Scott Simon interviews Father Steve Rossetti
on the Problems with the Priesthood
Scott Simon: But first, for more than a month now there have been nearly daily headlines about the scandal of Catholic priests who have sexually exploited young people. The stories raise many legal and moral issues and they call into question the Catholic Church's ability to minister to victimized young people, as well as the church's ability to maintain a celibate and chaste clergy that proclaims the gospel in word and in deed. Father Steve Rossetti is a priest and psychologist who treats fellow priests who have molested young people. He serves as a consultant to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on the issue.
And thank you very much for being with us.
Father STEVE ROSSETTI (US Conference of Catholic Bishops): Scott, it's good to be here.
SIMON: I think I've got to give you the hard one first. Why do priests do something so palpably wrong?
Father ROSSETTI: It is shocking and hard to understand for anyone who is not attracted to minors. And I think that's one of the reasons why it's making such big headlines, because it is so shocking when a person with a sacred trust commits such a heinous crime.
I think clinically it's important to look at some of the roots. For example, we found that two-thirds of the priests who sexually molest minors themselves were sexually molested as minors, and that's typical of the secular population as well. So what we're seeing is a kind of cycle of abuse, and I think the priesthood reflects this unfortunate sexual abuse throughout our country and throughout the world, frankly. Really, if this were a medical condition, child sexual abuse in our society, in our world, would be an epidemic.
SIMON: Yeah. I mean, I recognize you're not trying to define anybody's disreputable behavior, but isn't the point about being a priest that they're not supposed to reflect what the world is?
Father ROSSETTI: Right. But when you have 44,000 human priests in the United States, you're going to have a wide range of human problems, and a small percentage, our numbers suggest about 2 percent or less, have sexually molested minors, which is 2 percent more than it should be, but still...
Father ROSSETTI: ...it's a problem.
SIMON: Father, you've referred to child molestation as a behavior, not a diagnosis.
Father ROSSETTI: Yes, and that's important. Because many times people, when they're hearing about child sexual abuse, assume that they're all pedophiles, for example. And pedophilia is one subset, if you will, of child molesters. A pedophile is someone who has a diagnosable attraction to prepubescent minors--that's children under the age of pubescence; that's very young children--and they're very resistant to treatment and tend to be more predatory, they tend to be, and more resistant to treatment and more likely to relapse. Fortunately, those folks are in the extreme minority in our society. The John Geoghans of the world, fortunately, are the exceptions.
Most people who molest minors, whether they're priests or wherever, tend to molest children who are older. Now it's still a crime, a terrible crime, and it's still a sin, but priests respond to treatment better and their relapse rate is lower.
SIMON: And I must say what do you say to those people who would say, I think, just this bluntly, 'I'm not interested in the priest getting treatment. I'm interested in the priest getting locked up'?
Father ROSSETTI: Well, I certainly agree that a priest or anyone who molests minors should be exposed to the full extent of the law. Very few cases of child molestation in society are adjudicated, unfortunately, and I think more should. But nonetheless, the typical sentence is only a few years. So what happens when they are released from jail, even if they are adjudicated? They have to go somewhere. And if we don't treat them, they're likely to abuse more people.
SIMON: Is there something distinct, as you see it in--and I'm speaking of the psychological treatment we're talking about, that kind of therapy--something distinct in the treatment that a priest ought to receive as opposed to an ordinary citizen?
Father ROSSETTI: Well, I think the basics are the same--victim empathy, understanding the victim's hurt, stopping the cycle of abuse, dealing with their sexuality and peer relationships. All those basic treatment modalities are the same. There are a few additions that we do add.
One, for example, shame, is always an issue. We want them to feel guilty about their behavior, but that shame-based, 'I'm a shame-filled person,' only further exacerbates their dysfunctional behavior. So we find that priests, because they themselves think they should be better than other people, have an enormous amount of shame.
The second piece I would say is also, to help them to integrate their spirituality and their vocational life, they need to come to experience a stronger spirituality, a deeper relationship with God and with the world and with others, which would help them not reoffend.
SIMON: You mentioned one of the things you might try to do is evoke some empathy with the victim.
Father ROSSETTI: Yes.
SIMON: Could you explain to us in a very nuts-and-bolts way, if you please, how that's done?
Father ROSSETTI: It's important--many times offenders, whether they're priests or whatever, will say a part of their rationalization or minimization, you know, 'The child was a willing participant; the child was coming on to me; or the child was a complicit person in this relationship,' and not recognize the fear, the hurt and the anger in the victim. And so one of the ways of getting to that is to have the perpetrator recognize how much they were harmed. And when they can feel the hurt and pain in their own lives, then they begin to recognize perhaps what they did to someone else.
SIMON: Does the sexual orientation of an abusive priest matter?
Father ROSSETTI: Whether they're homosexual or heterosexual, you mean?
SIMON: Yeah. Or bisexual or anything.
Father ROSSETTI: Whatever their sexual orientation is--well, there are many different kinds. For example, there's some talk these days about homosexuals and child-sexual abuse. It's important to recognize that, first of all, homosexuality and pedophilia--that is, attraction to prepubescent minors--are not related. But is homosexuality related to the sexual abuse of same-sex adolescents, for example, 15-, 16-, 17-year-olds?
Well, I think we need to make a distinction here. There is one subset, if you will, of homosexuals who are attracted to late adolescents and that's one small group I call the stunted or regressed homosexuals. But there are many other kinds of homosexuality which are related to their peers. So it's important for us not to pigeonhole one group, but to say, 'Who really are those who sexually molest minors?' And they tend to be either the classic pedophiles or they tend to be those who are emotionally stunted, perhaps because they themselves were abused, and they might be 15 years old themselves emotionally.
SIMON: Forgive me for not knowing this, but I don't think I've even made an attempt to add it up. Are most of the cases we're talking about same-sex molestation?
Father ROSSETTI: I would say a number of them are. Young women are also abused, so I think there are both. Probably there are a few more males than females, I would say.
SIMON: In your training as a priest, was there much talk about sex or was it all about chastity?
Father ROSSETTI: Interestingly enough, there's a misconception out there that somehow the church has its head buried in the sand about human sexuality. Now I know that a bunch of people disagree with the church's teaching, but my own experience in the seminary is that we did more formation and more screening in terms of sexuality and more discussion of sexuality than I suspect just about any other profession in the United States. Now one policeman recently said he retired from the police force and tried to become a deacon in the Catholic Church, and he did. He said, 'The screening I got to become a deacon in the Catholic Church was much rougher than it was for the police department.'
I mean, we can always do better, but I know that there's quite a bit of work being done in seminaries today.
SIMON: Let me risk putting you in real trouble with your church. Is the idea of celibacy in the priesthood part of the problem?
Father ROSSETTI: I know that's always an issue that serves as--whenever you see a priest that has a sexual problem, they say, 'Aha, you know, it must be celibacy.' But anyone who works in the field of child abuse knows that most child abusers in the world are or will be married. And most of the psychological dynamics which lead someone to sexually abusing a minor are long in place before a person enters the seminary.
So people will say, 'Well, look at these priests sexually molesting minors. Let's throw out celibacy and that'll take care of the problem.' But, see, that's going at the wrong issue and we're going to waste a lot of energy going in the wrong direction. I think if we want to stop child abuse as much as we can than we have to go to the real roots of it or we're going to have the same problem all over again.
SIMON: Father, thank you very much.
Father ROSSETTI: Scott, it's my pleasure.
SIMON: Father Stephen Rossetti, a priest at the Diocese of Syracuse and consultant at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops on the issue of sexual abuse of young people by priests.