SEXUAL ABUSE AND FAIRNESS FOR PRIESTS: A STATEMENT OF THE ST. JOSEPH’S – ST. PATRICK’S COLLEGE ALUMNI ASSOCIATION BOARD
We write to address the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Particularly, we write out of our concern for priests in the American Catholic Church. Our concern arises from the implementation of the charter/norms for the protection of children and young people, initially adopted by the American bishops in Dallas in June 2002, and revised in Washington, D.C., in November 2002.
We are the Board of Governors of the St. Joseph’s – St. Patrick’s College Alumni Association. St. Joseph’s – St. Patrick’s College was the high school and college seminary for the Archdiocese of San Francisco from 1924 until the closing of the college program in about 1991. The faculty were priests of the Society of St. Sulpice (Sulpicians) headquartered in Paris.
Prior to coming to the seminary, we were children and altar servers. Some of us became priests and bishops. The majority have become parents, doctors, lawyers, engineers, politicians1, social workers, educators, union leaders and businessmen2. The number of living alums is approximately 2,000 – 2,500.
Because of our seminary experience, we believe that we are in a unique position to speak out. Unique or not, we are convinced we would be irresponsible to stay silent.
Most of us were in the seminary before the Vatican II Council. Many of us were in the seminary during and immediately after that Council. In those seminary days, our personal sexuality was not discussed, ever. To the contrary, we were being groomed to be ”perfect” even as our heavenly Father is perfect. The marriage tract in moral theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary was popularly known as the ”dirty linen class,” sadly symbolic of the expectation that we should somehow be ”above” our own humanity. With noble intentions, the seminary unintentionally groomed us for superiority and clericalism. We studied, prayed and played together so that we might be an ”alter Christus” and ”all things to all men”.
Now, years later, most of us have come to better appreciate God’s gifts to us, all of them. Many of us have come to reject clericalism and to try to accept, lovingly, the power that lies in powerlessness, as modeled to us by Jesus.
The Sulpicians also gave us many gifts. One gift provides the theme upon which our statement is rooted:”... have this mind in you which was in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 1:5). So immense is this scandal that we can only respond by humbly searching for the attitude we think Jesus would have.
While our focus is the condition of priests, we start by restating, unequivocally, our deep concern for all youthful victims, past or present. We, too, feel the shame and bitter, bitter, almost unspeakable hurt. Nothing we say here should be interpreted to mean that we suggest any equivocation on this point. Surely some of our own members may be among the victims. The Church has a continuing duty to victims to apologize and to provide emotional and financial support for recovery from their wounds.
The morale of the parish priest is gravely low and becoming worse. One of our diocesan priests accuses the American bishops of shoving priests into the muzzle of a cannon and then firing it in the direction of the criminal authorities and the media.
We find the article in the Dallas charter which states that ”even a single act of sexual abuse of a minor – past, present or future – will result in the permanent removal of a priest or deacon from his ministerial duties,” to be too broad as to some ”past” offenders. It seems to us that Jesus would want to know whether there had been repentance, conversion and justice for the victim – and whether there is evidence that the People of God and society need protection currently.
Some would have us presume that a past offender has continued to offend. (Rev. Kenneth Lasch, Commonweal, Sept. 27, 2002, p. 8.) We think such speculation fails to recognize the wide spectrum of improper acts, some of which are curable, others not, some of which are not even civil/criminal wrongs and others of which so clearly are. The failure to make such distinctions can deny the accused priest due process. Such un-nuanced speculation, moreover, is not something in which Jesus would engage.
Putting priests ”on leave” because of a ”credible allegation” of ”sexual abuse” alleged to have occurred 20-plus years ago, denied by the priest, violates due process. There are no standards to determine what a ”credible” allegation means. With the passage of time, witnesses have moved or even died; memories have dimmed. The decision to put a priest on leave will be decided differently by different bishops, depending on their susceptibility to pressure to reclaim episcopal credibility. On essentially the same facts, a priest in one diocese might be put on leave and a priest in another diocese might not.
One Cardinal said during the debate in Dallas that he had found from personal experience that a person could rely upon the police/district attorney to recognize and reject the truly spurious charge of abuse. But, there was no one to put the Cardinal on leave while that process went forward. True, he had to suffer being charged; but he did not have to suffer a sullied reputation, the raw fear and hollow ache of alienation and ostracism, of indefinite duration, after a life of service. Bishops are to care for their priests and to ensure they are treated fairly. That duty is not delegable to the public authorities.
We fear that the priest who has denied wrongdoing must now effectively bear the burden of proving himself innocent. There is no ombudsman to speak for him. We think that many dioceses fear being accused of taking the priest’s part and are concerned for civil liability, which might flow from the alleged abuse. The priest becomes a pariah.
The burden of proving oneself innocent of very old charges is more than just the impossibility of proving a negative. The wrongfully accused priest suffers his own Gethsemane.
Some of the recent revisions, adopted by the Bishops at the behest of Rome in Washington in November, appear to insist on more due process for priests. These revisions, however, raise more questions than answers. We are, moreover, troubled by certain public statements attributed to various Bishops in the press. These statements admit that the revisions do not afford complete fairness to priests because of the need of the Bishops to limit their discretion in order to regain their credibility with God’s People. This attitude continues to put institutional credibility ahead of personal fairness. We are confident Jesus would not do that. In the long run, credibility will be regained only if the Church can both fully protect children and young people from predatory clergy and also guarantee complete fairness to priests.
To those of our alumni who have been wrongfully accused, you continue to have not only our support but our affection. You need not feel alienation from us who studied, prayed and played with you. We know you.
To those of our alumni who are not serial offenders, who offended in the past and now are being ousted, we continue to hold you in our hearts because that is what Jesus does. You are, we know, much better than the worse thing you have ever done.
We feel both anger and pity for the serial offenders. We are deeply troubled in the face of such evil. We pray for truth and conversion in order that the forgiveness of Jesus may be theirs.
To the bishops, we know most of you now recognize that the failure of the past was putting the reputation of the institutional Church ahead of the good of children. Authoritarianism and a distrust of consultation with the laity contributed heavily to this.
To the Bishops we say allow the laity to help. It is our Church, yours and ours. The laity are more understanding and wiser than you think. The laity is rightly angry at the cover-ups. The laity however, recognizes perhaps better than bishops and priests give them credit, that (to quote our alumnus Bishop Frank Quinn) the Church is not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners.
The diocesan Review Board created by the Bishops in Dallas is charged with evaluation of the charges against priests, as well as for the care of the victim. Those functions are in hopeless conflict. They should be separated, creating additional decision making opportunities for lay responsibility.
We wish to express our confidence in St. Patrick’s Seminary. The laity can have confidence that under the leadership of our alumnus, Fr. Jerry Coleman, the priests of tomorrow are being forced to confront their personal issues before admission and before ordination.
We are concerned, however, for what kind of men may now seek the seminary after these scandals and for what seminaries will be expected to do to turn out a more ”perfect” priest. Striving for false perfection is partially what caused this problem in the first place. The People of God need men whose understanding of their own imperfections allows them to embrace, console, advise and absolve. The People of God do not need men whose striving for a false perfection makes them superior, unapproachable and ineffective.
For tomorrow the very number and quality of priest depend directly upon how we support our current priests today. Even in the face of investigations, indictments, and money judgments, may we courageously seek the mind of Jesus.
Board of Governors
St. Joseph’s – St. Patrick’s College Alumni Association
(1) We count one former Speaker of the California Assembly and Lieutenant Governor, and at least two State Senators and several mayors/councilmen.
(2) The priest members of our Board have not taken an active part in the preparation of this statement and are not responsible for its content.