Abuse Progress: Board Winning Uphill Battle

WASHINGTON — After three years, members of the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People are used to seeing their efforts misunderstood. When the board meets with U.S. bishops at their annual meeting, it will try to set the record straight.

The past three months are a typical example. In September, a spate of stories hit the media about the Vatican's investigation of seminaries, quoting some people's complaints that the investigation was too focused on homosexuals. Then, in October, grisly stories of homosexual predators in the priesthood made headlines — a multiple-murder/suicide in Wisconsin and an Army chaplain's sentencing to five years in prison.

But these incidents didn't spark a spate of stories vindicating Vatican concerns about predatory homosexuals in the priesthood. The media failed to put two and two together.

The National Review Board was scheduled to make just that point to bishops this week in Washington, however. The board was also to hear from someone who works in the field of restorative justice on how that has been used to bring healing between abusers and victims, and from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York about the work they've done studying sex abuse.

“We are all anxious to further understand the data that they collected,” said National Review Board member Jane Chiles, who is director of a public relations firm in Lexington, Ky.

After an exhaustive review of sex abuse in the priesthood, among the John Jay study's findings was the revelation that the majority of sexual abuse by clergy took place during the 1960s and ’70s, with 81% of the victims being males between the ages of 11 and 17.

Board member Dr. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins Hospital, described that finding as “remarkable.”

“I'm amazed that this fundamental bombshell has not been the subject of greater interest and discussion,” he told the Register. “I'm astonished that people throughout America are not talking about it, thinking about it, and wondering about what the mechanisms were that set this alight.

“If you collect all of the seminary graduates between 1970 and 1973, 10-11% of them abused children,” said McHugh. “That's an amazing fact. This behavior was homosexual predation on American Catholic youth, yet it's not being discussed.”

Three Years Later

More than three years have passed since the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted the Dallas Charter and created the National Review Board. The bishops’ conference meets this week, and the Review Board was to have met Nov. 10-12 — both in Washington, D.C.

A joint meeting between the two entities also was planned. The U.S. bishops’ permanent Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People was to meet with the Review Board Nov.10-12 to assess the recommendations the board made three years ago and to move forward with the board's next assignment: choosing a research organization to conduct an in-depth study looking into the causes and context of the abuse crisis.

The board first came together “in the midst of great crisis and turmoil,” said William Burleigh, recently retired chairman of media giant E.W. Scripps Co. He served on the National Review Board until 2004. “In spite of the various sideshows and the mistrust that some bishops had for the board, there was a sense of clarification. While all the sideshows were going on, we were doing the work that culminated in the [John Jay] report.”

Those “sideshows” would include former National Review Board Chairman Frank Keating's remark comparing some bishops to the Mafia, and former board member Pamela Hayes’ resignation after her admission in the Register that she was proud of her record of promoting abortion rights.

The board's accomplishments included overseeing the creation and the work of the Office of Child and Youth Protection, the 2004 John Jay College of Criminal Justice study, “Nature and Scope of the Problem of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States, 1950-2002,” and a list of 25 recommendations for the bishops.

Among the board's recommendations was the need for ongoing diocesan audits, an examination of seminaries’ screening processes, training and formation, greater financial transparency, improved interaction with civil authorities, and greater cooperation with the laity.

Overall, board members feel confident that the recommendations have been taken seriously.

“The recommendations are being thought through and worked through in the Church,” said McHugh. “The Church said it was going to be transparent, and it has been so far.”

“I certainly am pleased to see that the Apostolic Visitation of the seminaries is being undertaken with such apparent seriousness,” said Burleigh, referring to a Vatican-ordered inspection of U.S. seminaries that began this fall. “During our deliberations we heard that the previous visitation had taken care of the problems that led to the abuse. We certainly didn't think that was the case. We were hearing too much about problems that still lingered.”

‘Epidemic’ Is Over

Still, Burleigh believes greater attention ought to be paid to some of the recommendations.

“The process of choosing bishops should involve greater lay consultation,” said Burleigh. “Lay people have insight into diocesan needs that the nuncio and that process may not be able to find.”

The board had expected this week to be updated on the progress made on the recommendations.

“We've asked our new director to look at the recommendations and give us a status report on that,” said Jane Chiles, a current member and director of a public relations firm in Lexington, Ky.

In addition to Chiles and McHugh, the board consists of Chairwoman Patricia O’Donnell Ewers, Dr. Michael Bland, Thomas DeStefano, Dr. Angelo Giardino, Ralph Lancaster Jr., Judge Petra Jimenez Maes, William McGarry, Judge Michael Merz, Dr. Joseph Rhode, Joseph Russoniello and Milann Siegfried.

McHugh said the evidence shows that the “epidemic” of clerical sex abuse is one that came and went. He cited three resources that identify the surge.

“First, The New York Times’ Lexis-Nexis search noticed that all of the cases came up from the 1960s and came down after the 1990s,” he said. The Times, using the media and legal database service Lexis-Nexis, found that all the cases stemmed from the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s and declined in the 1990s.

“Second, we found the same evidence in every diocese in America,” McHugh continued. “Third, since 2002, we have had annual reports of what happened. Every one of them shows the same thing. They are building the size of the surge, but it's the same shape.”

McHugh added that one of the study's limitations is that while it is comprehensive, there is nothing to compare it with. Similar studies do not exist of abuse of students by teachers, or of patients by physicians.

“The Church is catching hell about it even though they are the ones who have been the brave pilgrims to have opened the doors,” said McHugh. “We have nothing like this study in the doctor world, even though voluntary questionnaires done in 1990 show that 6.5% of physicians had sexually abused their patients.”

The next step for the National Review Board is choosing a research organization to complete the “Causes and Context” study. That study will attempt to identify the causes of abuse and the circumstances surrounding the crisis from which measures can be taken to prevent future offenses.

“It will look at host, agent and environment,” said McHugh. “This is a public health matter, not just a Church matter.”

A request for grant proposals was released a year ago. Board chairwoman Patricia Ewers said that the Review Board has made its selection, but could not reveal its decision until the bishops had been notified.

According to an unamed source, the Review Board will again use john Jay for the Causes and Context Study.

“At the U.S. bishops’ conference in June, they voted on a $1 million commitment to fund the Causes and Context study,” said Ewers, chairwoman of the Review Board. “What hasn't been resolved is the final cost of the project, and the sources of the funding beyond the $1 million.”

The Review Board, and the bishops’ conference, will take that up at their November meeting.

“The Causes and Context study is the biggest thing on their plate,” said Burleigh. “It will be expensive and will take two to three years to complete, but it will drill down deep into the questions raised by the John Jay statistical study.”

“We are in this for the long haul,” said Chiles, whose term on the board expires in 2007. “This problem took many years to evolve, as will the solution.”

Tim Drake is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.