How Religious Orders Contain Sexual Offenders in Their Ranks

Drawing on lessons learned from the clergy-abuse crisis, U.S. communities use safety plans and risk analysis to deal with the issue.

(photo: Shutterstock image)

CHICAGO — Last November, a Boston Globe story examined the Society of Jesus’ past failure to restrict the activities of a high-profile Jesuit with a string of complaints about his contact with boys.

According to papers filed in legal proceedings and cited by the Globe, Jesuit Father Donald McGuire repeatedly violated his superior’s order that he avoid traveling with minors and was ultimately convicted in federal court of sexually abusing two boys. He is now serving a 25-year sentence.

Much has changed since McGuire was convicted and laicized almost a decade ago. In the wake of the 2002 clergy-abuse crisis and the U.S. bishops’ approval of the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People," religious orders have also implemented zero-tolerance policies for members with substantiated accusations of child sexual abuse, and they have established safe-environment training and lay review boards.

But unlike U.S. dioceses, religious orders allow some members with substantiated allegations to remain in community, with restrictions — known as “safety plans” — based on the seriousness of the offense and on related evaluations. Offenders under supervision include a small number of men who have served prison time, and a larger group with substantiated allegations invovling events that occured in previous decades, and thus  have passed the time within which criminal prosecution can be brought. 

“Risk never goes away, from the true pedophiles, who are high risk, to the low-risk offender,” who has been removed because of a single incident, said Jesuit Father Gerard McGlone, the executive director of the Guest House Institute, a Michigan-based treatment center specializing in all forms of addictions for men and women who serve in the Catholic Church.

With more than a decade of experience on this issue, as an academic, therapist, treatment-facility director and author, Father McGlone has trained members of religious institutes and others to effectively supervise offenders.

“With risk, you need a safety plan that is measureable, that is updated and that is reviewed by external sources who monitor this,” said Father McGlone. 

The priest is among a group of experts on clergy sexual abuse who have traveled to Rome to share their professional knowledge and evolving insights on complex issues like recidivism rates for sexual offenders and risk-management issues related to religious priests and brothers who are under supervision.

A 2004 report on the U.S. clergy-abuse crisis that was commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that, between 1950 to 2002, 4.3% of diocesan priests and 2.5% of religious priests were accused of sexually abusing minors.


Drawing on U.S. Experience

Now, as Pope Francis moves to implement universal standards for removing clerical predators and protecting minors, the lessons learned by U.S.-based religious orders will help guide local Church practices in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America.

On Feb. 6-8, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston will convene the first full meeting of the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, which will formalize pastoral policies designed to remove clerical predators and protect minors.

While dioceses across the world will likely focus on adopting zero-tolerance policies for priests with substantiated allegations and setting up lay review boards, religious institutes will become familiar with safety plans and risk analysis.

“The question of remaining in the community with the safety plan is, of course, complex,” a Curial official with knowledge of the issue in the U.S., who did not want to use his name, told the Register.

“A careful study would also show… an evolution in practice based on experience,” the Curial official said. “On the most simple level, having one such person in the community can be difficult, but having several can prove to be impossible.”   

“Hopefully, such decisions are always made based on the safety of children, together with the ultimate spiritual salvation of the perpetrator,” he continued. “In other words, are children better off if this perpetrator is in a supervised setting, with a safety plan and support — as opposed to the alternatives outside the community?”


Monitoring Safety Plans

In the wake of the clergy-abuse crisis, U.S. religious superiors, lay review boards and the accrediting agency Praesidium developed individualized “safety plans” for offenders under supervision.

Capuchin Father John Pavlik, the executive director of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM) could not provide hard data on the number of offenders supervised by religious institutes, but he estimated that the number was in the hundreds.

Praesidium is respected for its expertise in child-protection policies for organizations that work with minors. In tandem with religious orders and the Holy See, it has developed 25 standards that must be met for a religious institute to be accredited.

The agency’s staff conduct audits that examine compliance with the basic norms and other policies that safeguard minors. The staff also makes unscheduled visits to confirm strict compliance with safety plans.

“The accrediting agency will visit each person on the supervisory plan, and they [the auditors] determine in their review that the religious institute is fulfilling what it has set out to do,” explained Father Pavlik.

The Conference for Major Superiors of Men holds an annual workshop to educate supervisors on issues like recidivism and risk management.

“This year, we dealt with the issue of boundary violations: What do you do when you see someone in a position of authority or trust, as a brother, and ... he walks to the boundary of what is acceptable?” said Father Pavlik.

“We discussed that, when you have a red flag, you go beyond yourself and take it to a review board and get outside advice.”

Workshop sessions also deal with risk analysis, he said, with a “formal scientific analysis of the likelihood of a person entering into any untoward relationships and activities.”

He said that when members of an order commit to supervising “a brother, it is something they do at a price. It demands day-to-day commitment.”

“You have to be sure you are providing sufficient care,” he added, even as “you want to show love and charity. It takes a toll on people who do this.”

But despite the considerable time, energy and expense devoted to supervising offenders, Father Pavlik said religious institutes are committed to the process.

“We have a great deal of individualism in American society, but those attracted to religious life recognize that fundamental to religious life is common witness and common life,” he said.

“Just like a marriage, common life takes work. You have to commit yourself to that.”


Risks Can Shift

Some safety plans require the religious order to tightly restrict movements, a supervisor must accompany the offender when he leaves the premises, and access to computers is barred. Low-risk offenders may be lightly supervised and work in offices or ministries that do not involve minors, like caring for elderly brothers.

Religious institutes have learned, sometimes the hard way, that the risk posed by an offender may shift, and an audit helps clarify matters.

“We often don’t see what we are doing is ineffective or effective until we have an external group come in and conduct an audit,” Father Pavlik said.

But when asked about the danger of recidivism — a commonly cited problem for some sexual offenders — Father McGlone emphasized the public and the Church are often misinformed about what types of offenders are likely to repeat their crimes.

“The first thing we have learned about this whole subject is that it is far more complicated than we ever imagined, and it demands constant vigilance, training and education,” he agreed.

“There are certain types of offenders who are serial offenders and predators, and we need to protect the Church and society from these high-risk offenders. But data also show that the majority of [clerical] offenders are not high-risk. The John Jay Report found that 56% have a single offence in their priestly life.”

According to a summary of the John Jay Report issued by the U.S. bishops’ news agency, “27% [of accused priests] had two or three victims. ... Slightly more than 3% of the accused priests had 10 or more victims, and these 149 priests accounted for abuse of 2,960 victims, representing almost 28% of the allegations.”

Father McGlone emphasized, “There is no one-size-fits-all [approach], and each case must be handled individually.”

Further, he noted that, while some religious offenders may choose to adhere to safety plans and have their behavior restricted for the remainder of their lives, some younger men may accept the option to leave [religious life] simply because they are so young.”

Some Catholics, including victims’ groups, argue that all clerical predators should be forcibly laicized, but Father McGlone suggested that the Church and society at large are often better served by arrangements that keep offenders under close watch.

“Most dioceses have said, 'We will not be in the business of monitoring [offenders]' and dismissed them,” he noted.

“Religious, by nature of who we are, see these men as our brothers, even if they have committed crimes. We are not only protecting the Church; we are protecting society.”


‘An Opportunity to Lead’

It is not yet clear how religious institutes in other lands might adopt such practices, as the Holy See moves to implement universal standards for removing clerical predators and protecting children.

But Father McGlone believes that U.S. religious orders have learned a great deal from their past failures and can contribute to the development of effective policies abroad.

“Worldwide attention has been brought to this issue,” said Father McGlone, “and this has given the Church an opportunity to lead on this as we never have before.”

Joan Frawley Desmond is the Register’s senior editor.