Stokes case: From victim to vigilante?

Abuse: With the family of a shooting suspect calling him a victim of a cleric, some attention should be paid to steps the Catholic Church has taken to address a sweeping scandal.

May 19, 2002|By Paul McHugh | Paul McHugh,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WHAT I feared has happened.

Dontee D. Stokes, who says he was sexually abused by a Baltimore priest, the Rev. Maurice Blackwell, is accused of attempting to murder Blackwell. Add vigilante violence to the emerging ugly story of priestly sexual abuse.

Stokes has told others he attacked the priest in anger both because of the abuse he suffered and because he believed the Catholic Church ignored his injury along with that of other victims.

That would make him a double victim now - of a sexual crime and of his suspicion, cultivated by sensational media coverage - that Catholic priests are getting away with their sexual crimes. This awful event should get us all to step back and look at what is happening and has happened in the past decade as the Catholic Church has tried to deal with a huge problem.

The abusive events that are the subject of recent news coverage occurred about 10 or more years ago. These cases were mismanaged and wounds from that time still fester. Then many bishops seemed more ready to forgive errant priests than to punish them and report them to the civil authorities. Instead they often sent them to other parishes without a warning to the parishioners.

But why are new cases not emerging? Actions - usually downplayed in the media - were put in place this decade by church leaders as they came to realize that this problem was huge and they had approached the matter wrongly. These new actions have made a difference.

Go back to the late 1970s and 1980s when complaints of sexually predatory priests first began to be common and before the numbers of priests and victims were imagined. Church officials, learning on the job, tried to help both the victims and those they saw as troubled men. They were clumsy and, in attempting to avoid scandal and shock, they gave self-protective reflexes too much play. They are paying a price in shame but for ignorance and blindness, not malice.

In the 1980s, church officials were advised to consult psychiatrists and most often, as the church has learned to its deep regret, they got bad advice. Their consultants taught that sexual disorders were due to failures in psychological maturation, that the offending priests were in some way "stuck" in adolescence but could be helped - indeed "cured" - with a talking therapy exploring their conflicts over growing up. The psychiatrists were confident they knew how to treat and how to predict the behavior of these priests.

At the time, a young psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Hospital was challenging these assumptions and struggling to be heard - against much resistance. Studying sexually disordered people, Dr. Fred Berlin concluded that therapies based on conventional assumptions usually failed. But a direct attack on the behavior itself - with the use of sex-suppressing medications and group psychotherapy confronting the viciousness of the behavior and the culprits' ingrained habits of lying and justifying themselves - often succeeded.

Dr. Berlin noted how his approach resembled other behavior treatments such as that of Alcoholics Anonymous. His drug treatments also fit with the growing knowledge about the biological basis of other instincts such as hunger, thirst and sleep. And his program was based on the assumption that the responsibility for recovery and relapse prevention lay with the patient. Over time Dr. Berlin began to persuade skeptics that he had a far better way to treat sex offenders. His principles ultimately were taken up by church officials and have been promulgated widely in the church since the early 1990s.

The first principle was to cooperate with the criminal law by reporting sexual abuse of minors to the civil authorities. This action emphasizes the point that no addictive behavior can be interrupted unless painful consequences are delivered or anticipated by the subject.

As well, though, the church quickly learned that relying on the government to apply punishment is inadequate because rules of evidence in a court of law may actually protect abusers. As in the professions of medicine and law, credible boards of oversight are needed to administer professional punishments directly. Disbarment, license removal, and probationary status are examples. So, boards of oversight made up of lay people, including those from other religious traditions, were formed by bishops in cities such as Baltimore and Chicago. These would oversee and strengthen the sanctions - criminal, civil, and administrative - against any church officer who abused a minor.

The speed and public spectacle of these civic and administrative punishments did, I believe, interrupt the epidemic of abuse. They made clear the stance of the church toward these matters and deterred behaviors by prompting vulnerable people to seek treatment before they acted on any impulse.

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