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Formber USCCB official discusses sexual abuse

John Cameron | Monday, January 21, 2013

After more than two decades of media scrutiny on the issue of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, Dr. Kathleen McChesney, former head of the Office of Child Protection at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, provided an assessment of the Church’s progress in a lecture Monday night.

The talk, entitled “Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: Where are We Now?,” was part of the Provost’s Distinguished Women’s Lecture series. McChesney offered an overview of the history of abuse in the Church, the Church’s responses and possible remedies going forward.

McChesney stressed while the involvement of clergy in abuse is reprehensible, the sexual abuse of minors is a major societal issue in the United States.

“This is not just a Catholic problem. Sexual abuse of children occurs in youth serving organizations, it occurs in public schools … it occurs in other faiths, other denominations,” she said. “Most important, child sex abuse occurs most often within families.”

Sexual abuse is grossly underreported, she said, with one in four women and one in six men having suffered attempted or actual abuse by adulthood.

The reluctance to report the abuse leaves the true number of incidents within the Church difficult to pin down. Church investigations have found at least 15,000 allegations with some merit, although some victims’ groups estimate the number to be as high as 100,000, she said.

“It doesn’t matter if this number is one,” she said. “The number exists and it’s a horrible aspect of our Church.”

While still a major concern, allegations have been on the decline in recent years, McChesney said.

“Since 2004, when new cases have been counted … 95 have been reported,” she said.

This number, down from an average of approximately 600 reports a year over the decades, is partly attributable to measures taken by the Church to prevent the abuse, McChesney said.

“There’s lots of programs in place, there’s been lots of training, there’s lots more screening,” she said.

While there is a vast range of circumstances in the cases, a study done by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found a few recurring characteristics, including a frequent lag in reporting the crimes for as long as 20 years and a vast diversity of misconduct ranging from attempted fondling to forced sexual intercourse, McChesney said. Most of the crimes occurred between 1960 and 1984, and victims were primarily boys between the ages of 11 and 14.

The number of reports of abuse deemed to have some merit between 1950 and 2011 identify approximately 6,000 clergy members as being involved, representing between four and five percent of clergy members over that period, she said.

The response of Church leaders in the early years was largely limited to three options. Firstly, many would attempt to settle the cases with families in some fashion, not necessarily involving the courts, she said. Many reported perpetrators were also sent to undergo treatment

The third measure, often criticized by the public, was to move the accused clergy member.

“After the offender came back from treatment, they would offer transfer him, which might have made some sense at the time, but ultimately they would put them back in the same environment,” she said.

One of the first substantial efforts was made by the Archdiocese of Chicago in 1992, when McChesney said leaders initiated educational programs, brought in lay professionals on staff and extended screening processes.

The major breakthrough came in 2002 with the release of a series of articles by The Boston Globe criticizing the procedure of “settle, treat and transfer,” used in hundreds of cases.

The Church soon released a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People,” which was in large part later made canon law. Since then, the Church has spent $169 million on prevention efforts, including a secondary John Jay College study on possible causes.

“In addition to wanting to know what the scope of the problem was, they also wanted to know why it happened,” she said. “The study did not find any particular psychoses, neuroses or any particular behavior characteristics that you could apply across the board.”

Moving forward, McChesney pointed to a few possible avenues for improvement.

“There’s a great need for more research into preventative methods and what’s working,” she said. “If you do more research in this area you can contribute not only to the Church but for society in general.”

McChesney also emphasized the need for continued outreach to victims and their families in an effort to help repair the damage done to the faith lives of those affected.

Ultimately, she said these efforts were crucial because of the importance of children to the Church and society.

“All this matters because children are a gift, God’s gift to all of us,” she said. “If we don’t, as adults, do everything we can to protect them … then shame on us. We’ve ruined the gift.”