Catholic Sexual Abuse Scandals

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: New evidence came to light this week that raises questions about Pope Benedict XVI’s response to the abuse scandal. Documents surfaced that suggest the Benedict, before he became pope, may have been involved in protecting abusive priests. Meanwhile, Benedict issued a letter of apology to Irish Catholics that was read at Sunday Masses. He also accepted the resignation of an Irish bishop. But many lay people criticized the Pope for not taking stronger actions.

Joining us is Father Tom Reese, Senior Fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. Father Reese, welcome.


ABERNETHY: The allegations just keep coming about sex abuse by some priests, about cover-ups by some bishops—in the US, now in Europe, all over Europe, reaching into the Vatican, maybe, too. You’ve served the church all your life. How do you react to all that?

REESE: Oh, it just turns my stomach. I mean this is such an awful thing first of all that happened to these children. I have sat and listened to their stories, and it scarred them for life, and it’s a terrible experience for them, and it’s gut-wrenching to listen to these stories and to hear what happened to them and how they were treated by the church. I think it’s terrible and, you know, even though it was only four percent of priests that were involved in abuse, all of us priests feel shame and sorrow that this happened to children in our churches.

ABERNETHY: You feel betrayal by those who were leading the church?

REESE: Well, you know, there’s a lot of anger out there, not just in the pews but also among the priests that these bishops who didn’t deal with this properly have just scarred the church and hurt the reputation of all priests, even good ones.

ABERNETHY: There are allegations, as you know so well, that before he was pope, Benedict presided over offices in Germany and in the Vatican that were, let’s say, less than fully responsive to some of the allegations and situations that they faced. What should Benedict do now?

REESE: Well, I think it’s clear that Benedict grew in his understanding of this crisis. Like many of the other bishops at the beginning, he didn’t understand it. He thought it was overblown. For example, at one time they said that only one percent of the priests were involved in it. Well, that was what one study said at that time, and we found it was four percent. But he grew in his understanding because he listened to what the US bishops had to say. He in fact got it quicker than other people in the Vatican. He got it quicker than John Paul II did. So I think that we can say in his favor that he grew in his understanding and responded to it better as time went on.

ABERNETHY: But when he sent the letter last weekend to the Irish bishops, yes, he apologized and apologized, but he also did not go nearly as far in terms of discipline as a lot of people wanted to see.

REESE: I think that’s true, and the difficulty is that I think that the pope needs to be on message. In that letter he said a lot of things. He said good things. He said he was sorry, he said that this was a terrible crime and sin, he acknowledged the fact that bishops didn’t respond adequately. Those were good things that he said.

ABERNETHY: So what should he do? What should the church do, learning from what the US experience was?

REESE: Well, I think that the European bishops really need to learn from the US experience. They need to put into place a zero-tolerance policy, which means that any priest that is involved in abuse is never going to be acting as a priest again. They need to cooperate with the police in reporting these accusations. They need to have a child protection program in parishes and churches, where people are trained. They need to apologize over and over and over again.

ABERNETHY: You’re talking about the European bishops, but what about Benedict himself?

REESE: Well, I think, you know, he needs to apologize also, just as he did when he came to the United States. You remember in that visit he apologized in the plane on the way over, he talked to the US bishops about this, he met with victims of abuse. He needs to do more of that.

ABERNETHY: And what about punishment?

REESE: I think that priests that are involved in abuse should be totally banned from any ministry into the future. I think that the mistake that the US bishops made that the European bishops should learn from is that it is necessary for some bishops to stand up and say, “I did this, I had bad advice, I made a mistake, I’m really sorry, but I take full responsibility and I resign.” I’m glad to see that some bishops in Ireland have done that.

ABERNETHY: And do you expect that?

REESE: I hope so. The mistake that the American bishops made and I’m afraid the European bishops will also make is that they’ll think that this is going to blow over in a couple months. It’s not. We are going to see thousands of cases come forward in Europe over the next three to five years, if it’s anything like what happened in the United States. They need to get ahead of this, they need to be transparent, they need to call on victims to come forward now and respond to them right away. Otherwise this crisis will just continue to fester.

ABERNETHY: Father Tom Reese, many thanks.

  • Bonnie Metcalf

    I found this interview to be very open and honest. However, instead of relying on the advice of men, which has been proven ineffective, how about obeying the commandment of God in His word in the Holy Bible? 1st Corinthians 5:11-13, “But now I am writing to you to quit mixing in company with anyone called a brother that is a fornicator or a greedy person or an idolater or a reviler or a drunkard or an extortioner, not even eating with such a man. ….Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” Also, Jesus warned us: Matthew 12:31 & 32, Blashpemy (gross disrespect) against the Holy Spirt, against Almighty God and His holy character will not be forgiven. Holy means absolutely clean, spotless, incorruptible. These men will not be forgiven by God, so why does the Catholic church forgive them? We need to seriously ponder this question.

  • Barbara F. Flythe

    People who sexually abuse childrenshouls be in jial. Shame on the Catholic chhurch in America. This is now a problem for the state.

    I was very disapppointed with the weak apologies of the priest who was a guest on today’s show. When he started with ihis interpretation, I changed the channels.!

  • T. Rochte

    In this interview, Father Tom indicated that “it was only four percent of priests that were involved in abuse.” Did he mean 4% in the US, or 4% worldwide?

    According to the US Council of Catholic Bishop’s website, the numbers of RC priest’s in the US is 42,271. Four percent is roughly 1600 priests.

    The following site says there are 400,000 priests in the world This number equals roughly 16,000 priests engaged in sexual wrongdoing worldwide.

    I realize that there is no firm number for these wayward priests (only God knows), but it would be more helpful for the public to understand the scope of this issue if RC spokesmen used actual numbers rather than throwing out percentages. Four percent sounds like a low number (small problem), when it in fact it’s a huge number of actual perpetrating priests. Also, what is the total number (guesstimate) of those abused by RC priests?

    Hating the sin, but loving the sinner is a true Christian value. And like Christ, we are all called to forgive others and to ask forgiveness for ourselves. Child abuse is a disorder of the mind and the soul. The RC Church, and all churches, are called to root out current clergy with this mental illness, and to take steps right now to ensure pedophiles are screened out and given the help they deserve. God does not wish God’s church to continue separating God’s children from God (an example of sinning by institution).

  • Cam

    I think it is a shame that the catholic church and its leaders and priests do not take responsibility for the scandal that is happening and be accountable for their own actions. I think it is also ridiculous that there are no programs instituted already for children and youth to go to and be kept safe within the religion. What will it take for there to be serious charges laid regarding abuse and when will there be a partnership between the catholic religion and interpole? Absolutely unacceptable that children are still seen as pawns in this retched game!

  • Bobby Shafto

    The Roman Catholic Church claims to have been formed by Peter on the command of Jesus, the Son of God. As a result, the clerics of the church claim to have received special sacraments from God which provide them with sanctity and wisdom.

    It would seem to me that the present sexual abuse scandal, following centuries of unholy policies and practices (including torture) that this organization lost any special connection to the Deity.

    The policy of requiring the Catholic Clergy to be unmarried men was unwise, in that it carried with it the risk of attracting those with sexual deviancy to its ranks, but was was instituted to stop other crimes married clergy were committing against the Catholic Church.

    My conclusion is that if the Catholic Church ever had a license to represent God, it lost it several centuries ago, and its current policy ot continuing to protect its own reputation rather than protecting and healing innocent children church clergy injured demonstrates that the Catholic Church has no such license today.

  • M. McCarty

    The four part series by BBC ( clearly lays the responsibility for addressing the sex crimes at Pope Benedict’s feet: Here’s what the report says

    “Crimen Sollicitationis was enforced for 20 years by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became the Pope.
    It instructs bishops on how to deal with allegations of child abuse against priests and has been seen by few outsiders. Critics say the document has been used to evade prosecution for sex crimes.

    Crimen Sollicitationis was written in 1962 in Latin and given to Catholic bishops worldwide who are ordered to keep it locked away in the church safe. It instructs them how to deal with priests who solicit sex from the confessional. It also deals with “any obscene external act … with youths of either sex.”

    It imposes an oath of secrecy on the child victim, the priest dealing with the allegation and any witnesses.
    Breaking that oath means excommunication from the Catholic Church.”

    If you want to view the Panorama report, go to YouTube and enter – Sex Crimes and the Vatican

    Listen to the former Roman Catholic canon lawyer and the former monk tell you what it’s like inside the church,
    a continued plan for hiding incidents inside the church and moving priests around after the issue of sexual abuse was brought to lite.

  • Ann

    It is beyond me how people can see all that is happening in the Catholic Church and still remain Catholics.

    The church is a tool for men who are preditors, selfish, and only out for themselves. It is a religion centered on the needs (honorable or not) of men in places of authority.

  • E.Patrick Mosman

    Father Thomas Reese is hardly a disinterested party as he was relieved as editor of America magazine shortly after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI. Perhaps this was a coincidence, however, as editor, Father Reese represented, apparently still does, the liberal wing of the Catholic Church which promotes many practices based on one’s subjective conscience, a belief system that then Cardinal Ratzinger addressed and refuted in CONSCIENCE AND TRUTH Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
    Presented at the 10th Workshop for Bishops February 1991 Dallas, Texas.

    Father Reese’s overreaching dictate “They need to put into place a zero-tolerance policy, which means that any priest that is involved in abuse is never going to be acting as a priest again.’ actually means in practice that any priest ‘accused’ of an abusive act is immediately deemed guilty without a hearing and may never be given the opportunity to refute such a charge. Forgiveness after repentance was and still is one of Jesus Christ’s most important messages just He forgave those who who killed Him.
    This is not meant as condoning abusive acts on children or adults, by anyone, priest or lay person, or to excuse the actions by those in authority who failed to act promptly to determine the facts. Perhaps the best solution is to refer such accusations to the criminal justice system where one is considered innocent until proven guilty.

  • Karen Kay

    Anything run by “the boys” usually turns to custard.

  • Sabrina

    In response to the woman who says she doesn’t understand why Catholics remain Catholic in spite of the scandal. Well, I look at it this way. People are human and they can and will do wrong….in all religions, and even those with no religion at all. If one had to pick and choose who’d they’d affiliate with based on the perfection of people, you’d be moving around a lot. For me, my faith doesn’t rest in the priests, bishops and whatnot. If you rely on people, they’ll always let you down. No. We’re supposed to keep our eyes on God and not man. My Catholic faith is defined by what I recite in the Apostles Creed: Belief in God, In Jesus, the Virgin Birth, the Crucifixion and Resurrection…and everything else in that creed. That creed doesn’t demand blind allegiance to any human being, and that includes the Pope. I choose to remain Catholic because for me it is still a beautiful expression of faith, and in many ways, it is still a force for good in the world. For 2 millenia, the Church has been here for people….it’s been a source of inspiration, solace, and comfort….and if God wills, it’ll be here 2 millenia more.

  • william dziak

    Went to catholic grade school 8 yrs. now the church leader priest is in prison he lived 4 blocks from me . me & mom were schocked,
    rev: 2218 who hears the prphesy of this book If anyone adds to these things,GOD will add to himthe plagues written in this book,
    The Catholic leaders surley are not Biblical or Evangelical, & have added many rituals that are not Biblical & false imagination like Limbo which does not exist.
    I believe catholisism is cursed.

  • Fr. Garry

    Most of these sexual abuse cases occurred between 30 and 50 years ago. The incidence of clergy sexual abuse in the US since the implementation of the US bishops zero tolerance policy is next to zero. Parishes and dioceses have clear policies and excellent prevention programs in place to prevent sexual abuse of children and to expedite promptly report those who abuse to the police. Ombudsman have been established in many dioceses to facilitate victims getting the help they need. In at least the last five years, no bishops in the United States would ever attempt to cover up cases of sexual abuse and if they did they would be forced to resign by their brother bishops.

  • Anne

    I believe anyone is able to commit mistakes. Priests are indeed tempted by higher levels of evil, and we should pray for them to not have this happen anymore. I do not think it is acceptable in any way but do not judge the holy church! judge the priest (man) . There are many catholics that are offended, me being on of them. Priests have it much worse even if they are innocent. Please pray for them, do NOT condemn, they did something HORRIBLE! but let God do the judging.

  • anne

    People stop trashing our church, we do not trash others and focus on the love of God for us and brothers and sisters. So lets just be brothers and sisters in christ and accept we are not able to throw the first stone, but drop down and wait for redemption

  • dave

    When is the last time you prayed for a priest.

  • Cathleen Maxwell

    I worry that not enough is coming out on this Child abuse. I personally know a man who was arrested for violating several young men at church camp. It was not the Catholic Church but the Church of God. The man was arrested but would you believe the people of that church bailed him out and dropped charges saying they would take care of their own. It was hushed up so quickly. I never did find out how it all turned out as I was disgusted by the whole event I quit that church pronto. So this is not just a Catholic scandal it’s widespread and congregations are great at covering it all up. People wake up this is not just a Catholic event and must be addressed in the proper way. These people must pay for their sins and the children can at least start to heal.