Five Years after the Scandal, I

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 18, 2007

Bishop Gregory Aymond of Austin is chairman of the USCCB Committee for the Protection of Children and Young People. On March 20th, he gave a speech at Georgetown University offering his personal view of the situation five years after the sex abuse scandal broke in early 2002. Here is a summary of his main points.

In the first section of his talk, Bishop Aymond identified six things the bishops have learned from the scandal and its aftermath. The first three of these are fairly obvious: (1) Sexual abuse within the Church is a sad reality; (2) Church leadership had dealt with this problem badly in the past and must follow “safe environment” procedures in the future; and (3) Sin is at the root of this problem, including sin in the weakness of Church leadership in failing to address the problem properly.

At a less comprehensive level, statistical analysis by the John Jay College of Criminology and the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate has provided two insights: (4) Of the four percent of priests involved in abuse, just 149 priests (one-tenth of one percent) were serial abusers with more than two or three allegations against them; and (5) The bulk of the abuse occurred in the 1970’s by priests who were ordained between 1950 and 1979 (but the reasons for this are not yet clear). Finally, the Church has learned something from psychological studies: (6) People generally abuse when they are under stress, which raises questions about the Catholic support system for priests.

In his second section, Bishop Aymond identified six priorities for the Church’s ongoing action: (1) Continued efforts to identify and reach out to victims; (2) Continued education of bishops, priests and deacons “regarding boundaries in healthy, celibate and chaste lives”; (3) Increased vigilance in seminary formation and screening; (4) Creation of not just “safe” environments but “faith” environments “where people can trust one another and their leaders, the clergy”; (5) Implementation of outstanding safe environment and faith environment programs (including “boundaries” education for children which, Bishop Aymond laments, many parents do not approve); and (6) Sharing of the wisdom gained from the repentance and purification involved in this ordeal.

Finally, in the third section of his remarks, Bishop Aymond addressed three major challenges for the future. First, he expressed uncertainty about how to respond to the call for a national database of clergy accused of sexual abuse. Suffice it to say that he has serious reservations about the inevitable inaccuracy of such a database, and the consequent harm it may do both to reputations and to prudent decision-making. Second, he sees a pressing need for penance for past sins and for prayer to discern how God wants the Church to proceed to restore trust. Third, Bishop Aymond wants us not to forget that, amidst the sinfulness of her members, the Church still possesses the Holy Spirit, and the Church must not be so ashamed that she falters in her preaching of the good news or in her efforts to elevate the moral and spiritual character of society as a whole.

For my comments, see Five Years after the Scandal, II.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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