Report to Vatican faults U.S. molestation policy

Sex-abuse experts say zero tolerance is too strict and may worsen problem

February 24, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

VATICAN CITY - A report on child sexual abuse that the Vatican released yesterday found fault with American bishops' zero-tolerance policy of seeking to remove from ministry any Roman Catholic priest who has abused a child.

The 219-page report, titled "Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: Scientific and Legal Perspectives," cast that policy as an overreaction to a public outcry and as a potentially counterproductive way to keep children safe from sexual abuse.

The report included expressions of concern that sexually abusive priests who are cast out of ministry and pushed away from the church might be more likely to abuse again because of isolation and a lack of monitoring of their behavior.

"Although until now ... abuse was not always taken seriously enough, at present there is a tendency to overreact and rob accused priests of even legitimate support," wrote one of the editors of the report, Dr. Manfred Luetz, in its conclusion. Luetz, a German psychiatrist, is a member of the Pontifical Council for the Laity.

The other two editors are not connected to the Vatican, and the report mainly presents the perspectives of those two scientists and six others. None of the eight is Catholic; all are experts in the study or treatment of sexual abuse.

Their perspectives were distilled from the papers they presented and the comments they made at a private four-day conference here in April that was sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life. Copies were made available here yesterday.

The report does not present any single prevailing viewpoint, and Vatican officials said that it should not be considered a set of Vatican-stamped rules for how to think about and respond to sexual abuse by priests.

But one of those officials said yesterday that the report, which will be published next month, might indeed serve as a "point of reference" for the development of church policy.

The report is sure to be widely read by senior Vatican officials, some of whom still have qualms about the American bishops' zero-tolerance policy.

Senior Vatican officials approved that policy in late 2002 only after ordering some crucial tinkering that made it more flexible. It is destined to be examined anew at some point.

While the report repeatedly challenges the wisdom of that policy, it also represents an unusually unblinking, expansive acknowledgment by the Vatican of the problem of sexually abusive priests.

It also shows the Vatican's interest in looking to science for answers. Many critics of the church's past response to sexually abusive priests have said that bishops too often believed penance alone could keep a priest who had molested a child from doing it again.

The report paraphrases one of the eight experts as saying that some men might be drawn to the Catholic priesthood "for the access it grants them to children." It includes an article, presented at the conference by another of the experts, that asserts that Catholic priests as a group are more likely than child sexual abusers in general "to report an adult homosexual orientation."

That article, by Dr. Martin P. Kafka, a professor at the Harvard Medical School, goes so far as to question whether "Catholic clerical education and socialization could be associated with an increased risk of expressing or experimenting with socially immature but aberrant sexual behaviors."

Kafka was the only American on the panel of eight experts. Three others were Canadian and four were German.

The report suggests that all had concerns of one kind or another with the way that many American bishops were reacting to sexually abusive priests and to what has become a devastating scandal for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States over recent years.

"I think it would be fair to say that none of the experts was enthusiastic about zero tolerance," said one of them, Dr. Karl Hanson, who does research on sex offenders for the Canadian government, in a telephone interview yesterday.

An abuser at high risk of hurting another child, Hanson said, "may be better off in the church, where there are strong supervisory structures, than in somebody else's back yard."

Many critics of the church's handling of sexually abusive priests have promoted zero tolerance as the only way to make sure that bishops do not cover up the crimes of priests.

David Clohessy, a leading advocate for people abused by priests, called the report a "terribly depressing development."

"Zero tolerance has barely been enacted and it has been very sporadically enforced," he said, so the notion that "we ought to rethink it at this early juncture is very distressing."

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