Germain Grisez on What U.S. Bishops Could Do About Sexual Abuse

Excerpt from His Submission to the Ad Hoc Committee

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EMMITSBURG, Maryland, MAY 18, 2002 ( Renowned moral theologian Germain Grisez has submitted a lengthy recommendation to the U.S. bishops´ ad hoc committee on sexual abuse.

In the wake of scandals involving priests, the bishops´ conference will address possible solutions, at a meeting in Texas next month.

Here, ZENIT publishes an excerpt from Grisez´s recommendation. The entire document can be seen at (

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Submission to the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse
United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
By Germain Grisez, Ph.D., Professor of Christian Ethics
Mount Saint Mary´s College and Seminary

It seems to me that the Ad Hoc Committee faces a dilemma: on the one hand, the expectations of the faithful and the public at large require the USCCB to adopt a national policy on clerical sexual abuse at the June meeting; on the other hand, there is not enough time to do the job with due care. So, I assume an interim policy will be adopted in June and at least a year will be devoted to working out the final version. However, not knowing the Committee´s plans, I shall present my analyses and suggestions as I would if the final version were being worked out.

Bishops will be concerned in diverse ways with sexual abuse by those not diocesan clerics: members of institutes of consecrated life and societies of apostolic life, lay people employed by the Church or by some recognized Catholic entity, volunteers participating in Catholic activities, the lay faithful in general, and the public at large. For simplicity´s sake, however, I focus in this submission on sexual wrongdoing by diocesan clerics.

All or almost all the wrongdoing that led to the present crisis consisted of acts by clerics that violated criminal law and victimized boys or young men. Besides such crimes, clerics sometimes engage in other sorts of sexual abuse. Some commit sex crimes against underage women. Some sexually harass minors or adults of either sex. Some clerical sexual wrongdoing involves hard-core pornography with lewd images of persons who appear to be minors. Some clerics engage in consensual sexual acts that nevertheless are abusive inasmuch as the cleric perverts his relationship with someone either entrusted to his pastoral care or serving under his pastoral direction.

Even if an instance of sexual abuse is not a crime, it is an objectively grave moral evil. Bishops should develop and apply appropriate policies with respect to each sort of sexual abuse. In view of the Committee´s focus on criminal sexual behavior involving minors, however, I deal in this submission only with that and the very similar sort of wrongdoing involving nonconsenting adults. To refer to this subject matter in what follows, I use the phrase, "clerical sexual offenses." ...

Processing cases

Every bishop ought to designate a diocesan office to receive and consider each and every accusation or complaint about clerical sexual offenses and to initiate appropriate action. In my judgment, devout married couples who have raised their children should be involved sufficiently in the designated office´s consideration and handling of cases to ensure that victims, potential victims, and their families will receive due pastoral care and anything else to which they are entitled. Those who staff the designated office should be readily accessible, and ways of contacting them should be widely and regularly publicized.

The bishop should direct everyone under his jurisdiction and ask the public at large to bring or send any complaint or information about a clerical sexual offense to the designated office. The bishop should require all clerics, religious, and Church employees to report promptly to that office any clerical sexual offense of which they become aware or which they have good reason to think occurred, and to forward to that office any complaint or relevant information that comes to their attention (of course, with due regard for the seal of confession). The bishop also should instruct clerics, religious, and Church employees that they have a grave moral obligation to comply with that requirement, and should provide for and impose a just penalty on those who do not.

Some public authorities and media of communication try to protect victims of sex offenses and their families against unwanted publicity. Bishops should promote such reasonable efforts to protect privacy, and those acting on behalf of the diocese should cooperate with them. However, the Church is responsible not only for the true interests of victims and their families but for the interests of Jesus and of everyone who would be injured by future clerical sexual offenses. Therefore, preferences of victims and their families for privacy cannot justify a bishop or others who act on behalf of the diocese in limiting the communication suitable for safeguarding those wider interests.

If public laws with respect to reporting crimes require morally unacceptable actions -- for example, that priests violate the seal of confession -- a sound policy will forbid such actions. Otherwise, a sound policy will direct everyone acting on behalf of a diocese to provide public officials with all the information they need to fulfill their responsibilities in respect to clerical sexual offenses. Dioceses should collaborate with public prosecutors in clarifying those needs, including but not limited to what the law requires about reporting sex offenses; bishops should see to it that legal requirements always are promptly and fully met, and that needs for information beyond those requirements are satisfied to the extent feasible. No one complaining to the diocese about a clerical sexual offense should be dissuaded from complaining to public authorities. Once the diocese has verified a complaint, the victim and those competent to act on his or her behalf should be encouraged to cooperate with public authorities and should be given reasonable help in doing so.

Clerics should be interviewed regarding any accusation against them. If denied, some accusations -- for example, anonymous ones unsupported by any evidence or specific information -- will not warrant further action. A cleric who denies an accusation that calls for investigation should not be suspended pending the outcome. However, he should be supervised closely and his access to potential victims should be limited as much as possible. That often will require temporary removal from his assignment.

Because some accusations will be mistaken or malicious, a sound policy will provide a fair process for investigating accusations and judging their truth. But such a process might reasonably require an accused cleric to waive claims to privacy and allow private investigators employed by the diocese to search his dwelling, possessions, and papers. In obtaining evidence from victims and others, procedures should be used that are very likely to elicit from them a truthful, accurate, and complete account of the cleric´s relevant behavior while at the same time imposing no avoidable burden on the victims and/or their families. In my judgment, critics of polygraph examinations have shown that, while they sometimes can be useful investigative tools, their results are so often erroneous that they never should be considered as evidence of either guilt or innocence.

Sometimes the diocese´s initial investigation and/or eventual process will make it clear that an accused cleric is innocent, that the accusation against him was mistaken or malicious. A sound policy will provide in such cases that the accused cleric´s vindication be well publicized. In my judgment, lawsuits against a diocese based on accusations known by the bishop to be mistaken or malicious almost never should be settled. But if a diocese does settle such a lawsuit, the bishop ought to spare no effort to mitigate the inevitable injury having done so will cause to the innocent cleric´s reputation.

Sometimes, despite the absence of sufficient evidence to establish the guilt of a cleric who denies an accusation, there will be significant grounds for suspecting that he is lying. Such a cleric must not be treated as guilty, and his reputation ought to be protected insofar as possible. But it would be unreasonable to ignore the residual suspicion, and the cleric ought therefore to be supervised closely and assigned so as to minimize risk.

Often, persons who admit or are found guilty of a single instance of wrongdoing have committed one or more other similar or related offenses, about which they generally say nothing. If a conscientious baker found that one of his employees had deliberately contaminated a single loaf and made one customer seriously ill, he would suspect that the culprit might have contaminated other loaves and would warn all his customers to see the doctor promptly about any symptoms. Since sexual offenses are far more injurious than food poisoning, a bishop plainly should do no less when it becomes clear that one of his clerics has engaged in a sexual offense.

A sound policy will therefore provide that accurate and specific information about each clerical sexual offender´s wrongdoing be shared promptly with all the faithful whose souls had been entrusted to his pastoral care. Many young victims of sexual offenses do not tell anyone what is going on until they are asked. Therefore, parents and others must be enlisted to help identify any additional victims so that appropriate pastoral care can be given them. Concern for the good of possible additional victims´ souls will override other concerns-for example, about bad publicity for the diocese or the offending cleric´s reputation. Cardinal Law regrets his former policy of secrecy and says that "we now realize both within the church and in society at large that secrecy often inhibits healing and places others at risk" ("The Necessary Dimensions of a Sexual Abuse Policy," Origins, 31:45 [25 April 2002]: 744).

It is worth noting that the policy of publicizing a clerical sexual offender´s wrongdoing will have a beneficial side effect. Priests value the respect and affection of people they serve and have served. Foreseeing that an offense could be made known to everyone who had ever been under his pastoral care will be a powerful motive for a tempted cleric to resist the temptation.

The offender

Likewise, the bishop´s first concern in dealing with an offending cleric must be the good of the cleric´s soul. As John Paul II said in his address to those meeting in the apostolic palace on 23 April 2002, "we cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person´s soul and can work extraordinary change." Therefore, the bishop should treat the offending cleric with pastoral mercy and gently try to promote his repentance and sincere commitment to avoid all grave sin and live in perfect continence. A clerical sexual offender should be given every reasonable help, including the service of suitable mental health professionals, to begin a new and upright life as a responsible member of society.

Nevertheless, reverence for Christ and justice for others likely to be injured by additional sexual offenses limit what a bishop can rightly do for a cleric who has committed an offense. If it sooner or later becomes clear that an offender is likely to remain a threat to society, the bishop should do everything he reasonably can to mitigate that threat. Moreover, a cleric who has committed even one sexual offense should, in my judgment, never again be authorized to engage in ministry -- with due regard for canon law´s authorization of ministry in exceptional situations even by laicized clerics --and he should be laicized, if possible, as quickly as possible.

Four considerations argue for this position.

First, clerical sexual abuse of minors is "rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God" (John Paul II, 23 April 2002). Every such act profoundly betrays a cleric´s responsibility to act in Jesus´ person and to promote the salvific benefit of Jesus´ acts. As Dr. Berlin said: "Of course the youngster, in respecting the priest and in feeling that the priest is not going to lead him astray, is at a tremendous disadvantage." Once a man has taken advantage of his priesthood to lead one youngster astray, there is reason to fear he will do so again. Unless an offender assigned to a convent, nursing home, or prison chaplaincy is permanently and securely confined there, his assignment will not prevent him from coming into contact with minors and abusing his priesthood to seduce them. The only way to ensure that an offender will not abuse his priesthood again is to laicize him.

Some will say: "Laicizing every first offender is too severe a punishment; Christian mercy requires giving some a second chance." But the point of laicizing offenders is not only to punish their law breaking. Its point also, and more importantly, is to prevent the real and very serious evils involved in and consequent upon clerical sexual offenses. Severity is necessary to protect and promote the true interests of Jesus and the Church. So-called mercy to offenders is injustice to others concerned. In particular, so-called compassion for offenders is cruelty to potential victims.

Stephen J. Rossetti, "The Catholic Church and Child Sexual Abuse," America, 23 April 2002, admits that dismissing priest molesters from every form of ministry "is certainly the safest action for the church," but argues: "But is this the safest course for children? When priests are dismissed from the ministry, they go out into society unsupervised and perhaps even untreated. Then they are free to do as they please." Rossetti´s argument is not sound. Clerical sexual offenders exploit their priesthood to prey on their victims. Moreover, even if retaining offenders in ministry would reduce the risk of further offenses, which I do not concede, only laicizing them eliminates the risk of many of the spiritual evils that are the specific concern of bishops. Clerics who admit to or are found guilty of a sexual offense need not be dismissed untreated; as I have said, they should be offered both pastoral care and treatment by suitable mental health professionals. Moreover, like other conscientious citizens, Catholics, including bishops, can and should urge public authorities to provide more effective law enforcement and supervision of all sex offenders.

Second, charity also calls for severity in order to help those who are weak but well disposed to resist temptations to wrong others gravely and injure themselves. The prospect of laicization will motivate some clerics experiencing temptations to seek help before they commit any sexual offense and will deter some from giving in to temptation. Those who do not seek help and are not deterred by the prospect of laicization will be likely again to harm the young, and "there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young" (John Paul II, 23 April 2002).

Third, reporting clerics´ sexual offenses to public authorities and sharing information about their wrongdoing with everyone who had been entrusted to their pastoral care -- as should be done -- will damage their reputations and greatly limit their potential for effective and fulfilling service in the Church. Laicizing them while taking these steps and helping those who are well disposed to make a fresh start may well be better for them than assigning them to permanently restricted ministries.

Fourth, if bishops do everything they reasonably can to prevent clerical sexual offenses, including promptly laicizing offenders, then victims and their families will have no reason to blame anyone but the individual wrongdoers. The evident noncomplicity of the diocesan bishop and other clerics will have two good effects. First, and most important, victims and others morally and spiritually injured will be far more ready to receive sound and gentle pastoral care and will be more likely to benefit from it and be restored to grace and spiritual health or strengthened in their life of faith. Second, victims and their families will have few motives and no sound basis for suing anyone but the perpetrator, with the good result that lawsuits, if any, against dioceses, bishops, and others probably will be few and easily dealt with.