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BREAKING THE SILENCE | THE CHURCH & SEXUAL ABUSE

Catholics watching for change

By Linda Matchan, Globe Staff, 11/22/1992

Second of two parts

 The series
Part One
Catholics struggle with delay

Part Two
Catholics watching for change

 In-depth
In 1992, the Rev. James R. Porter case in Fall River brought the problem of clergy abuse into the open.  
Coverage of the Porter case

ne day last week, a group of seminarians at St. John's Seminary in Brighton discussed the case of James Porter, the former priest accused of child molestation in three Massachusetts parishes during the 1960s.

Seated in elegant wing chairs in a vast, austere lounge, the young men enumerated some of the reasons why the Roman Catholic Church of today is very different from the church of Porter's day. For one thing, priests and bishops today have a better understanding of psychology and sexual abuse, asserted the men, who will be ordained next spring.

"They thought of it as a sin, as a moral defect in their character," said Bob Purdy, 31. "But today we understand it as a sickness and a pathology."

But as details emerge about the handling of the Porter case, the church's response to it and to other reported cases of sexual abuse, some theologians and Catholic commentators are asking whether the culture of the church has really changed that much. Not only are some of the old problems lingering, they say, new ones are threatening the well-being of the priesthood, a consuming vocation in which most men spend their lives in the service of other people.

The young men at St. John's said that priests no longer are perceived as infallible by parishioners, who would be more inclined to blow the whistle on miscreants. Contemporary priests are more secular, they added. They do not live the sheltered, restricted lives of Porter's generation that might have encouraged sexual deviance.

"We are expected to have healthy relationships with people beyond the seminary walls," said Michael Heintz, 25.

Above all, they emphasized, priests no longer feel they are part of an elitist, inviolable brotherhood. "We correct each other," said Heintz.

But the theologians and commentators assert that some of the influences on the handling of the Porter case -- the secrecy surrounding the alleged abuse, for example, or the perception among some bishops and priests that the church may operate outside the rules of lay society -- remain, to some extent, within many quarters of the fundamentally conservative institution of the Catholic Church.

They say that even though Catholic priests are no more likely to abuse children than other clergy, Porter's was not an isolated case, and new cases of sexual abuse continue to come to light: A recent book on the subject by journalist Jason Berry documents 400 cases of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the United States. The theologians and commentators emphasize that there are new pressures on today's priests -- the difficulty of observing celibacy in a more openly sexual society, for example, or the increased workload and isolation as the numbers of priests decline -- that could lead troubled priests to become more unstable.

"Our church will not move from 'from death to life' in dealing with sexual abuse without profound and radical change," concludes a 1992 report on the subject commissioned by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Much remains to be done before our Christian communities begin to resemble what Jesus envisioned for them."

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States has not commissioned any such report. Although last week it reiterated guidelines on the sexual abuse of children by priests, issuing a five-point statement of principles, the statement is not binding on individual bishops.

"No matter how many new guidelines are crafted, no matter how many new victims come forward to accuse sexually abusive priests, and no matter how many of these priests are removed from their ministry or even sent to prison, the problem of sexual abuse in the priesthood is not going to go away," said Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame who writes a widely syndicated Catholic newspaper column.

"The reason is because the bishops are not attending to the problems that continue to exist in the pipeline -- the seminaries," he said. "Normal, sexually mature young men simply are not considering a vocation in the priesthood today" because of the celibacy requirement. "Too much has changed in the culture."

Certainly the church has undergone a sea change since the days of Porter, who attended St. Mary's Seminary in Baltimore and was ordained in 1960.

According to Rev. William Fay, dean of the college of liberal arts at St. John's Seminary, that institution now seeks to produce individuals with a broad range of interests and many friendships -- including women and men -- outside the seminary. They are encouraged to take theology courses off the seminary grounds at such institutions as Harvard and Boston College. Many enter the seminary after completing four years of training in unrelated fields including computer science or liberal arts.

Seminary training through the late 1960s, until the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, was standard across the country and followed a monastic model. Education was routinized, conformity was prized, and "the education experience was more indoctrination than inquiry or enrichment," according to one former priest, who asked not be named and who trained at St. John's Seminary.

He recalled that when he was studying to be a priest in the 1950s, he wore a long black cassock, spent all but three hours a day in silence, and received virtually no training in matters of human development, psychology or sexuality, even though he was expected to spend the rest of his life ministering to the deepest needs of parishioners.

While it is true that Americans in general have shared misconceptions and inhibitions about sexual issues along with the clergy, priests experienced, in effect, a double taboo.

"I entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1947 and I remember that in our text on moral theology, the English shifted into Latin when the seventh and 10th commandments regarding sexual behavior and adultery were being considered," said Dr. James J. Gill, a Jesuit priest and a psychiatrist at the Institute of Living in Hartford.

"The message was there was something sensitive, precarious and potentially perilous about the whole issue of sex." And it was a message, some speculate, that would have made it impossible for Porter's colleagues and superiors to comprehend the nature of his sexual activities or the impact on children, let alone to talk comfortably about it with one another.

There were other aspects of church culture that came into play in the Porter case. Documents contained in his personnel file reflect that for a number of reasons including a fear of scandal, a reliance on misleading medical information and concern for Porter's welfare, the Fall River Diocese did not move to expel him for at least five years.

"We grew up in an age where we protected the corporate image of the priesthood," Msgr. Dennis F. Sheehan, director of the Office for Worship of the Archdiocese of Boston, said. "I lived through it.

But some theologians and church critics maintain that the fear of scandal was more than just a theological directive -- it was a way of preserving the status of priests as exalted figures with excessive power. This status was addressed specifically, and critically, by the Canadian bishops' report.

"This excessive power, unchecked by any kind of social control, placed certain individuals beyond the reach of legitimate questioning and made it possible to prevent detection," it is observed in the report.

Even its harshest critics concede that the Catholic Church has come a long way from the days when it merely reassigned errant priests. They acknowledge, too, that seminary life has undergone a dramatic change toward a more open and broadened education.

On a recent visit to St. John's, said by some to be among the finest seminaries in the country, candidates for the priesthood wore both Roman collars and jogging suits, and talked openly about their training in matters of sexuality and about the difficulties of the celibate life.

But some warn that even though several dioceses have taken firm steps to enact aggressive, sensitive policies on sexual abuse, there are many others that have not.

"Some bishops are doing an ostrich act," said Msgr. Sheehan.

Some express concern about the quality of seminarians today, at a time when enrollments are down substantially: over the last 40 years, the number of seminarians has decreased by almost 80 percent, according to the Official Catholic Directory.

"The pool from which priests are drawn is a smaller pool: They are no longer drawn from the same wide spectrum of the Catholic male population," said Father McBrien of Notre Dame. "Normal, sexually mature young men simply are not considering a vocation to the priesthood today," given the church's unyielding celibacy policy.

"It is a mixed scene," concurs the Jesuit Gill. "Many now come into seminaries with a strong social, cultural and intellectual background and will make excellent priests. There are others who are not as blessed with social skills and not as confident of their sexual identity. The purpose of seminary is to help them grow more confident. But if this doesn't happen, in all good conscience, the seminary should weed them out."

Some observers note that the literature on sexual abuse makes it clear that stress is sometimes a factor in inciting individuals with a proclivity for sexual abuse of children to actually molest. They say that priests today, with fewer fellow priests to support them, are more beleaguered than ever and more susceptible to the loneliness that is an inherent part of the pastoral, celibate life. Those pressures, some fear, could lead to a troubled priest crossing the boundary to sexual liaison with a youth.

"It seems like there is more stress today for priests," said Rev. Tom Simons, executive director the National Federaion of Priests' Councils. "Years ago, parish structures were simpler. You basically celebrated the sacraments, visited the sick, and instructed people interested in becoming Catholic. There were a few other things and that was it."

There is concern, too, that even as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops has pledged itself to be a "healing ministry," some bishops are continuing to handle allegations of sexual abuse in a way that is evocative of the Porter case.

Critics say one need not look further than the Boston Archdiocese to see indications that the clerical culture remains insulated, much as it was in the past.

Some alleged victims of Porter, for example, have criticized the fact that the draft of a new sexual abuse policy by the Archdiocese of Boston provides that a priest and a nun, not a layperson, will be screening allegations of sexual abuse. "People may be very reluctant to tell their story candidly to a priest or nun if they have been molested by a cleric," said Boston attorney Roderick MacLeish Jr., who is representing many of Porter's accusers.

One man says his experience reporting the alleged molestation of his son has led him to believe that church officials are "still covering up" the wrongdoings of priests.

Jack Regan of Sudbury said he learned in 1985 that his son had been sexually abused by a priest in a town north of Boston eight years earlier, when the boy was 13 or 14.

He said that in September of this year, after the Porter revelations, he called Sister Catherine Mulkerin, one of the two delegates appointed by Cardinal Bernard Law to take calls about sexual abuse, and told her what had happened to his son. While she acknowledged that the priest was "no longer doing his priestly duties," Regan said, "they wouldn't tell me about his treatment and they never said, 'Yes, he molested children,' just 'We have heard rumors to that effect.' "

In a subsequent call he made to the archdiocese, he said, Sister Mulkerin said the chancery would pay for the boy's psychotherapy, but she did not offer any pastoral support. He said Sister Mulkerin called him only one time, in October, and that was "to ask me if she could mention my son's name to the priest."

"They never tried to reach out," said Regan, who maintains his son is deeply troubled and has been suicidal. "They have been vague and not very supportive. I got the sense that they were more interested in protecting the church and the perpetrator of the crime than helping my son. It seems to me that nothing has changed."

In September, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, archbishop of Chicago, announced the implementation of new policies and procedures to respond to clerical sexual misconduct with minors. It followed a June report to Bernardin by his Commission on Clerical Sexual Misconduct With Minors, which analyzed aspects of clerical culture contributing to the problem.

The policies, believed to be the most comprehensive developed by a Catholic diocese in the United States, address not only the church's responsibility to victims, priests and the community, but the screening and education of priests and seminarians for Chicago-area seminaries.

The policies require that:

  • A full psychological profile of each seminarian be obtained. In addition to general psychological fitness for ordination and ministry, the profile should try to identify tendencies to pedophilia (sexual attraction to young children) or ephebophilia (sexual attraction to adolescents).

  • The archdiocesan seminaries must offer age-appropriate courses and components that deal in depth with psychological development, including both moral and deviant sexual behavior, with an emphasis on the implications of making moral choices in accord with church teaching and priestly commitment.

  • Every priest who works within the archdiocese must certify in writing that he has read and is familiar with the archdiocesan policies and procedures regarding sexual misconduct with minors.

    This story ran in the Boston Globe on 11/23/1992.
    © Copyright Globe Newspaper Company.


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