Why Not All Priests Should Be Treated Equally

One psychologist who has worked with both victims and abusers sees problems with the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s new policies. Reaction to a scathing grand jury report.

Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia placed 21 priests on administrative leave from their clerical assignments March 7 as the Philadelphia Archdiocese continues to investigate allegations of clerical sexual abuse. Cardinal Rigali is pictured during the Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington earlier this year.
Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia placed 21 priests on administrative leave from their clerical assignments March 7 as the Philadelphia Archdiocese continues to investigate allegations of clerical sexual abuse. Cardinal Rigali is pictured during the Vigil for Life at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington earlier this year. (photo: CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

PHILADELPHIA — Cardinal Justin Rigali ordered the suspension of 26 priests following a grand jury report that criticized the Archdiocese of Philadelphia for allowing priests with “credible” allegations of abuse to remain in active ministry.

Peter Kleponis and Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons, mental-health experts with extensive clinical experience in the evaluation of priests “rightly” and “falsely” accused of sexual abuse, protested the mass suspension.

Kleponis holds a Ph.D. in psychology and has extensive experience with both victims and perpetrators of clergy sex abuse. He outlined his and Fitzgibbons’ concerns with Joan Frawley Desmond, senior editor of the Register.

The Archdiocese of Philadelphia has stated that it will not comment on the cases addressed in the grand jury report until an investigation has been completed. In an April 2011 bulletin, the archdiocese stated: “Cardinal Rigali has placed a number of priests on administrative leave over the last several weeks following the recommendations of Mrs. Gina Maisto Smith, a former child abuse prosecutor hired to assist the archdiocese in responding to the grand jury report. These administrative leaves are interim measures pending a fuller investigation of each case. They are neither judgments nor final determinations.”

A grand jury report released earlier this year charged that the Archdiocese of Philadelphia allowed “dangerous” priests who had been credibly accused of abuse allegations to remain in ministry. You and your colleague, Richard Fitzgibbons, have publicly criticized the unprecedented suspension of 26 priests, after several priests had been removed in the immediate wake of the grand jury report.

The recent events in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia have raised more questions than provided answers. The 21 priests who were placed on administrative leave were thoroughly investigated and cleared of all charges. What’s sad is that instead of standing up for these priests and defending them, Cardinal Rigali simply handed them over to the investigator.

Many of the men who were placed on administrative leave were accused of boundary violations, not sexual abuse. However, because they were lumped together with those who were accused of sexual abuse, the public automatically assumes that these men are also accused of sexual crimes.

Boundary violations are defined as “transgressing the physical, emotional, or sexual limits of a trusted relationship.”  While this is the Church’s official definition, it can be misinterpreted as sexual abuse.  Transgressing sexual limits could be simply hugging a child or kissing a child on the forehead.  These are clearly not examples of sexual abuse. Thus, boundary violations need to be more clearly explained to the public.

These innocent men have had their reputations severely damaged. They have yet to be given the opportunity to speak out publicly to try to clear their names.

When the clergy abuse crisis exploded in 2002, Church officials acknowledged they had received bad advice from mental-health professional who once believed that pedophiles could be effectively treated. What do experts know that they didn’t know in the 1980s?

For true pedophiles, victims may be male or female, and all are under the age of 12. Back in the 1980s, it was believed that these people could be treated and reformed. Many Catholic psychiatric hospitals tried to do this. After an extended in-patient treatment program, they were thought to be “cured” and returned to ministry.

Unfortunately, many of these individuals continued to prey upon small children. Today, we know there is no known cure for pedophilia. True pedophile priests are immediately removed from ministry, convicted of their crimes and laicized.

As noted in the first John Jay Report [The John Jay College of Criminal Justice was commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to evaluate data based on surveys completed by the Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States] issued in 2004, some perpetrators were having homosexual relationships with adult men while preying on minors. Because this was not “politically correct,” a subsequent report was issued to take the spotlight off of the homosexual issue; however, one cannot argue with the data.

I don’t want the Church to go on a “witch hunt” for homosexuals among the clergy, but the Church needs to do a better job of identifying homosexual men before they enter the seminary. While having same-sex attractions should not disqualify a man from seeking holy orders, it should be determined whether the attractions are deep-seated or transitory. A man with deep-seated same-sex attractions identifies himself as a “gay man” and sees nothing wrong with homosexual activity. This type of man is more likely to present a risk.

On the other hand, a man with transitory same-sex attractions does not identify himself as a “gay man.” He identifies himself as a “man who struggles with same-sex attractions.” He does not want to be gay and wants to live a healthy, chaste, celibate life. We have worked with many men in this state, and they have gone on to be healthy priests.

You have criticized the bishops’ “zero tolerance” policy. Isn’t zero tolerance the only way to protect the vulnerable and the Church at the same time?

We believe the Church should have zero tolerance for anyone who commits a crime. However, many of the accusations against priests are false. When a “credible” accusation is made against a priest, in many dioceses, he is immediately removed from ministry and must work to prove his innocence. Thus, he is “guilty until proven innocent.”

When teachers, coaches, physicians, etc. are accused, they are not immediately removed from their professions — and in the case of Philadelphia, their homes.

What should the Church do now to reform some of its own reforms implemented in 2002?

The U.S. bishops should be commended for their efforts in creating the Dallas Charter. Their sincere goal was to protect minors from harm, bring swift justice to perpetrators of crimes, and provide healing to those who were harmed by sexual abuse.

However, they did not adequately address how to handle false accusations against priests and how to protect the civil and canonical rights of all priests accused.

While the charter gives bishops the right to immediately remove priests from ministry, it does not provide priests with an appeal process to clear their names and return to ministry.

They must appeal to Rome for this, a process that can take up to two years.

The Dallas Charter also did not acknowledge that the main perpetrators of crimes were homosexual priests. Because of this, too many priests are being misdiagnosed as pedophiles or ephebophiles [adult persons whose sexual preference is for mid-to-late adolescents, generally ages 15 to 19].

The charter also did not adequately distinguish between priests who were accused of sexual abuse and those who simply violated boundaries.

All of these issues need to be addressed in order for the Dallas Charter to effectively protect all who are involved in a sexual-abuse case.

Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.


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