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Wrong then, wrong now: the bishops' top adviser on sexual abuse

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 25, 2013

"Just as the banishment of lepers was fueled by medieval myths, the hysteria surrounding child sexual abusers is exacerbated by myths about those who suffer from sexual deviancies. Child molesters incarnate our deepest childhood fears... Our myths about child molesters come more from the projections of what lies within our own inner psyches than from the truth about who these men are."

Does that quotation suggest that the author is motivated primarily by a desire to protect children from sexual abuse? Would it surprise you to learn that the author was--and to this day remains--one of the most influential voices advising Catholic Church leaders on the handling of sex-abuse cases?

The quotation comes from a 1995 article by Msgr. Stephen Rossetti in America magazine, with the revealing title: “The Mark of Cain: Reintegrating Pedophiles.”

”Reintegrating Pedophiles” was, in a sense, Msgr. Rossetti’s job from 1996 through 2006, when he served as director of the St. Luke Institute, the most prominent of the facilities treating American priests accused of abusing children. When the sex-abuse scandal erupted in the US, we learned that dozens of priests were released from such facilities and returned to ministry, only to molest children once again. Today, looking back regretfully on their decisions, many bishops explain that when they returned abusive priests to active ministry, they were following the best advice given by experts—experts like Msgr. Rossetti.

“Generally speaking, the results of treatment of priests and religious who have sexually abused children are excellent,” Msgr. Rossetti wrote reassuringly in 1994. “Pessimism about the effectiveness of treatment is simply not warranted.”

Nearly a decade later, having paid more than $3 billion to settle lawsuits brought by sex-abuse victims who persuaded courts that the bishops should have known better, do you think the American hierarchy should still be listening to that advice, or even to that adviser? Well, they are.

Msgr. Rossetti was a key adviser to the US bishops in 2002, when they developed the “Dallas Charter.” He helped develop the “VIRTUS” program that has been adopted in many dioceses as an abuse-prevention system. As the American bishops have come to be seen (rightly or wrongly) as models for Church leadership on the sex-abuse question, Msgr. Rossetti’s fame has spread abroad. In 2003 he address an international symposium in Rome sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life. Last year he was a featured speaker at a symposium on sexual abuse organized by the Gregorian University in Rome, and attended by bishops and religious superiors from all over the world.

If the American bishops recognize that they were listening to the wrong sort of advice when they mishandled sex-abuse complaints in the past, why are they still listening to the same adviser now?

“Can the recovering perpetrator of child abuse ever minister again?” asked Msgr. Rossetti in his 1994 book, Slayer of the Soul. Answering his own question, he said that most of the molesters who had been treated at St. Luke’s “are productively engaged in some form of ministry.” He added, however: “It is usual to have some strictures imposed which honor public sensibilities as well as to help the individual steer clear of risk situations.”

Notice the reasons cited for those restrictions imposed on the molesters: first to “honor public sensibilities”—that is, to avoid PR problems—and then to “help the individual” avoid further transgressions. Conspicuously absent is an expression of concern about the young people who might be endangered by the presence of a predator.

To his credit, during his term as director of St. Luke’s, Msgr. Rossetti was recommending that if a priest was found to have abused children, he should never again be cleared for unrestricted ministry. So abusers were returned to their diocese with a warning label, as it were. But only diocesan officials saw that warning label; parishioners were not informed. If the priest was assigned to supervised ministry, but his supervisor was lax (perhaps because he was under the guidance of a pastor who was himself ignorant of the troubled priest’s background), he might easily find occasions to be alone with children again.

By 2009 Msgr. Rossetti was saying that of the 339 priest-abusers treated at St. Luke’s under his direction, just over 6% had been found to abuse children again. That rate of recidivism, he reports, was far better than the rates achieved by other treatment centers. Still it meant that 21 priests who had been identified as abusers were let loose to abuse children again. We don't know how many children they abused, nor whether there were other repeat abusers, beyond those 21, whose transgressions have gone unreported.

Could a prudent counselor have foreseen that abusive priests should not be returned even to supervised ministry? Yes; in fact one prudent counselor did. In the 1950s, Father Gerald Fitzgerald founded the Servants of the Paraclete to serve troubled priests. Father Fitzgerald soon began advising anyone who would listen that a priest who abuses children should be removed from ministry permanently, and preferably placed in a monastery or other remote location, far away from potential victims. Somehow that wise advice was silenced as the years passed, and instead the American bishops began to listen more carefully to therapists from institutions like St. Luke’s, who took their psychological cues from secular training rather than Thomistic tutors. Even the Servants of the Paraclete forgot their founder’s advice.

In 2009, when the National Catholic Reporter questioned him about Father Fitzgerald’s approach, Msgr. Rossetti said that until recently he had “never heard of this guy.” What a remarkable admission! Father Fitzgerald was a pioneer in his field, treating American Catholic priests at a time when others would not acknowledge the problem. Yet just one generation later, working in that same field, Msgr. Rossetti was not even aware of his predecessor’s work!

What happened, between the 1960s and the 1990s, that caused American Catholic leaders to forget Father Fitzgerald and turn instead to Msgr. Rossetti? The answer to that question might furnish the material for a doctoral dissertation in psychology. But an important part of the problem, I fear, is that few if any Catholic universities today boast psychology departments staffed by professors who still retain an interest in the distinctively Catholic approach that nourished the thought of Father Fitzgerald.

Meanwhile, until that important dissertation is written, let me ask another question. Having learned such painful lessons from their errors, why aren’t Church leaders urgently looking today for Father Fitzgerald’s intellectual heirs, rather than continuing to rely on the adviser who told them that in handling abusive priests: “Pessimism about the effectiveness of treatment is simply not warranted?”

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Dec. 20, 2016 9:42 PM ET USA

    Thanks for sounding the alarm that the debate with its accusations of rigidity and blocking the Holy Spirit are moving in a direction of a lack of charity and respect. I add that one only has to look at Alinsky's "Rules for Radicals" and see the tactics described there being applied here.

  • Posted by: bernie4871 - Dec. 20, 2016 8:33 PM ET USA

    Marriage is the working extension of man's very purpose on Earth. The Sacraments, Christ Himself, are all supports of that driving purpose. The "individual", certainly, but the whole of mankind is the great ascending element of God's plan and marriage is the teaching instrument of love, fidelity, permanence and children, for all our lifetimes. If the Catholic Church hasn't figured that out by now, and how to express it, we are hopelessly lost indeed. Pope Francis, please stop the doublespeak.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Dec. 19, 2016 4:08 PM ET USA

    "In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men's own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfilment of God's superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church." (Pope John XXIII at opening of Vatican II). In all Church history there is no statement quite like this. Since, the Church has not been the same. Honesty is a chastener.

  • Posted by: MWCooney - Dec. 19, 2016 11:34 AM ET USA

    To me, the key is found in this quotation from the article: " ... the debate should be charitable. But it must also be honest. We can’t wish away the disagreement ..." Charity and humility, always; Dishonesty and (thereby) denying Christ, never."

  • Posted by: demark8616 - May. 22, 2013 8:12 PM ET USA

    I came across an interview of Sandro Magister with Msgr. Charles Scicluna, "promoter of justice" of the CDF who is the prosecutor of the tribunal & who investigates these cases. Lots of reassuring info...

  • Posted by: demark8616 - May. 22, 2013 7:23 PM ET USA

    I was under the mistaken (and naive) impression that all offenders were laicized. It goes against all human reason to not do so. We can only pray that Pope Francis does something effective: "... Chicago Jesuits consciously concealed the crimes of convicted sex offender Donald McGuire for more than 40 years as the prominent Roman Catholic priest continued to sexually abuse dozens of children around the globe."

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - May. 10, 2013 7:52 AM ET USA

    And now it is important to note that the man who replaced Rossetti at St Luke has resigned unexpectedly; he is under investigation for misuse of diocesan funds while an official in NH and for undisclosed sexual improprieties. While in NH, of course, he was in charge of handling.....abusive priests for Bishop John McCormack, a graduate of the Bernard Law of Boston school of ethical conduct. I am sure this is all just pure coincidence. Hey, misconduct and ignorance happen!

  • Posted by: mpcar7850 - Apr. 30, 2013 10:58 PM ET USA

    It seems a bit unfair to condemn a man for something he said almost 20 years ago; people change over time. I had a class (Pastoral Counseling) with Msgr. Rossetti a few semesters ago and found nothing objectionable in what he presented to us.

  • Posted by: meegan2136289 - Apr. 28, 2013 4:01 PM ET USA

    "priest who abuses children should be removed from ministry...and preferably placed in a monastery." Is this really wise advice? Why should sexual predators be supported in Catholic monasteries? And why should the GOOD men in monasteries have to live with sex predators? How about immediate laicization with NO material support? I have to believe that Christ loves His Church and doesn't put priestly vocations into sex predators. And unless a predator is under 24-7 supervision, he'll find victims.

  • Posted by: Tex132 - Apr. 26, 2013 7:57 PM ET USA

    Dear Phil, Thank you for shedding light on a real problem in the Church. As a survivor of inappropriate behavior by a priest it pains me to see how little the Church seems to have learned ten years after Boston and 3 billion dollars later. It's discouraging when you see the Church continuing to support weak programs like Virtus and not embracing effective programs like those proposed by the Maria Goretti Network.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Apr. 26, 2013 7:08 AM ET USA

    This is not the only area in which steadfast pastoral persistence in a strategy that is not working can be seen. It is, however, among the most nightmarish. One can only imagine the pain and anger for the victims and for their families. So much of the basics of Christianity has been put aside as we have worked to update our thinking it seems we have become blind to the self-evident. Without the proper foundation no structure- regardless of its surface beauty- can long stand. J+M+J.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Apr. 25, 2013 11:47 PM ET USA

    It would appear that the Bishops disproportionately and inappropriately magnified the dignity of the office over the welfare of the sheep. To value that power itself over the well-being (of the sheep) for which that power is given is a monstrous sin. It is a sin even greater than that of the pedophilia. As it is written, “Situations that cause men to fall into sin will always happen, but woe to that man through whom those situations come!”

  • Posted by: shrink - Apr. 25, 2013 11:23 PM ET USA

    Thanks Phil ! Spot on. Rossetti has never understood that a secular psychotherapeutic cannot address a spiritual disease, and that spiritual disease can cause psychological disease. Both Fitzgerald-as you note-and Thomas Verner Moore saw the central role of spiritual/ascetical formation at the center of psychological health in the priest. Rossetti's ignorance of such matters speaks volumes on how the pederasty scandal sprang from a moribund seminary spirituality based on secular psychology.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Apr. 25, 2013 9:54 PM ET USA

    This goes beyond outrageous. Even admitting that the current crop of American bishops is hardly the best we have ever had, what can possess them to trust anyone capable of writing what you cite at the beginning of this article? It's enough to make one wish the old conspiracy theories about Masons in high clerical office were true. At least the Masons tend to be smart.