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Robert Bennett

February 27, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: For now, the release of names is up to individual bishops. And joining me now is Robert Bennett, chairman of the National Review Board’s Research Committee. He was the lead author of that second report and is a partner at the law firm Skadden Arps. Welcome, Mr. Bennett.

ROBERT BENNETT: Hi, Margaret, thank you.

MARGARET WARNER: First a quick methodological question. You all were given the job of explaining the why behind the first report, behind that data. How did you go about it? Who did you talk to?

ROBERT BENNETT: We first identified a large list of very knowledgeable people, everywhere from victims to psychiatrists to theologians to heads of seminaries, to high level officials, and we conducted extensive interviews over many hours with a very substantial number. We probably interviewed over 100 people with maybe 60 or 70 very lengthy detailed interviews.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let’s go to the first big issue that was before you. What is your conclusion about why there were so many priests, at least accused of abuse, or abusive priests in this time period?

ROBERT BENNETT: Well, I think what we found was that many dysfunctional men, psychologically, sexually… immature men were admitted into the seminaries without any screening in those… in that time period. And it was as if nobody would question somebody’s calling from God. And a lot of very dysfunctional people applied and were admitted.

MARGARET WARNER: By screening, you mean what?

ROBERT BENNETT: Psychological testing like they have now. It’s very difficult to identify in any test if somebody is going to be a pedophile, but there are characteristics which you can identify, such as narcissism and things like that. And there was pretty much no screening at all.

And then the second major thing was that there was no formation really of these men when they came in, they were told that they had to be celibate, live a certain way. There was no training or formation.

And then third and finally, sort of a simplified version of a very nuanced and complicated problem which we spell out in the report, is there was such a paranoid fear in the church, the hierarchy of the church, about scandal, a fear of scandal, that things got covered up instead of exposed and dealt with.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, now you are moving on to issue two of the second big question which is why. Why did so few bishops act on these reports? You said fear of scandal?

ROBERT BENNETT: Fear of scandal was one of them. A second one was that too many presumptions were in favor of the priests. Under Catholic doctrine, a bishop lays his hands on a man and he becomes a priest and there’s a belief that there is an ontological change. A bishop looks at that priest now as his son. And the hierarchy looked at the priests as representatives of Jesus Christ on earth. So if some victim says father did something and father says, well, I never did that, all the presumptions were in favor of the priest.

MARGARET WARNER: But you also said that there was — they overly relied, you felt, on psychiatrists and on very aggressive lawyers. So I mean, these cases did move beyond just the he said-she said phase, many of them, and still no action taken.

ROBERT BENNETT: Yes, on the psychiatrist’s point, it is a very complicated area. There were some psychiatrists who really believed that you could cure people of these things. And some bishops relied on that.

But it’s not really fair to blame the psychiatrists, because we found in many instances that the psychiatrists were not given all the data. They weren’t given the whole history of the particular priests, and that when these men came back after treatment, they were simply not monitored, monitored by their bishops or their pastors.

As to lawyers, I think that the church made a terrible mistake. I think a lot of the bishops acted like they were risk assessment executives of an insurance company and forgot that they were shepherds of a flock and pastors. In one instance that we came across, the church, the local diocese, filed a pleading charging contributory negligence of a child. This kind of approach was terrible, and I think many lawyers did a — and I am a lawyer, so I hate saying this — a great disservice to the church. The church should not act as if it is an ordinary litigant in the courtroom.

MARGARET WARNER: Now when the scandal first… not first erupted but most recently erupted a couple of years ago, the huge debate — and we had many debates on this show — were between those who felt homosexuality was the problem and others who felt celibacy was the problem. Does your report give ammunition to either? What is your conclusion or assessment of those two issues?

ROBERT BENNETT: Well, we certainly deal with both of those issues in depth and they require very nuanced treatment.

I think it’s clear that neither homosexuality nor celibacy are causes of the crisis, but both of them are very relevant issues to discuss and study for the following reasons: A substantial percentage of the victims were victims of clearly homosexual acts. I think most of these acts were committed by men who were sexually immature, dysfunctional people who were locked into an age group well below their true years.

There is no question that because of the statistics that we’ve learned, there has to be great scrutiny about whether men who come in heterosexual or homosexual, to be sure that they can stick to their commitment to celibacy, and because you are basically entering an all male culture, I think that the board’s view is there may be a need for more tailored inquiry of somebody who has a homosexual orientation. But we also found that there are a tremendous number of homosexually-oriented priests who are sensitive and compassionate and are wonderful priests and have always honored their commitment to celibacy.

In terms of celibacy, we don’t think the answer to the crisis is get rid of celibacy.

MARGARET WARNER: In other words, married priests.

ROBERT BENNETT: Yeah. I mean that’s not the answer. I’m not saying that that isn’t an issue that could be discussed in different ways, but it seems to the board, from our review, that if a celibate priest, homosexually-oriented or heterosexually-oriented, if they’re going to breach celibacy, they’re more likely to breach it with an adult: An adult male or an adult female, whatever the orientation is.

So we don’t think celibacy… now celibacy does, and we found, cause problems. To some, it’s a great gift. People are better priests, many of them because of celibacy. But to others, it is an albatross and it leads to loneliness and alcoholism and those things lead to the crossing of boundaries. So I do think both are areas that require much more study and much more analysis and research.

MARGARET WARNER: We hear Bishop Gregory speak of the corrective measures they’ve taken. Do you think Catholic parents can feel confident that their children are safer from predatory priests today than say they were 15 or 20 years ago?

ROBERT BENNETT: I think there is no question that children are much safer today in the Catholic Church environment than they have been in the past.

And in fact, while we have been quite critical of the bishops in our report, they must be given credit that they commissioned this study of very strong independent board members who did this study. They opened up their files, and they let us — commissioned us to give these results. Other entities have not done this. Other churches have not done this. Other school systems have not done this. Other organizations have not done this. So, I don’t know… I can’t go so far as to say Catholic school kids are safer than other kids, but I can say that I think they’re a lot safer today.

MARGARET WARNER: How much… as a Catholic yourself, how much damage do you think this has done to the faith Catholics have in their church and how hard will it be to get back?

ROBERT BENNETT: I think it came as quite a blow and quite a shock to Catholics. But I think the core of the Catholic faith is not going to be deterred by what some of the messengers did. I mean I think the core of the Catholic faith goes beyond the actions of particular priests, but it certainly was a blow.

I think there was a much greater blow delivered to the church as an entity and to the bishops as an entity. The Catholic Church has done… there is no other organization, I believe, that has done more for the poor, more for the marginalized in our society. The church has largely lost its voice on moral issues, on these kinds of things because they’ve lost credibility because of the crisis.

MARGARET WARNER: Robert Bennett, thanks very much.