CHURCH SCANDAL Mass Addresses Catholic Scandal By Amanda McGrath Hoya Staff Writer
Prompted by the numerous allegations of sexual abuse by Catholic priests that have become the center of a national controversy, Georgetown celebrated a Mass of healing in honor of the victims and perpetrators of abuse in Dahlgren Chapel yesterday. The Mass was followed by a discussion of the scandal that has rocked the church with members of the Georgetown community and Rev. Stephen Rossetti, a clinical psychologist and president of the Saint Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md.
“We planned this event to shed light on the truth,” University Chaplain Rev. Adam Bunnell, OMF, Conv., said. In the homily, Bunnell expressed the need for compassion for both victims and perpetrators. He said healing for members of the church would only come “when we understand how much our suffering has made us afraid, how our sinfulness has buried us.”
Following the Mass, Rossetti spoke to a small group of students, Jesuits, media representatives and others about the implications of the controversy. He called the surfacing of information about sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests and the subsequent “shuffling” of abusive clergy members to other parishes by the archdioceses a “tragedy” for the church.
The St. Luke Institute, of which he is president and chief executive officer, aims to address a range of psychological and spiritual problems such as depression, personality disorders, compulsive behaviors, sexual problems and boundary violations. Rossetti was also a member of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops’ think tank on child sexual abuse and is a founding board member of the Saint John’s University Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute.
Rossetti and others said the media was at fault for misrepresenting the situation, adding tha continuing heavy press coverage has led to a distortion of the issue of child abuse, a problem he called an “epidemic.”
“Yes, this problem exists in the church. Is it unique to the priesthood? The answer is clearly no,” Rossetti said, citing statistics that say one in six females and one in eight males are abused as children. He said studies had shown that two thirds of abusive priests were abused themselves at some point in their lives – statistics that Rossetti said mirror those of society as a whole.
“Instead of making demons of these people, what we should do and must do is break the cycle of abuse,” Rossetti, who advocated rehabilitation of abusers through programs like those offered at St. Luke’s, said. “The best instrument we have is a trained clinical psychologist,” he said, noting that there is now a high level of screening in seminaries. Rossetti maintains that abusers can be rehabilitated and released back into the church to work in “supervised positions.” Studies of the relapse rate for rehabilitated individuals conducted one to three years after their treatment, Rossetti said, was under three percent in follow-up.
Georgetown theology professor Rev. Thomas King, S.J. said the focus on abuse within the church was the result of the moral standard the clergy is intended to represent, as well as the visible stance the church takes on moral issues such as homosexuality and abortion. “[By speaking out on these issues], the church makes itself very vulnerable to critique,” King said. He noted that the topic has swamped newspaper headlines on front pages across the country on a regular basis in past months, which put undue focus and criticism on the Catholic church instead of the issue of child abuse as a whole.
Bunnell said he felt the media was dealing with the issue fairly. “I wouldn’t say [the media coverage] is sensational, but that the issue is senational of its own nature,” he said.
King criticized the media, however, for focusing their articles on the Catholic faith while giving minimal coverage to child abuse by members of other religions or secular institutions.
The Catholic priest scandals, however, have become the most prominent example of sexual abuse in today’s press, garnering front-page stories in nearly every major newspaper. In D.C., the Rev. Russell Dillard was suspended from his role as a priest in arch following accusations of sexual misconduct that occurred nearly 18 years ago. Many Catholic groups, politicians and laypeople are calling for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law of the archdiocese of Boston. Criticism of Law has skyrocketed with the news that he was aware of rampant sexual abuse within the church but turned a blind eye by moving abusers to new parishes. The Rev. John Geoghan of Massachusetts stands accused of abusing about 130 children over the course of several decades. The archdiocese is said to have known of the abuse, but responded only by transferring the priest to one parish after another, without informing the communities or the authorities of Geoghan’s abuses, according to the Boston Globe, which has covered the situation extensively for the past few months.
Rossetti called the Geoghan case, which is still being tried in assachusetts courts, an extreme one. Both he and King said that Law’s attempts to sweep the abuse under the rug are unfathomable. “I just can’t understand,” King said. “I understand that he wouldn’t want it reported to the media, but why not tell the bishop? Why not the neighbors? I try to make sense of it and I just can’t.”
King said the issue of child abuse has been routinely ignored throughout history. When Sigmund Freud spoke out about his findings on the effects of sexual abuse, King said he was “scorned by his colleagues. Thus, he is also guilty of a cover-up because he dropped the subject.”
Bunnell said the issue had become a common topic of conversation among Jesuits on campus. “Obviously this paints us all in a bad light,” Bunnell said.
Rossetti said it was important to realize that abusive priests constitute only a small percentage of the Catholic clergy. Kirk Syme (MSB ’04), a Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization, said that it was important to look at the controversy with the appropriate perspective. “We are extremely fortunate to live in a community that is a witness to the truth about the integrity of the priesthood. While we respect the grievances of those who may have been abused, I think we realize the importance of putting these incidents in the appropriate context so as not to overlook the dignity through which our priests have served the Georgetown community,” Syme said.
The publicity gained by the scandal in recent months has focused the national spotlight on perpetrators and victims.
Rossetti said the attention could make some victims feel ashamed of an event that was not within their control. “It is important that within the glare of the media, the victims of child abuse understand that they are not `damaged goods,'” he said.
The church has also come under criticism for imposing a double standard for members of the clergy by not reporting incidents of abuse. Rossetti contended that this was not entirely the fault of the church, saying that many victims were reluctant to publicize their stories.
He also said that because the clergy is required to maintain a high level of confidentiality, they cannot report cases of child abuse that are not discovered until years later. “If the victim is no longer a minor, the laws for reporting [child abuse] no longer apply,” Rossetti said. At that point, he said, priests and clergy members can do little more than provide victims with phone numbers and encourage them to report their case to the proper authorities.
In the search for a way to mend the church and prevent future abuse, a variety of solutions have been introduced, including calls to end celibacy or ban homosexuals from the priesthood. Rossetti called these proposals “red herrings.”
“We should be very careful when dealing with emotional issues not to single out one group and say, `They are bad people.’ This is a simple response to a complex situation,” Rossetti said. He refuted the idea that celibacy induces sexual frustration that drives priests to abuse minors. He also said homosexual men and women had contributed greatly to the church in the past and, in his opinion, they should continue to be allowed to serve within the appropriate positions.
The controversy, however, affects more than just perpetrators and victims. The scandal has shaken the faith of believers. According to King, however, while the scandal may have turned away any Catholics who were “on the fence” about their faith, many others are standing behind their religion. He said there are many faithful who consider the scandal a crime that blemishes their church and are using it as motivation to eliminate negative elements and make improvements.
“To us, `scandal’ means to hurt someone’s faith,” Rossetti said. To fix this, “a big shift, I think, needs to take place within the church,” he said, calling on church leaders to communicate more effectively with law enforcement, laypeople and the media to establish a greater network of trust.
Though these are difficult times for members of the church, “Perhaps this time of public humiliation will do something to make the horror come to an end,” King said.
The Mass and subsequent dialogue were intended to provide a forum of discussion for the volatile issue. “As an educational institution, the university can facilitate dialogue and discussion about the topic in order to help members of our community understand the many issues associated with the current debate, which is what today’s event hosted by Campus Ministry was all about,” Vice President for Communications Julie Green Bataille said. Bunnell said more events might be planned in the future.
“It’s hard to know on a busy campus how much people are talking about this,” Bunnell said at the conclusion of the discussion. “If there is an interest expressed, we will plan more events of this nature.”