Zero-tolerance policy on priests stirs debate

Ousting sex offenders doesn't help, some say

March 11, 2002|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

The Roman Catholic Church is getting tough in dealing with priests who abuse minors, with an increasing number of bishops adopting zero-tolerance polices that defrock offenders, forcing them to forfeit the clerical life.

It is a no-nonsense policy demanded by victims and their advocates and insisted upon by church lawyers and fiscal officers.

But the church's tougher stance is stirring debate among mental health professionals who treat clerical sex offenders. Some argue that firing priests who abuse children doesn't help the priest or the community where he'll have to start a new life.

"If you defrock them and kick them out, who's going to be watching them?" asked Thomas G. Plante, a California psychologist who treats priests who have abused minors.

The policies have been embraced by major Catholic dioceses such as Boston, Philadelphia and Los Angeles, all of which have recently ousted priests when decades-old allegations against them surfaced.

Baltimore does not employ zero tolerance because officials say they want to retain the right, although unlikely, to reassign a priest who has abused a minor if he successfully completes treatment.

The abuse cases that have received the extensive recent publicity are nearly all old cases, some many decades old, that church officials have found by examining their personnel files. Some of these dismissed priests may have been treated in the past.

Now, when a diocese learns of an accusation of child sexual abuse against a priest, he is usually sent immediately to a psychiatric center for evaluation and possible inpatient treatment, which can last from six to nine months.

This is followed by an extensive aftercare program, in which the client returns to the treatment center several times a year for weeklong refresher sessions, a process that continues for five years and longer.

Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse are sent to private psychiatric hospitals for evaluation and treatment, two of the most prominent being the church-run St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, and the secular Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn.

These centers offer some of the most intensive and thorough treatment for sex abusers available, at a cost of hundreds of dollars a day, which is paid for by the priest's diocese or religious order.

Officials from the St. Luke Institute, the most prominent Catholic psychiatric center for priests, nuns and brothers, did not respond to repeated requests for information about their programs.

Though the church isn't talking about how many errant clerics are rehabilitated and returned to the ministry, some therapists contend it would be better to supervise priests by putting them in jobs where they would have no contact with children.

"If you're making jam in some Midwestern monastery, you're not going to be offending," said Plante, a professor at the University of Santa Clara who edited a book on Catholic priests who commit sexual abuse titled, Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned.

"You wouldn't let them be around children. You may not let them wear a clerical collar. But they can still minister and help others," agreed Dr. Fred S. Berlin, founder of the Baltimore-based National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma.

"Everyone is better off with that individual staying in the church than cutting them off and hoping for the best," said Berlin, a pioneer in the field who has been criticized by victims' advocates for being too sympathetic to offenders.

It is difficult to quantify the extent of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church because so little formal research has been done. But in Plante's 1999 book, which he called the first academic study on the subject, he tries to clarify what he calls myths, particularly the popular belief that a much higher percentage of Catholic priests abuse minors than other clergy and the population at large.

"The best data we have is that approximately 5 percent of priests have a predilection toward minors. That seems to be consistent with other clergy who are not priests [such as Protestant ministers or rabbis]," he said. Research also shows that 8 percent of the general population is sexually attracted to children, higher than for priests and other clergy.

Therapists agree that pedophiles, as well as those who abuse older minors, cannot be cured. But through therapy and drugs such as Depo-Provera, which suppresses the sexual drive in men, they contend that the urges to molest children can be controlled.

"We now look at pedophilia the way we look at drug abuse or alcoholism, as a craving disorder," Berlin said. "We say we don't know about the cause. We do know they experience unacceptable cravings. If you give in to them, they can destroy your life and others'."

In treating a priest who has abused a minor, one of the therapist's tasks, through individual and group therapy, is to make him understand the harm he's caused, which is not always apparent to the abuser.

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