by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
It has once again been a painful week for anyone who loves the church to read the series of front page articles in The Kansas City Star, detailing the tragic consequences upon the lives of former altar boys allegedly sexually abused 30 years ago by a Kansas City, Mo., priest. The priest denies the allegations. However, 10 years ago, he was removed from public ministry by Bishop Raymond Boland and required not to present himself as a priest.
Two of the former four altar boys are dead. Sadly, one of the two committed suicide during his freshman year of high school. There is no greater pain for a parent than the death of a child. When that death occurs by suicide, the pain is only magnified. The accusation, that their son was the victim of abuse by a priest, has helped his parents make some possible sense of why he took his own life.
The fourth boy, the only other living witness to the events, The Star mentioned in the first article did not recall the event. Buried in the back page of the final article, The Star finally quotes the other alleged victim who said this about the allegations: “That just doesn’t sound right. I’ve got to be honest — I’m very curious because I have no memories of that.”
Does this mean it did not happen? Certainly not. Perhaps, the fourth man does not want to get immersed in a public controversy. Maybe the accuser is wrong about the fourth boy even being present. There are many possible explanations. However, it seems incredible that The Star built a three-page series of front page articles on an alleged event that one out of the two living victims does not remember ever happening. On the other hand, it is not so amazing because it fits the narrative that The Star has been constructing for months with a steady stream of articles.
Sadly, what precipitated all of this was the indictment of a Kansas City-St. Joseph priest for the possession and production of child pornography and the mistakes made by the diocese in the handling of the case. This was the springboard for a series of articles that would lead readers to believe that nothing has changed in the Catholic Church in the United States since it was rocked in 2002 by the clergy abuse scandal.
In my opinion, the saddest chapter in the Catholic Church’s history in the United States was the sexual abuse of minors by clergy that occurred in the second half of the 20th century. How and why did this happen? How could priests violate so horribly the moral teachings of the church and injure innocent young people?
In all of the ink that The Star has spilled in its recent stories about sexual abuse of minors in the Catholic Church, there has been hardly any mention of the enormous safe environment program the Catholic Church has implemented. Each year, in the archdiocese alone, we perform thousands of criminal background checks on new employees and volunteers who will have contact with children. Current employees and volunteers have already had background checks.
Every bishop, priest, deacon, lay staff and volunteer who interacts with minors must also attend the Virtus Safe Environment program. Moreover, they must also participate in an online monthly follow-up that is designed to keep them vigilant in the protection of children. The purpose in all of this is to create an environment in which all of the adults are attuned to the best practices to prevent child abuse, as well as how to protect themselves from being the victim of false accusations by observing the proper protocols. All of our children in our Catholic schools and School of Religion programs, with the consent of their parents, are taught how to protect themselves and keep themselves safe.
Before we accept a candidate for the seminary, he is required to go through thorough and extensive psychological testing that is designed, in part, to help screen out any individual who might pose a risk to children or others. Seminaries have strengthened their programs on human formation to ensure, as much as possible, the spiritual, psychological and emotional health of those who will serve the church as priests.
The bishops, in the wake of the 2002 scandal, commissioned two studies by the John Jay College Research Team of the City University of New York — a secular institution that specializes in the study of criminal behavior. The first was a “Nature and Scope” study and the second, a “Causes & Context” study.
The numbers are not pretty. In the “Causes & Context” study, the researchers give this summary of the scope of the problem: “The results of the Nature and Scope study showed that 4,932 priests (4%) had been the subject of allegations of abuse between 1950 and 2002, and that 10,677 individuals had made allegations of child sexual abuse against priests during that same time period. These data revealed that the annual count of abuse incidents over this time period increased steadily from 1950 through the 1970s and then began to decline sharply in 1985, with the decline continuing through 2002.”
In the mid-1980s, many dioceses became more aware and responsive to the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. The early efforts, adopted by many, if not most dioceses, had a significant impact. With the adoption of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” in 2002, the efforts of the church to eliminate this problem were intensified.
What has been the effect of the church’s efforts? The results of the audit of 2010 are encouraging. The 2010 Implementation Report for the charter provides the following summary: “During the 2010 audit period, 30 allegations were made by current minors. Of these, eight were considered credible by law enforcement, seven were determined to be false, 12 were determined to be boundary violations, and three are still under investigation.”
One case of child abuse by a minor by Catholic clergy is too many. Obviously, the numbers for 2011 are not yet known. Sadly, we know that one allegation in 2011, deemed credible by law enforcement, happened in the Kansas City-St. Joseph Diocese. Nevertheless, positive strides have been made and the resolve of the church to eliminate this problem, as much as is possible, in an institution made up of vulnerable human beings, remains strong.
I conclude by quoting a section from the conclusion of the John Jay College “Causes & Contexts” study: “The Catholic Church has taken serious steps toward understanding and reducing the problem of sexual abuse of minors by priests. Diocesan leaders began these discussions as a body in the mid-1980s when the problem of sexual abuse was becoming known, but actions to address the behavior at the time were inconsistent. In 2002, at the height of the discourse relative to the crisis, the bishops signed a charter committing to study the problem, address it, and implement policies to prevent it from occurring in the future. They are continuing through the model of organizational change and are on the way to implementing what are considered to be the best practices in terms of education about abuse for potential victims, potential abusers, and potential guardians. The church has responded to the crisis, and as a result, a substantial decrease in the number of sexual abuse cases has come about at present.”