What Have We Learned Since 2002?


In the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse crisis which erupted in 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned the John Jay College of Criminal Justice  to  undertake  two  inde-         pendent studies to investigate this disastrous betrayal. The first study,  examining The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons, was published in 2004. The second study, examining The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States, was released on May 18 of this year.  It should be clearly noted that these are reports for the bishops, not by the bishops.

These   studies   represent   an unprecedented self-scrutiny, unique among institutions which serve children in the United States or anywhere. We bishops thought it  necessary to undertake these studies in order to understand the full extent of the problem and to ascertain whether we are responding appropriately to protect our children and ensure that this sort of violation never happens again.

The report indicates that the Church’s failure to prevent the abuse of minors occurred for a variety of reasons. During the period when most of the abuse occurred, there was certainly a lack of adequate reporting mechanisms. There also was a lack of understanding about the extent of harm inflicted by abuse and an unrealistic confidence in the prospects of an abuser being “cured” through psychological treatment.  Today we more clearly understand and unequivocally affirm that any form of child abuse is an unspeakable affront against the dignity of a human person. Moreover, the sexual abuse of a child by a priest, deacon or any Church worker bears an added weight of gravity because it involves the betrayal of a sacred trust.

Though even one incident of the sexual abuse of a single child is  wholly unacceptable, the number of priests accused of abuse was not found to be any greater than the number of abusers in the general population or in any other organization. We are grateful for the 96 percent of our priests who have served faithfully.  We are ashamed by the criminal and sinful actions of the 4 percent who have brought such  sufferings upon victims and their families. As a bishop and priest, I share a deep pastoral concern for each innocent victim and as well as for those priests who have been wrongly accused and whose reputations have been diminished or destroyed. There have been many kinds of victims throughout this period.

The results of the Causes and Context study indicate that there is no single cause to account for the sexual abuse of children by clergy.  For instance, it did not find that celibacy was a contributing factor          in any way. The sharpest rise in reported incidents occurred during the 1960s and 1970s and then dropped sharply in the mid-1980s.  Those were years of great turmoil and upheaval both in society and in the Church.  Societal factors, such  as the sexual revolution, increased frequency of divorce, a sharp rise in drug abuse, as well as civil and social unrest all parallel the pattern and time frame of the spike in sexual abuse of children and young people by clergy.

The great majority of the reports of abuse across the United States received in the last few years took place more than 25 years ago.  One of the reasons that may account for the relatively few incidents of abuse in the 21st century has been the great emphasis  which seminaries now place on what is called human and spiritual formation.  There is a much stronger emphasis on preparing seminarians to live priesthood in a healthy manner and developing a strong affective maturity.

One of the clear findings of the study, and of great importance for our Church and society, is that the best way to protect children from abuse is to create safe environments where appropriate boundaries between adults and children are maintained.  Though sexual abuse of minors is a societal problem and not a challenge unique to the Church, we in the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City are committed to continuing our efforts in this area.  We have put in place structures and procedures designed to create safe environments for children and young people, to provide safe environment training for clergy, staff and volunteers who work with children, and to conduct criminal background checks on all who work with children and young people.   A Code of Conduct for all who minister to children outlines appropriate ways to work with these treasured members of our churches.

These efforts and many other procedures mandated by the U.S. Bishops Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People are very important in educating our people and ministers and preventing abuse in the future.  A recent circular letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome has mandated that Episcopal Conferences throughout the world put into place guidelines which will help bishops deal with instances of abuse.  We hope that our efforts in the United States since 2002 can be a model for such guidelines in other nations, even as we continue to review and improve our own at home.

In the name of all of the clergy, religious and faithful of the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City I apologize to any person who has been abused by any priest, deacon, religious man or woman, volunteer or employee of the Church in the Archdiocese or elsewhere.  We continue to pledge our assistance and resources in helping these victims to heal, in responding promptly to new reports of abuse and preventing such occurrences in the future.  Finally, I regret the scandal that these horrendous acts have caused to many members of the faithful whose confidence in the Church they love may have been shaken during this dark period.  I believe that we are now moving beyond the crisis and that the Church today, though chastened and purified by this experience, is indeed a very safe place for children and young people.