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Anger at Church prevails despite changes
May 12th, 2010
By Patricia Zapor

WASHINGTON (CNS) – There is a distinctly different level of anger from the public directed toward the Catholic Church over the sexual abuse of minors than toward other organizations whose leaders commit similar crimes, noted two psychologists who work in the field.

And though newly revealed cases of abuse in the United States are less common than a few years ago, news about cases elsewhere has sparked a resurgence of anger in the United States as well.

“People are enraged by what they see as a coverup, by no high-ranking Catholic clergy being fired,” said Thomas Plante, a professor of psychology and director of the Spirituality and Health Institute at Santa Clara University in California.

Plante also is a member of the National Review Board for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a lay advisory group on the handling of sexual abuse within the church. “Any violation of children is a terrible thing,” he said, “but when it comes at the hands of those society puts on the highest pedestal, it’s also a hypocrisy issue.”

In 2002 amid dramatic reports from around the country of priests who sexually abused children and teens and were allowed to remain in ministries that kept them in proximity to minors, the bishops approved their “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” It spells out strict procedures for removing credibly accused abusers from ministry, for training children and all adults who work with them through the church to recognize and appropriately handle possible sexual abuse, and created diocesan and national mechanisms for monitoring compliance.

Since then, dioceses and religious orders have paid out hundreds of millions of dollars in settlements with victims, and the systems created in 2002 have helped ensure that new allegations of abuse are handled differently than in previous generations.

But a wave of revelations of abuse by clergy in the past few months has refreshed public frustration in the United States, even though most of the newly revealed incidents of abuse occurred in other countries and many stories have focused on the role of the Vatican. Some of the recent cases in the United States involved foreign-born priests who have proved difficult to hold accountable because they returned to their home countries.

Other reports in the news have focused on how the Vatican handled information about priests who were accused of abuse and the sometimes slow pace of efforts to laicize priests who were determined to have abused someone.

Nevertheless, the level of anger at the church in the United States has been high.

Plante told Catholic News Service in a phone interview that there’s a strain of anger at the institutional church that doesn’t directly relate to sexual abuse itself and has no parallel in how the public has reacted to other institutions where abuse has occurred.

“There are a lot of people who are very angry at the Catholic Church about all sorts of things, from the Crusades to how Galileo was treated, to the church’s positions on sexual ethics, divorce and women priests,” Plante said. “It’s like a fire hose, all that gets funneled into the clergy abuse thing.”

Msgr. Stephen Rossetti agrees that anti-institutional feelings are a factor behind the continuing anger at the church. Msgr. Rossetti is a clinical associate professor at The Catholic University of America and was president from 1996 to 2009 of St. Luke Institute, a treatment center in Maryland for priests and religious with addictions and psychological disorders.

In the United States, at least, “they’re focusing on the Catholic Church when it’s only a part of a broader epidemic,” he told CNS.

Scouts, schools, sports teams and other religious denominations all have had scandals as information is revealed about sexual abuse of minors by adults, but none has drawn the level of public furor that has been directed at the Catholic Church, both psychologists acknowledged.

Plante has written several pieces in the past few months on his blog on the Psychology Today website in which he clarified some of the popularly held beliefs about clergy sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Among them:

– Catholic clergy aren’t more likely to abuse children than other clergy or men in general, based upon a 2004 report conducted for the USCCB by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and other studies.

– Clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church can’t be blamed on celibacy, a male clergy or homosexuality. He noted that Catholic clergy are no more likely to be sex offenders than other clergy or men in general, so there is no correlation to celibacy or a male-only clergy.

– Almost all clergy sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church date back decades, before the current screening and training processes for clergy were in place.

“It fits into the Dan Brown story,” Plante said, referring to the novelist whose book, “The DaVinci Code,” laid out a fictional but massive conspiracy theory involving the church, which has caught on with some people’s imaginations about the real church. “People don’t realize that 96 percent of all priests have hurt no one.”

Msgr. Rossetti said that since statistically speaking most sexual abuse takes place within the family, “it’s shortsighted” that the news media and society in general focus primarily on the Catholic Church “but ignore the issue in the rest of society. ... We have not dealt with this problem throughout society.”

He said that although they’ve done much right in addressing the problem in the United States, leaders of the Catholic Church could be better at handling the ongoing frustration with the church.

“What the American bishops have done is excellent,” he said. “The Dallas charter is comprehensive. One of the most important things it does is focus on prevention.”

But it is a mistake to think that meeting once with hurting victims of abuse is adequate, according to Msgr. Rossetti. Not every victim wants repeat contact with someone representing the church, but for those who do, the chance to speak out and be heard is invaluable, he said.

“One apology is not enough,” he said. “We’ve got to do it again and again and again. It’s a long-standing hurt, which takes a long-standing healing process.”

From May 14, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.


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