To: All Priests of the USA
From: Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti, Ph.D., D.Min. President, Saint Luke Institute
Date: February 28, 2002
We priests feel like we are being pounded in the media. The headlines are horrible: "Priest Pedophile," "Church Cover-up," "Millions Paid Out." What could be worse than to be accused of being a child molester, to be accused of conspiring to keep it all secret, and to be paying out millions of dollars that ought to be used to help the poor or to educate our Catholic school children? The headlines are screaming at us and we feet like we have no recourse but to read the news stories and remain silent.
But something needs to be said. Yet, I hesitate even to write this letter. I know that many of you feel like the entire presbyterate is being tainted by the scandal; we are all suffering for the crimes of a few. Similarly, the scandals have tainted us at Saint Luke Institute as well. We assist priests, sisters and brothers with a wide variety of human problems. Only a small number of our residents have molested minors. Yet, our residents feel as if they are branded as child molesters, and, at times, the Institute is labeled unfairly as a program for pedophiles. The Institute is so much more; the priesthood is so much more. My inclination, perhaps like yours, is to remain silent, hoping that it will soon all go away and we won't be tarred again.
We became priests because we wanted to make a difference. We became priests because we thought that priesthood was something good and noble. People respected their priests and looked up to them. It seemed to us to be something sacred; God called us. Now, priesthood feels sullied and we are ashamed. Our inclination is to hide. Perhaps we are wearing our clerical collars a bit less, staying out of public view a bit more, avoiding conversations, or pondering other vocations in life we could have chosen.
The fact is: we agree that child abuse is a horrific act. We deplore the abuse of minors by anyone. We, too, want to cry out, "This abuse has got to stop'" We have tried mightily these past decades to erase it from our Church and our world...but it continues; just as other problems keep rearing their ugly heads like alcohol abuse, drug addiction, personality disorders, and depression. It makes us feel powerless. There is so much sin and disorder in this world, and the priesthood is not immune. But, by his own life, Jesus showed us that we must face the reality of suffering and sin directly.
Many priests can recall former days when society placed priests on a pedestal. Priests were thought to be better than others. Now, a few people have gone to the other extreme. They suggest that priests as a group are more disturbed than others. But we ought to recall that celibacy is not a factor in someone being sexually attracted to or acting out with minors; in fact, most people who sexually molest children are, or will be, married. Similarly, a few have implied that a celibate priesthood attracts deviant men. It is difficult for people to find a middle ground, to understand that priests are people just like themselves, with all their strengths and virtues, as well as their weaknesses and problems.
It would be easy to say simply that these are "bad" priests. Then the task at hand would be only to identify these "bad" priests and to get rid of them. Perhaps... but I think, as priests, we hesitate a bit with such simplistic solutions. Maybe it is true that all "bad" priests should be thrown out of ministry , but would children be safer with them out in society and unsupervised? One bishop told me that he felt it would be immoral for him to do so. He said, "Isn't it safer for our children if these men were treated, supervised and put into controlled ministries with no contact with children?" Some bishops have done this and they have been criticized. There are no simple solutions; our bishops know that. And we know that it is spiritually dangerous to label some people as "bad" and "not like us." It reminds us of the publican's prayer.
The news reports say that these men are incurable. This, too, is simplistic. It is true that it is unlikely that their sexual attraction to minors will be changed. But there is a wide range in treatability of offenders; they are not all the same. Many of them can and do make substantial progress. Many of them have gone on to live chaste lives. Manyof them do stop molesting children. What will we do with such men? The outcry demands that they all be "de-frocked." In the end, we will probably be forced to do so. But will we really have done the right thing?
Some have said that our bishops have been secretive. They are accused of being more concerned about preserving the reputation of the Church than protecting children. They are portrayed as being callous and ignorant. I have worked with our bishops closely for many years when difficulties have arisen with their priests. I have come away from these encounters convinced that our bishops are bright and hard-working men. They are faith-filled and try their best to do what is right. They are concerned about their priests, and they are concerned about the people of their dioceses, including the children. They are shepherds of both. In hindsight, their decisions have not always been right. But I have always found them to be decisions made in good faith with a view to doing the right thing.
We priests are afraid of what will happen to us. We are afraid of false accusations. But false accusations are rare. They can usually be quickly identified. Nevertheless, they do exist and we all need to remember that people are innocent until proven guilty .It is not right that people are being tried in the court of public opinion. There are other rights too which are being forgotten. Victims have a right to confidentiality .The media do not have the right to publish everything.
There are many reasons to hope. First, our people are more discerning than some realize. A recent Boston poll, taken during the height of the latest scandals, shows that only 4% of Catholics are dissatisfied with their parish priests. Even during the most difficult of times, people love and respect their priests. We, priests, have stood by our people when they were sick and suffering. Now, in our time of need, they are standing by us.
Second, we have learned much over the past few decades. It is my experience that the Church is at the forefront in dealing with the issue of child abuse. Our bishops and our church have made great strides in education, treatment and prevention. Sadly, there have been mistakes. Dealing responsibly with allegations is much more difficult than would first appear, and it will remain so. Thus, we must continue to be vigilant. But our policies are good; our procedures are becoming stronger; and we are becoming wiser. And our learning will be of benefit to the whole society.
I am sorry that you and I, as priests, have to live during this painful period in the history of the Church. We are upset and we are ashamed. But there is an opportunity here. You and I have the opportunity, and the responsibility, to make our priesthood and our Church a place that is safer for children. The welfare of children must be our first concern. We have been given the chance to make a difference.
Child sexual abuse has been going on in our Church and in our world since the earliest of days. Underneath the din of today's screaming headlines, we can hear the cries of our children for help, the anguish of their grieving parents, and the painful shame-of the perpetrators. Each of them wants our help. People still need their priests. We cannot hide; we cannot remain silent.
You and I can make a difference!