile is allowed as a permanent residence for the brother offender,” said Brother Timothy, adding that communities that house a “high-risk” brother are visited by outside auditors at least once a year on an unannounced basis to ensure consistent implementation of safety-plan protocols.
“High-risk brothers will be evaluated on the basis of current empirical research,” Brother Timothy said. “The auditors will document the visits of outside auditors. Communities that are found to be out of compliance with the safety plan for a ‘high-risk’ brother will be re-visited within the next 30 days. It is understood that continued noncompliance with safety plans will result in the loss of accreditation.”
But the dynamics of living in a religious community, where one’s colleague one day can be his provincial in a few years, can cut both ways, said Terry McKiernan, of BishopAccountability.org, which tracks clergy sex abuse and bishops’ handling of those cases.
Said McKiernan, “The close-knit character of religious life, where you’re all living together in community, which of course goes back to St. Benedict and beyond, is really a distinctive and important feature of religious life. It’s also in some way a distinct disadvantage when it comes to the abuse crisis. It makes it harder for the provincial to say, ‘You’re my brother, but I have to hand you over to the police.’”
McKiernan and Wall both described a decades-long pattern where religious orders, in dealing with accused abusers, would transfer alleged perpetrators to different provinces as well as institutes in other countries where the orders were present. In his old monastery, Wall recalled seeing accused monks transferred to the Bahamas, Japan and Rome.
“With the modern religious orders, you will see the provincials change every six years,” Wall said. “What they’ll do is get [the accused religious] out of the zone of scandal, make a whole bunch of promises and never follow through on them.”
Like Wall, McKiernan believes the example of the Third Order Regular Franciscans will be a motivating factor for religious superiors moving forward to walk the straight and narrow on sex-abuse cases.
“Any provincial who has to make a decision about a priest, a monk or a brother is going to think about the Third Order Regular Franciscans,” McKiernan said. “They don’t want that to happen to them. I think it’s really going to change behavior.”
The first and primary lesson of the Third Order Regular Franciscans, Brother Timothy said, is self-scrutiny.
Said Brother Timothy, “Namely, we must continually ask ourselves, ‘Are we transparent in all that concerns our life as men and women who consecrate our lives to God for people, especially young people?’ The key lesson is that it is not enough to be accountable before God — we must be accountable to God’s people.”
Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.