Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What Catholics Should Do When Allegations of Abuse Are Made Against a Priest: Educational Resources

What's happening in Philadelphia is raising questions for Catholics in many places right now about how to deal with allegations that their parish priest or some other priest they esteem has engaged in sexual misconduct with minors.  For Catholics and others dealing with these questions, I'd like to point today to several resources that provide helpful information.

As Jeremy Roebuck reported recently at, because the Philadelphia archdiocese chose to remove priests credibly accused of abuse from parish ministry overnight following the grand jury report, and has refused to release any information about those removed from ministry, many parishioners are left with serious unanswered questions.  What happened?  Why did Fr. X. vanish overnight?  Who's making what accusations against him?

Roebuck reports that at St. Luke the Evangelist church in Glenside, Pennsylvania, where Msgr. Michael Flood was removed from ministry, a group seeking information has even held a parish meeting to pool information.  This group is led by a parishioner, William W. Matthews III, who believes in Flood's innocence.  At the meeting Matthews and his group hosted, Kathleen Reilly, the attorney working with a legal team hired by the archdiocese to defend Flood, attacked the credibility of Flood's accuser.

And so what do Catholics do when their parish priest or some other priest they know or perhaps admire is accused of sexual abuse of youth and removed from ministry?  The website of the group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) has a valuable outline of 21 steps Catholics should consider taking, as they respond to allegations about a priest they know.

Many of these recommendations are common-sense suggestions: don't leap to conclusions, keep an open mind, pray for everyone involved, let yourself feel what you feel.  Several call on Catholics to educate themselves about sexual abuse of minors (it's more common than many people realize), and about what being abused when one is a child does to one's self-esteem as an adult (many survivors of abuse struggle with depression, feelings of worthlessness, suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, etc.).  

As the SNAP guidelines note, the choice of some victims of childhood sexual abuse to shield their identity when they finally choose to come forward with their stories needs to be respected, and parishioners should not try to force the victim to become public.  They should also use the period following the removal of a priest from ministry to invite others, including family members, to disclose abuse they may have suffered as children, and, if they have or receive information bearing on the case of the priest currently being accused, should contact criminal authorities.

Catholics dealing with allegations of sexual abuse made about a priest they know or esteem can also, SNAP suggests, turn the pain they feel at hearing such allegations into action: they can choose to assist children who have suffered abuse and/or start educational initiatives in their parishes about sexual molestation of minors. SNAP also encourages parishioners dealing with allegations about a priest they know to ask their pastor to bring in therapists or experts in the field of childhood abuse to lead educational sessions in parishes.

As Zoe Ryan notes in National Catholic Reporter this week, the Philadelphia situation is also re-opening discussion of the phrase "credibly accused."  Though this term is widely used in media accounts about the abuse crisis in the Catholic church, it has no standardized meaning, and is used differently in varying contexts.  

Where some priests' groups are proposing that the term is so vague that it is meaningless and that innocent priests are being removed from ministry on the basis of insubstantial allegations, the Philadelphia grand jury faults the Philadelphia archdiocese for setting the bar for credible abuse so high that priests who appear almost certainly to have abused minors were permitted to remain in ministry.  Ryan notes that Fr. James Connell of the Milwaukee archdiocese, a canon lawyer and member of the diocesan review board, believes that, under the leadership of the current Milwaukee archbishop Jerome Listecki, who came to Milwaukee from La Cross, the diocese of La Crosse used a definition of credible abuse that amounts to "moral certitude" in handling allegations of clerical abuse of minors.

In Connell's view, this understanding of credible abuse has left abusive priests in ministry and placed youths at risk.  SNAP officials agree.  SNAP president Barbara Blaine maintains that the possibility of harm to children should weigh more heavily than anything else in situations where allegations are made against a priest, and he should be removed immediately from ministry when such allegations are made, and an investigation to determine his guilt or innocence should then be held.

As David Clohessy, SNAP's national director, also notes, given how power is allocated within the structures of the Catholic church--top-down, with all power in the hands of the clerical elite that governs the church--those making allegations of abuse are almost routinely subject to harassment by Catholic officials.  The inequitable distribution of power within Catholic governing structures facilitates abuse, Clohessy maintains, since the absolute power in the hands of those at the top of the governance pyramid positively invites abuse--and this explains why Catholic leaders have been almost entirely resistant to addressing the situation of clerical abuse of minors.

I recommend Zoe Ryan's analysis of the current discussion of the term "credibly accused" as another valuable educational resource for Catholics dealing with allegations of abuse against their pastor or other priests they know. 

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