Experts weigh in on abuse scandal

Monday, November 26, 2018 - Updated: 11:44 am

By Bob De Witt Correspondent

The scathing Pennsylvania grand jury report of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and resulting media coverage have inaccurately portrayed that church leaders knew about rampant abuse yet turned a blind eye, according to four local experts.

Many people also don’t understand how the issue was handled by the rest of society at the same time.

Dr. John Nelson, a Pittsburgh psychiatrist, was among those who spoke Nov. 18 in a presentation titled “Beyond Sensational Headlines: Perspectives on the Grand Jury Report,” sponsored by the Pittsburgh Guild of the Catholic Medical Association and St. Thomas More Society, a group of Catholic legal professionals.

In 1992, Nelson was asked to serve on a diocesan committee studying sexual abuse in the church and helped develop steps to address it. He said the church’s response should be viewed within the context of an evolving understanding of the issue.

“When I was in medical school, I never heard a lecture about child abuse,” Nelson said. “Police didn’t have good procedures on what to do with allegations. And none of us understood the depth of trauma it could cause.”

As increased reports of sexual abuse came to light in the 1980s, church leaders feared scandal, and, like most medical practitioners, were ignorant of the effects of abuse on victims, according to Nelson.

He cautioned that in the wake of the grand jury report the public should not rush to judge those who tried to deal with such difficult issues at a time when the cases were misunderstood, greatly feared and widely avoided.

The subject can be traced back to Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist and founder of psychoanalysis who initially thought many of his patients had been abused as children. But after a public outcry condemning the concept, he concluded these reports of abuse were fantasies that came from strong emotional conflicts that children often experience.

“As a result, this view was taught by most of the psychoanalysts who dominated the field into the 1970s,” Nelson said. It also influenced church officials who initially believed abusive priests often could be cured through specialized psychotherapy and return to ministry.

Pastoral response

“It took me weeks to read the entire grand jury report. At times I had to put it down,” said Father Kris Stubna, rector of St. Paul Cathedral. “We share in the shock, sadness, grief and disgust of the abuse of children in years past.

“Our hearts are, first and foremost, with the victims. They haven’t always had a voice. We need to lift them up in prayer and provide the care and support that they need and deserve,” he said.

Bishop Zubik has announced that he will take part in four listening sessions across the diocese (see accompanying box), and intends to establish an independently administered Survivors’ Compensation Program.

Dr. Anthony Isacco, a licensed psychologist who evaluates priests, seminarians and seminary applicants for dioceses and religious orders, said the news media often oversimplify the issue, lumping all offenders into the pedophile category when there are several different classifications.

“Priestly celibacy isn’t the problem, and the solution isn’t to allow married priests,” Isacco said, pointing out that child sexual abuse is found in schools, sports, youth-serving organizations and in families. Many perpetrators are married men.

He raised the issue of why teachers, coaches and other professionals who interact with children are not required to undergo rigorous psychological evaluations similar to those given to prospective priests.

Former U.S. Attorney Frederick Thieman, a member of the independent review board that hears allegations of abuse against clergy of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, discussed the history and role of the state grand jury system and its effectiveness in these cases.

“The grand jury dealt with thousands of victims and over 300 priests, yet they heard from only dozens of witnesses,” Thieman said. “Were they able to fully investigate?”

Thieman noted that the diocese has reported allegations of abuse to authorities for many years, and yet it’s consistently reported that there’s been a cover-up. “The procedures put into place by the diocese these past few decades have respected the role of priests while protecting the victims,” he said.

An audience member asked about calls to open a two-year window in Pennsylvania’s statute of limitations law, allowing victims who have “aged out” of the legal system to sue their alleged abusers and dioceses. Thieman said that in addition to the church, other private organizations such as youth clubs or sports leagues would be inundated with old claims that would be difficult to defend against, given the passage of time. Potential witnesses would have died or moved away, and others’ memories likely would be hazy.

Groundbreaking changes

The diocese was among the first in the nation to develop a published policy for responding to allegations of abuse by priests and deacons, well in advance of national directives issued in 2002.

In 1993, Pittsburgh was the first diocese to hire a victim assistance coordinator to support and maintain contact with those who brought allegations.

The Diocese of Pittsburgh adheres to four guiding principles: the safety of children is the first priority; concern and support is to be shown for the victims and their families; all allegations of sexual abuse of minors must be turned over to civil authorities; and no priest or deacon who has sexually abused a child may serve in any ministry.

Criminal background checks, mandated reporting of suspected abuse, and training on how to recognize and prevent abuse is required for lay staff and volunteers working with children. Since 2007, this screening has resulted in 51 would-be volunteers being rejected because they had criminal records. These included indecent assault, internet solicitation of children, statutory rape and child pornography.

“People want answers, accountability, transparency and to make sure this won’t happen again,” Father Stubna said. “I want to do all I can to bring about reconciliation and healing. The renewal of the church will require all of us working together to grow in holiness and faith.”

To view the video of the presentation, visit https://diopitt.org/clergy-abuse-response.

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