Reformation After the Abuse Crisis (Part 1)

Interview With Authors Gregory Erlandson and Matthew Bunson

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By Karna Swanson

HUNGTINGTON, Indiana, JULY 6, 2010 ( It’s 2002 all over again, and the Church is once more passing through the painful process of coming to grips with a new wave of sexual abuse cases. But what’s different this time is that the Church has more knowledge of the illness of pedophilia, and 10 years of experience of the U.S. bishops to build on.

These are the conclusions of Matthew Bunson and Gregory Erlandson in their recently published book «Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal» (Our Sunday Visitor, 2010). Erlandson is the president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, and Bunson is the editor of The Catholic Almanac and The Catholic Answer magazine (both published by Our Sunday Visitor), as well as a media consultant on Catholic issues.

In the first part of their interview with ZENIT, the authors discuss the current wave of sexual abuse cases and explain why it’s important to be precise when using clinical terms such as pedophilia, ephebophilia or hebephilia, and why the response of the U.S. bishops to the crisis in 2002 is an important model for other episcopal conferences.

Part 2 of this interview will appear Wednesday.

ZENIT: In media reports, we hear the term pedophilia a lot. In your book you explain that some 6% of all reported cases are actually cases of pedophilia, which is clinically defined as sexually abusing pre-pubescent children. Why the confusion regarding terminology, and how important is it to use the correct terminology? Is the Church downplaying the sexual abuse crisis by pointing out that the abused boys were older youth and teenagers?

Bunson and Erlandson: First, we must make it absolutely clear that abuse is abuse and is abhorrent, whatever the age of the minor. It is both a crime and a sin. That an adult with power and authority — and in the case of the clergy with the trappings of divine authority — sexually abuses a minor is intolerable. Period.
When the discussion turns to clinical categories, however, one must recognize that one of the most difficult aspects of confronting the problem of sexual abuse has been the need to deepen our knowledge of pedophilia. While the psychiatric profession was aware of clinical pedophilia for more than a century, only in 1950s was it formally identified and only in 1980 was it given diagnostic parameters by mental health professionals. The distinctions clinicians are using identify whether the victim is pre-pubescent, pubescent or classified as a young adult.

It is essential for those in authority in the Church to understand every aspect of this problem in order to deal with it effectively and comprehensively and to craft proper mechanisms for preventing it in the future. This entails clinical precision in approaching the matter. For example, we note the different age groups of the victims and the precise terms that are used for the various forms of illness involved, e.g. pedophilia (under the age of 10), ephebophilia (10-14) or hebephilia (14-17).

These distinctions are not made in some effort to minimize or downplay the issue; quite the opposite in fact. If we are able to determine that certain age groups of children are more likely to be victims of sexual abuse, we can focus even more heavily on the reasons for that and foster regulations and barriers for their protection and well-being. The U.S. studies have shown that the majority of the abuse cases involve the 10 to 14 age group, which is, for example, the primary age group of altar servers.

Anyone who tries to use the statistics to suggest that this is not a severe problem or that there might be mitigating circumstances is both misreading the severity of this crime and sin and doing a disservice to the victims, their families and the Church.

ZENIT: The United States passed through the height of its sexual abuse crisis in 2002 — almost 10 years ago! Late last year, the publication of the Ryan and Murphy reports in Ireland sparked another crisis, which has affected Europe more than the United States this time. What was in those reports that managed to bring this topic to the forefront again?

Bunson and Erlandson: From the start, our book was intended to help inform people about the true history of the crisis, both in the United States and around the world. One of the things that we saw immediately in the face of this new wave of abuse cases globally is what you pointed to in your question. When the U.S. Church was forced to confront the media revelations in 2002, the bishops responded with a comprehensive package of reforms – the Dallas Charter, the Essential Norms for the conduct of cases, annual audits and the implementation of zero tolerance and safe environment in parishes, schools and Catholic institutions.

In the wake of the new round of media revelations around the world, Catholics in this country might get the impression that nothing has been accomplished in the last eight years. Our book seeks to remind people about what they might have forgotten. We have made immense progress in the United States in this area. While we have more to do and must remain ever-vigilant, the United States is now a model for the rest of the world in dealing with this crisis.

That is an important background in looking at the tragedy of the Church in Ireland and elsewhere. The Ryan and Murphy reports — detailing the shocking and horrifying extent of abuse and institutional failure in Ireland and in particular the Archdiocese of Dublin — have shaken the Church in Ireland and have done considerable damage to the credibility and moral authority of the Church in that country; they likewise have impacted the credibility of the government which was complicit in past decades in the terrible sexual and physical abuse of children because of its inactivity and unwillingness to confront the problem.

The Irish bishops and leaders in the Irish Church knew that the reports would reveal terrible findings regarding the abuse of minors, but the sheer weight and horror of the facts surprised everyone. Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin has spoken extensively on this, and he has been a true leader in pointing to the long and difficult road to reform and renewal for the Irish Church. Even more important, the Holy Father received the reports and wrote his unprecedented letter to the Catholics of Ireland in March. This is an extraordinary document in its frankness and expressions of sadness, apology and pledge to all of Ireland that the Church is truly committed to bringing healing to the victims, justice to the abusers, accountability to the bishops who failed in their duties and spiritual renewal in the years to come.

Sadly, we are seeing similar problems emerge across the world. There are cases in Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Australia is now emerging out of its own terrible crisis, and there are cases in Brazil and the Philippines.

But here we see the importance of the U.S. experience. The norms and programs established by the bishops of the United States are now being used as a blueprint for the countries facing the same scandals.

ZENIT: Most of the abuse cases deal with cases that took place 20-30 years ago. Why is the Church dealing with this problem now? What took it so long?

Bunson and Erlandson: You bring up an important component to a proper understanding of this crisis. The majority of cases took place 30, 40 and even 50 years ago. In the United States, there were several high profile cases in the 1980s and 1990s, but the storm of cases struck around 2001-2002 as a result in part of the explosive reporting of The Boston Globe newspaper about documents obtained from the Archdiocese of Boston. The media coverage in turn encouraged many other victims to come forward. We are seeing a similar situation in Europe, where the recent news coverage has prompted m
ore victims to speak up, even in countries such as The Netherlands that already had made extensive efforts to encourage victims to speak out. The Church in these countries is making it clear that it really wants to deal with the problem now that it has been brought fully into the open.

As we just said, the Church in the United States has been dealing with this problem actively for nearly a decade now. Australia has been facing it for many years as well. Austria has struggled with it for some years, including the resignation of Cardinal Hermann Gröer, the archbishop of Vienna, in 1995, and a scandal involving the seminary of Sankt Pölten in 2004.

There is an understandable impression that the crisis is getting worse, that new cases are piling up and that we have done nothing to improve the situation. The truth is that a painful process had to take place during which Catholic leaders came to a better understanding of the scope and severity of the problem confronting the Church. Terrible mistakes were made in the past, and many cases and situations were ignored. These finally came to light decades after they happened, and the steps took time to be crafted and implemented. Now, Europe and elsewhere have to deal with the same situation American bishops dealt with in 2002.

[Part 2: Benedict XVI’s role in leading the Church forward]

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