Monday, April 19, 2010

Archbishop of New Orleans speaks out

Archbishop Aymond answers questions about Vatican's handling of abusive priests

Originally published for the April 17th edition of the Clarion Herald, the Official Newspaper of the Archdiocese of New Orleans
There has been recent harsh criticism that then-Cardinal Ratzinger did not act on allegations of abusive priests when he was heading the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. You have called him a man of integrity and said he acted with integrity. On what do you base that characterization of Pope Benedict?

Did he know about the cases in Germany? I have no idea. The Vatican said he didn’t. He is a theologian. He had about 1,500 priests under his charge in Munich. Because he is a teacher, a researcher, it is likely he didn’t know about the details of the allegations. But even if he knew, the priest accused of the abuses in Germany was sent away for treatment and sent back by the psychiatrists and psychologists indicating that he was ready to go back into ministry.

The problem I see is that you cannot look back at what happened 30 years ago using the same lens that you would use today. We know now that pedophilia is not treatable and is definitely a serious problem that has affected children. Results from a study commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and completed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice stated that the Catholic Church in the U.S. has no more priests that abuse minors than other segments of society in the same time period of the late 1960s to early 1980s (when the majority of sexual abuse had occurred).

People do tend to lose sight of how much sexual abuse goes unreported in families and in public schools. About 290,000 cases of sexual abuse in American public schools occurred between 1991 and 2000, according to an April 12, 2010, Newsweek story by George Weigel.

The Holy Father is a man of profound prayer. I have no doubt that he is a man who desires to follow Jesus the Good Shepherd and that he intentionally would not do anything that would place a person, particularly a minor, in harm. I think he has a proven record of being a man of honor and integrity. He has met with victims of sexual abuse in the U.S., Australia and Rome.

Would you consider the media coverage a campaign aimed to diminish the Catholic Church and Pope Benedict?

I think some of it is deserved and some of it is not. The Catholic Church in the United States went through this crisis in 2001. The wound was opened. We admitted our guilt, repented and came up with a charter with a “no-tolerance policy.” Since then we have constantly reached out in healing to the victims. We have done due diligence. We have put into place safe environment programs. All of this pain was reopened again due to what’s happening in Ireland and Germany. It reopened the wound in the U.S. Some of the criticism against the church is justified. But, sexual abuse is a human problem. Sexual abuse of minors has been going on since the beginning of humankind.

How do you think the Catholic Church and the Vatican is handling the clerical sexual abuse accusations?

The philosophy of communication is different in Europe than in the U.S. Some of the statements could have been clearer. It was not helpful that on Good Friday, the Vatican preacher (Franciscan Father Raniero Cantalamessa) compared what the pope was going through to anti-Semitism. Pope Benedict XVI was the only pope in the Catholic Church who has met with victims of sexual abuse. He put in stringent penalties when he was prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As pope, he said a priest could be returned to the lay state against his will if he was accused of sexual abuse and was a threat to minors. Once again, the world, including the church, saw sexual abuse of minors differently 30-50 years ago. Thank God we have learned more from psychology and are wiser now in not allowing abusers to return to ministry.

When you were bishop in Texas, you took a strong stand in protecting children from sexual abuse and established an “Ethics and Integrity in Ministry” policy in 2001 that was copied by dioceses throughout the U.S. In fact, it was enacted a year before the USCCB adopted its Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People in 2002. What prompted you to do that back then?

When I got there, the pastoral staff was talking about doing background checks. I said that was good, but equally important was providing education on what sexual abuse of minors is and how to detect and prevent it. We worked with a professional company and developed DVDs that summarized the understanding of sexual abuse of minors, how to prevent it and report it.

You were part of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People and served as its chairman for six years. How far do you think the Catholic Church has come since the U.S. Church adopted its charter in 2002 to protect children?

I have seen dioceses and parishes becoming much more insistent that background checks are done. In the past 10 years I have seen people in ministry – catechists, youth ministers and others – making sure they were accompanied by other people so they were not alone with children at times. I have received letters saying there were suspicious behaviors. In all cases, they are investigated.

Even though the church did not handle things in the best way in the past, we have come a long way. You have to remember that 40 to 60 percent of abuse takes place in families. It doesn’t excuse the church; priests and religious leaders should be held to higher standards, but we have done a lot and repented.
The 1960s and 1970s were times of the sexual revolution and more experimentation. That was true in the world and the church. We are a piece of the pie. Sexual abuse was not talked about then. Thank God now we are talking about the elephant in the room.

Do you think the vow of celibacy in the priesthood is part of the sex abuse problem?

The vast majority of people who are pedophiles are married. In Weigel’s Newsweek column, he wrote, “... given the significant level of abuse problems in Christian denominations with married clergy, it’s hard to accept the notion that marriage is somehow a barrier against sexually abusive clergy. ... Sexual abusers throughout the world are overwhelmingly non-celibates.” His words resonate with the research I have received.

What do you think of the sexual abuse policies we have in place in the archdiocese?

The policies in the Archdiocese of New Orleans are excellent. What’s going on in rest of world is a wake-up call to all of us. We should adhere to the policies and make sure there are background checks, and if it’s questionable whether or not someone has passed a background check with archdiocese, the benefit of the doubt goes to the child and not to the adult.

Have there been any new cases of sexual abuse reported in our archdiocese?

There are no current cases of sexual abuse, but we do receive reports on the use of inappropriate pictures among adults, and students going beyond healthy lines of psychosexual development. When we receive an inquiry it is investigated, and we work individually with that person in the parish or school. We always report allegations of sexual abuse to civil authorities and cooperate with their investigation.

Please pray for all victims of sexual abuse and their families. May they know God’s healing and compassion.

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