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Attorneys, author, bishop weigh in on how to prevent sex abuse by clergy

Attorneys, author, bishop weigh in on how to prevent sex abuse by clergy

Helena Diocese

The Diocese of Helena, whose offices are located next to the Cathedral of St. Helena.

Some say preventing future sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic clergy may depend on ending the requirement for celibacy and allowing women into the priesthood.

But if that’s not likely to happen any time soon, then strict screening and psychological testing of those seeking ordination might be the best way to prevent future crimes by clergy against children.

These differing perspectives come in the wake of confirmation by the bankruptcy court of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in March that settled a Chapter 11 bankruptcy and reorganization plan for the Diocese of Helena.

The judge approved a nearly $21 million plan to compensate the roughly 380 people who said they were sexually abused by Catholic priests and the Ursuline Sisters.

The bankruptcy court’s action comes after claims against the diocese were filed in 2011 by those who said they had been sexually abused.

The Associated Press reported in March 2015 that the majority of allegations were against Jesuit priests at the Ursuline Academy and the St. Ignatius Mission in St. Ignatius.

The abuses ranged from rape and fondling to perpetrators taking sexual photographs of children, which began in the 1930s and continued through the 1970s, according to court documents cited by The Associated Press.

Attorneys for victims and an outspoken former priest offered little optimism for ending child sexual abuse by clergy without changes in the priesthood.

“As soon as they get good priests in there, the problem will change. When you get rid of the celibacy requirement and allow priests who can be married, have families of their own, you’re going to see a lot less child sexual abuse,” said Craig Vernon, who with Lee James, represented some 270 people in the bankruptcy and reorganization plan.

“And I think that’s probably what the membership would like to see, but you’re speaking to a non-Catholic,” Vernon said.

James shared that assessment and said, “In the larger picture, I think what would be most persuasive is to see changes, fundamental changes in the church, that are designed to help assure that child-sexual abuse along with other problems don’t occur in the future.”

In addition to allowing priests to marry and ordaining women, James said lay people need to be put in positions of power over priests.

“Because, after all, for centuries clergy has had an exclusive lock on power in the Catholic Church over lay people,” he continued.

“And what our cases illustrate is they blew it. They used that power in ways that were wrong and inappropriate, not only the abuse itself but generally speaking, when you find these cases it’s cover-up, it’s abuse of power,” James added.

Diocese of Helena Bishop George Leo Thomas doesn’t dodge the accusation and said, “I think the Catholic Church did blow it. But we’re not alone in that. It’s no consolation. That’s why back in late ’80s and ’90s I was adamant in the archdiocese of Seattle and here that this culture of privilege and secrecy and internal governance is a big mistake and why the community has to absolutely be involved in this kind of oversight.”

When the diocese in Seattle faced claims of sexual abuse, it turned to the community, Thomas said, and created a committee that tapped the county prosecutor’s office, mental health professionals, parents, law enforcement and those involved in social work to help lead it through the crisis.

Thomas said he relied on those experiences when he was assigned to the Diocese of Helena in 2004.

“We have a review committee in our own diocese here that helps to guide any decisions that I make. Part of it is directed toward policies. I want to make sure that our policies are very consistent with civil and criminal law.”

“It’s a high level group and they ask very poignant questions of me, and our commitment obviously is to ensure that we do very careful screening and evaluation of seminarian candidates, that we require psychological testing of anybody that’s in seminary candidacy. People that are in any kind of ministry, volunteer or otherwise, we do background checks and fingerprinting,” Thomas said.

“If I get any kind of a complaint involving violation with a minor then our first contact is law enforcement.”

Training to avoid trouble

A.W. Richard Sipe, 83, comes from a devoutly Catholic family, according to his website biography. He’s also the author of several books, the most recent is “Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012.”

He spent 18 years as a Benedictine monk and a Catholic priest where he was trained to deal with the mental health problems of priests, his biography noted.

Sipe said he also taught in seminaries from 1967 to 1996.

“The bishops have put out a lot of different words and documents about (sexual abuse). And in a sense the documents in themselves are positive and some of the steps they take are positive in terms of being more careful about who they hire, being more sensitive to victims and victims’ claims,” he said.

“However, basically nothing has changed in the education of clergy that I know of that would change the propensity of priests to abuse.”

The education of those priests, Sipe continued, “has not changed at all.”

Among Catholic priests, 6 percent did get involved sexually with minors, he said of his research.

“The problem can no longer be denied,” Sipe said. “The problem has not gone away. And the problem will not go away because of the system.”

A lack of training in sexual abuse prevention would have been the case in prior decades at seminaries, Thomas said, but the men that the diocese has at four different seminaries do receive training to avoid risk and sexual abuse.

“Also when they come into the diocese, I require the recertification, participation recertification, in Virtus training even though they’ve been through it in the seminary. … For everbody. I’m doing everything humanly possible,” Thomas said.

Sexual abuse, Thomas said, "it’s a societal problem. It’s endemic. It has to be recognized as a societal issue, not a Catholic Church issue.”

“Our numbers are sadly, any abuse by a clergy person is deeply damaging, there’s no question and the violation of trust is terrible. But our numbers are sadly no different than the rest of American society, probably 4 percent over a 50-year period. One case is too many, but the profile sadly is the same with other white American males.”

Challenging the system

Sipe takes aim at the system in the Catholic Church that produces priests and asked, “What is it in the system that allows, that educates the choosers that produces men who have a propensity for sex with minors?”

He offers his opinion.

“The church favors men who are psycho-sexually immature. That is, they are men who have adolescent idealism, who have enthusiasm, who have that willingness to identify with the system or with authority,” Sipe said.

“In some ways they’re much like young recruits going into war. These men who are invincible, who have no responsibility, who are taken care of and the church fosters them.

“Of course if you move up in the system, you can only exist if you have certain sociopathic tendencies, that is that your conscious is not developed as an individual, responsible conscious. It is the conscious of the system that takes over.

“And don’t forget that priests have responsibility or have control, so to speak, over sin. They are the ones that forgive sin and define sin. And so they’re given all this power and at the same time they’re faced with this internal problem of priests sexually acting out,” Sipe said.

Thomas has a different view of how to govern a diocese and select those who are ordained here.

“The seminarians we having coming forward in the Diocese of Helena are a bit older, these are all post-college graduates,” he said.

“I take very seriously the screening, the psychological testing, the formation reports, family history. I know each of the seminarian candidates individually and very well by the time they’re ready for ordination. It’s a very lengthy process. It’s five or six years post-college through the seminary process.”

“So I am a little tougher in that world than maybe many bishops. I’m not into the numbers game, I’m into the quality,” he said.

“I depend very heavily on the style of collaborative leadership where the laity, women and men, work hand-in-hand with me in the overall direction of this diocese.

“So there’s a real sense of collegiality, open governance, transparency. I think the thing that Sipe is referencing is the old system of clericalism, which is based on entitlement and clerical privilege.

“I mention secrecy, wink and nod in terms of prosecuting these cases, sometimes collusion with police agencies in yesteryear. And that is a recipe for disaster,” the bishop said.

“The crisis in the Diocese of Helena, even though the cases are decades old, has also been highlighted by the crisis on the national front and on the international front,” Thomas said.

“All I do is say in my own shop, the Diocese of Helena, is we’re working very hard to assure the laity that we’re doing everything humanly possible to prevent further abuse and to insure a healthy, balanced atmosphere for the kids.

“So we’ve got a credibility issue that’s going to take a long time to mend.”

And while the nonmonetary provisions of the diocese's bankruptcy settlement and reorganization plan required listing the name of all alleged perpetrators, Thomas said he didn't seek to differentiate between those accused and credibly accused.

“The only way to regain credibility is through transparency and truth telling,” Thomas said.

Considering Sipe’s criticism, Thomas suggested there is a greater threat to the Catholic Church.

“I think that the bigger danger is the culture of secrecy and clericalism. I think if you want to look at a system where there has been dis-ease, it’s the clericalism culture. It is closed. It’s hermetically sealed. Those are really big problems,” Thomas said.

“I think having the active involvement of the laity in the wider community, law enforcement, the social-work community, to me that’s the corrective -- opening windows, bringing in light and air and the active advice of very informed people.

“That is what dispels the clericalism and secrecy culture. To me, at least, that’s been my experience in Seattle as well as here,” he said.

Vow of celibacy

Sipe said his long-term research concluded that at no time are more than half of Catholic priests observing celibacy.

“Mandatory celibacy, the fact of requiring a man to promise celibacy before he is ordained a priest is a travesty, and I think is the cause of a great deal of sexual hurt and sexual perversion,” Sipe said. “No question about it.”

“There’s a great deal of sexual activity from the top down. You see, if celibacy were practiced on that level, you wouldn’t have any problem down here in the younger priests practicing,” Sipe said.

Thomas disagrees.

“If celibacy is the issue then you’ve got a whole another problem because the research that I’m familiar with shows that over 80 percent of sexual abuse takes place in the context of marriage and family,” he said.

“So it would be a big leap to say that celibacy is the cause.”

“I think there is a fundamental issue that has to change across not just the church, but I would say in school systems and in nonprofits, and that is a culture of secrecy, where in our case over the years known offenders were removed from point A to point B.

“And the secrecy, the very poor decisions, those kinds of things have to be removed from the culture of secrecy where laity are actively involved in decisions … having very highly-informed lay people involved in every step of the process from the selection of candidates, the supervision of candidates for priesthood, assisting the diocese in making good decisions around who is selected for leadership,” Thomas said.

“In our case women and men and laity and clergy work hand-in-hand and have for decades in the Northwest.”

Idaho attorneys Vernon and James say the vow of celibacy deeply affects an individual.

“It’s more than just sex,” James said.

“You’re asking an individual, a man, to live their life, a lonely life with no confident, no one close to them who will be with them for their adult life, to share their life experiences with, to speak to in troubled times, to share their life concerns, their worries.

“So they are in a situation where they are in a potentially psychologically disabling situation where people who are allowed to have intimate, emotional and personal relationships, and again I’m talking not just about sex, something way more than sex. The person in the middle of the night that you can wake them up and roll over and wake them up and say I’m really stressed, I’m worried.”

“When a priest is alone, they can’t do that,” James said.

So they live this life of loneliness and it can create very unstable situations that the experts like Sipe and others can talk about, he explained.

“My personal belief is until they adopt change like we had recommended, I think it will continue because who is going to go into the priesthood?” asked Vernon. “Who wants to take a vow of celibacy?

“And history has shown us that the vow of celibacy really does not work, that most priests don’t keep their vow of celibacy and it’s easier to make little kids not talk than it is a housekeeper, a fellow priest or a nun.

“And so I don’t believe that there’s going to be fundamental change. It’s going to be harder because it’s more out in the open, maybe priests will be more careful because there’s more risk that they’re going to get caught,” Vernon continued.

“Until there’s fundamental change, I think we’re still going to see this problem.”

Thomas doesn’t share their view on the cause for sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church.

“The culture of secrecy and entitlement is probably the lay equivalent of clericalism and that can happen with public school teachers, it can happen with the various denominations, with 4-H or whatever. It puts power over the safety of children, and I’m just not there.”

“We’re doing everything humanly possible” to see it doesn’t happen again, he said.

“I can’t say never but we’re sure giving it our best.”

“We’re using all the resources that we have at hand in the best way,” Thomas said and added, “At the end of the day I’m asking the Lord to ensure that I’m doing the right stuff.”

Al Knauber can be reached at


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I am a staff writer at the Independent Record covering primarily city and county governments.

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