One of the effects of the disturbing reports from Boston of minors who were abused by Catholic priests — some of them repeat offenders — has been to make Catholics nationwide wonder: How bad is this problem in my diocese? Last month the Archdiocese of Philadelphia publicly addressed these concerns, and in a way that may be helpful and instructive to others.

On Feb. 26, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua issued a statement condemning all sexual abuse, especially sexual abuse of minors by priests, and apologizing to the victims of such abuse. He also described the archdiocesan policy for responding to allegations of clerical sexual abuse and announced a new rule: No priest who has had sexual contact with a minor will receive an assignment to any ministry whatsoever.

The statement and texts of the Archdiocesan “Policy on Clergy Sexual Abuse” and “Procedure for Cases of Pedophilia/Ephebophilia” were published Feb. 28 in the Philadelphia arch-diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Standard and Times. (Read the statement online at http://www.archdiocese-phl.org/cs&t)

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Facing the Facts

Cardinal Bevilacqua's statement condemns the sexual abuse of minors in no uncertain terms as “a grave sin and a serious crime … a detestable violation of body and spirit.” The cardinal sorrowfully admits that there have been cases of sexual abuse of minors by some priests of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

Data released by the archdiocese indicates 35 credible instances of sexual abuse by its priests over the last 50 years. “Certainly,” said Cardinal Bevilacqua, “the main priority in addressing [such instances] is caring compassionately for the well-being and protection of the victims. In each case, the archdiocese has attempted to be as responsive as possible toward the victims by offering assistance with appropriate therapeutic counseling.”

“We are looking always to enhance the care of victims,” said the director of the archdiocesan office for communications, Catherine Rossi. “We recognize victims face a difficult healing process. It is important that we address their needs.”

Rossi noted that 2,154 diocesan priests have been in service since 1950. “That works out to about 1.6%,” she said. “Many of the 35 affected priests have since retired, died or left the priest-hood.” Rossi estimated that, in the 1980s and ’90s, about $200,000 was paid to victims from an archdiocesan insurance fund. She added that the past two decades have seen no repeat offenders.

In responding to accusations of clerical abuse, the archdiocese obeys Church and state law. Cardinal Bevilacqua emphasized: “We have not discouraged people from going to law-enforcement or civil authorities with allegations. It has, in fact, been our preference that civil authorities investigate these matters.”

The archdiocese refuses media requests for the names of perpetrators or their victims. “We have remained sensitive to the wishes of the victims and their families for confidentiality,” Cardinal Bevilacqua explained. While acknowledging that clerical sexual abuse is a “reprehensible breach of trust,” the cardinal recalled the Church's “responsibility to care for the priest perpetrator himself.” Just as one would continue to care for a family member who exhibited deviant behavior, the Church demonstrates Christ's justice and also his compassion to her clergy who have fallen.

Cardinal Bevilacqua emphasized that ‘all of us must be vigilant to protect young people from abuse’ — and praised ‘the overwhelming majority of dedicated priests who serve the Lord faithfully.’

The archdiocesan “Policy on Clergy Sexual Abuse” denounces such criminal misconduct, yet recognizes that, pending investigation, all persons accused of alleged clerical sexual abuse must be protected. In 1993, existing procedures were elaborated in written form to ensure that allegations would be handled expediently. The policy has been revised periodically to reflect developments in Church and state law, and to take into account recent medical findings about sexual disorders.

The archdiocesan policy, written in non-technical language, is widely available. A telephone number and mailing address are given for anyone who intends to contact the archdiocese about a claim of clerical sexual abuse.

“The archdiocese treats all complaints as serious,” the policy states. Anonymous or vague allegations are usually impossible to investigate. The archdiocese complies with the reporting requirements of Pennsylvania law. “Decisions regarding any public statement must be made on a case-by-case basis,” it adds.

Upon receiving a complaint, the archbishop appoints a delegate (normally the secretary for the clergy) to investigate promptly. First, the one making the complaint has the opportunity to speak to the delegate in person. Then the accused cleric is informed of the complaint and meets with the delegate to discuss it. An assistant accompanies the delegate during interviews.

The investigation may develop in one of several ways. If the accused cleric admits to wrongdoing, “he is immediately referred for clinical evaluation,” according to the policy. “He is also removed from his ministry.”

Whenever the complaint is credible, appropriate pastoral care and other assistance (which may include professional treatment) is provided for the victims. If the complaint initially appears to be credible but there is no admission of wrongdoing, the cleric is referred for psychological evaluation, partly for his own protection. He may be placed on administrative leave.

If a cleric is removed from his assignment, the appropriate person(s) from the affected ministry may be informed of the reason, so as to respond to the pastoral needs of the community. If the complaint proves to be unfounded, the cleric will receive counseling and assistance; if on leave, he will be returned to ministry.

“If the complaint is founded … the Delegate will meet with the alleged victim and/or her or his family to offer financial assistance with the services of a qualified … counselor,” states the policy. “The cleric is financially responsible for counseling for the victim and her or his family.” The archdiocese guarantees that counseling is not denied because of the cleric's inability to pay.

The delegate then arranges for therapy for the cleric, informs him of his right to have a canon lawyer and recommends that he obtain legal counsel at his own expense.

The archdiocesan “Procedure for Cases of Pedophilia” clearly states that “The diocese cooperates fully with civil authorities as indicated by local law.”

Forward-Looking

The Philadelphia archdiocese's policy on clergy sexual abuse was recently modified to eliminate the possibility of “desk jobs” for priests who have had sexual contact with a minor. Six diocesan priests were dismissed under this revised policy. “Consequently,” said Cardinal Bevilacqua in his Feb. 26 statement, “I do not know of any priest who has had sexual contact with a minor who is in a current assignment.”

The Philadelphia ordinary mentioned other safeguards: the screening process for seminary applicants, which includes psychological testing and criminal background checks; the formation program, which focuses also on the human and sexual development of candidates for priesthood; and ongoing clergy-education programs.

Cardinal Bevilacqua praised “the overwhelming majority of dedicated priests who serve the Lord faithfully,” and defended the Catholic clergy against the baseless charge that sexual abuse is endemic in their ranks. He emphasized that “all of us must be vigilant to protect young people from abuse.”

He noted that, for many years, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia has had appropriate policies governing employees of its schools and of the Catholic Social Services network.

In concluding his statement, Cardinal Bevilacqua asked the faithful of his archdiocese to join him in praying especially for the victims of clergy sex abuse and their families. He also requested prayers for priests, even those who have caused such harm. “I pray that God's forgiveness will renew us, that his grace will sustain us and that, together, we may work to make present the love, healing and truth of our merciful God.”

Michael J. Miller writes from Glenside, Pennsylvania.