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Wrong then, wrong now: the bishops’ top adviser on sexual abuse

Wrong then, wrong now: the bishops’ top adviser on sexual abuse

By Phil Lawler | April 25, 2013 4:48 PM

From the link:

“Just as the banishment of lepers was fueled by medieval myths, the hysteria surrounding child sexual abusers is exacerbated by myths about those who suffer from sexual deviancies. Child molesters incarnate our deepest childhood fears… Our myths about child molesters come more from the projections of what lies within our own inner psyches than from the truth about who these men are.”

Does that quotation suggest that the author is motivated primarily by a desire to protect children from sexual abuse? Would it surprise you to learn that the author was–and to this day remains–one of the most influential voices advising Catholic Church leaders on the handling of sex-abuse cases?

The quotation comes from a 1995 article by Msgr. Stephen Rossetti in America magazine, with the revealing title: “The Mark of Cain: Reintegrating Pedophiles.”

”Reintegrating Pedophiles” was, in a sense, Msgr. Rossetti’s job from 1996 through 2006, when he served as director of the St. Luke Institute, the most prominent of the facilities treating American priests accused of abusing children. When the sex-abuse scandal erupted in the US, we learned that dozens of priests were released from such facilities and returned to ministry, only to molest children once again. Today, looking back regretfully on their decisions, many bishops explain that when they returned abusive priests to active ministry, they were following the best advice given by experts—experts like Msgr. Rossetti.

“Generally speaking, the results of treatment of priests and religious who have sexually abused children are excellent,” Msgr. Rossetti wrote reassuringly in 1994. “Pessimism about the effectiveness of treatment is simply not warranted.”

Nearly a decade later, having paid more than $3 billion to settle lawsuits brought by sex-abuse victims who persuaded courts that the bishops should have known better, do you think the American hierarchy should still be listening to that advice, or even to that adviser? Well, they are.

Msgr. Rossetti was a key adviser to the US bishops in 2002, when they developed the “Dallas Charter.” He helped develop the “VIRTUS” program that has been adopted in many dioceses as an abuse-prevention system. As the American bishops have come to be seen (rightly or wrongly) as models for Church leadership on the sex-abuse question, Msgr. Rossetti’s fame has spread abroad. In 2003 he address an international symposium in Rome sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life. Last year he was a featured speaker at a symposium on sexual abuse organized by the Gregorian University in Rome, and attended by bishops and religious superiors from all over the world.

If the American bishops recognize that they were listening to the wrong sort of advice when they mishandled sex-abuse complaints in the past, why are they still listening to the same adviser now?

“Can the recovering perpetrator of child abuse ever minister again?” asked Msgr. Rossetti in his 1994 book, Slayer of the Soul. Answering his own question, he said that most of the molesters who had been treated at St. Luke’s “are productively engaged in some form of ministry.” He added, however: “It is usual to have some strictures imposed which honor public sensibilities as well as to help the individual steer clear of risk situations.”

Notice the reasons cited for those restrictions imposed on the molesters: first to “honor public sensibilities”—that is, to avoid PR problems—and then to “help the individual” avoid further transgressions. Conspicuously absent is an expression of concern about the young people who might be endangered by the presence of a predator.

To his credit, during his term as director of St. Luke’s, Msgr. Rossetti was recommending that if a priest was found to have abused children, he should never again be cleared for unrestricted ministry. So abusers were returned to their diocese with a warning label, as it were. But only diocesan officials saw that warning label; parishioners were not informed. If the priest was assigned to supervised ministry, but his supervisor was lax (perhaps because he was under the guidance of a pastor who was himself ignorant of the troubled priest’s background), he might easily find occasions to be alone with children again.

By 2009 Msgr. Rossetti was saying that of the 339 priest-abusers treated at St. Luke’s under his direction, just over 6% had been found to abuse children again. That rate of recidivism, he reports, was far better than the rates achieved by other treatment centers. Still it meant that 21 priests who had been identified as abusers were let loose to abuse children again. We don’t know how many children they abused, nor whether there were other repeat abusers, beyond those 21, whose transgressions have gone unreported.

Could a prudent counselor have foreseen that abusive priests should not be returned even to supervised ministry? Yes; in fact one prudent counselor did. In the 1950s, Father Gerald Fitzgerald founded the Servants of the Paraclete to serve troubled priests. Father Fitzgerald soon began advising anyone who would listen that a priest who abuses children should be removed from ministry permanently, and preferably placed in a monastery or other remote location, far away from potential victims. Somehow that wise advice was silenced as the years passed, and instead the American bishops began to listen more carefully to therapists from institutions like St. Luke’s, who took their psychological cues from secular training rather than Thomistic tutors. Even the Servants of the Paraclete forgot their founder’s advice.

In 2009, when the National Catholic Reporter questioned him about Father Fitzgerald’s approach, Msgr. Rossetti said that until recently he had “never heard of this guy.” What a remarkable admission! Father Fitzgerald was a pioneer in his field, treating American Catholic priests at a time when others would not acknowledge the problem. Yet just one generation later, working in that same field, Msgr. Rossetti was not even aware of his predecessor’s work!

What happened, between the 1960s and the 1990s, that caused American Catholic leaders to forget Father Fitzgerald and turn instead to Msgr. Rossetti? The answer to that question might furnish the material for a doctoral dissertation in psychology. But an important part of the problem, I fear, is that few if any Catholic universities today boast psychology departments staffed by professors who still retain an interest in the distinctively Catholic approach that nourished the thought of Father Fitzgerald.

Meanwhile, until that important dissertation is written, let me ask another question. Having learned such painful lessons from their errors, why aren’t Church leaders urgently looking today for Father Fitzgerald’s intellectual heirs, rather than continuing to rely on the adviser who told them that in handling abusive priests: “Pessimism about the effectiveness of treatment is simply not warranted?”