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Adults remain vulnerable to clergy abuse, experts say

Catholic Church in the US has made progress in protecting minors but a lot more work needs to be done to safeguard adults
Catholic Church in the US has made progress in protecting minors from clergy abuse but adults remain vulnerable, say experts in a lay-led group that advises bishops on preventing sexual abuse of minors

Catholic Church in the US has made progress in protecting minors from clergy abuse but adults remain vulnerable, say experts in a lay-led group that advises bishops on preventing sexual abuse of minors. (Representative image: Canva)

Published: April 25, 2023 04:02 AM GMT
Updated: April 25, 2023 04:16 AM GMT

The Catholic Church in the U.S. has made progress over the past two decades in confronting sexual abuse against minors within the church, but has only begun to address the vulnerability of adults to sexual abuse by clergy, religious and lay leaders, experts told OSV News.

"We've accomplished a tremendous amount in the area of (creating) safe environments," said Suzanne Healy, chairwoman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' National Review Board, a lay-led group that advises the bishops on preventing sexual abuse of minors.

At the same time, "there's still a lot more work to be done" in extending safeguards to adults, said Healy, a licensed marriage and family therapist who served as the victim assistance coordinator for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles from 2007 to 2016.

At present, two key documents lay out broad protocols for the response of the Catholic Church in the U.S. to sexual abuse by its clergy, religious and other pastoral leaders.

In 2002, as a number of clerical abuse scandals emerged, the U.S. Catholic bishops implemented the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People." The document -- commonly called the Dallas Charter -- lays out a comprehensive set of procedures for addressing allegations of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. The charter also includes guidelines for reconciliation, healing, accountability and prevention of abuse.

A year after the charter's most recent revision in 2018, Pope Francis issued the motu proprio "Vox Estis Lux Mundi" ("You are the light of the world"), outlining global legal procedures for how the church should deal with clergy sexual abuse, including procedures for investigating bishops.

The document, implemented for a three-year experimental period beginning June 1, 2019, included the term "vulnerable person," defined as "any person in a state of infirmity, physical or mental deficiency, or deprivation of personal liberty which, in fact, even occasionally, limits their ability to understand or to want or otherwise resist the offense."

On March 25, Pope Francis published an updated version with the specific term "vulnerable adults," without altering the previous definition. The revised text also was broadened to include investigations of leaders of Vatican-recognized international Catholic lay associations and movements.

Protecting vulnerable adults represents "a new frontier" for the Catholic Church, said Deacon Bernard Nojadera, executive director of the USCCB's Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection.

"The landscape is continually changing," he told OSV News. "You're looking at issues such as power differentials among adults, the relationships of those who are in positions of authority, the responsibilities for creating boundaries so that relationships that develop are healthy and holy."

Pastoral counseling and spiritual direction are particular areas of concern where adults are vulnerable, explained Deacon Nojadera.

Counseling professionals are aware of the potential for human weaknesses on both sides to derail appropriate interactions -- a dynamic known as "transference and countertransference," Deacon Nojadera explained -- with client and counselor at risk of projecting unmet needs upon each other. However, Deacon Nojadera stressed, "The counselor or director needs to set that boundary, regardless of the vulnerable adult."

In the U.S., professional counselors and therapists face criminal and civil penalties for sexualizing a relationship with a patient; increasingly state jurisdictions are updating laws to explicitly include clergy as well.

In January 2018, then-Father Jacob Bertrand of the Diocese of San Diego was convicted under a Minnesota state law of sexually abusing a woman who placed herself in his spiritual care.

According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, Bertrand's "holy conversations" led to a sexual relationship he told his victim was "the second holiest sacrifice next to Jesus and Mary on Calvary."

Many church jurisdictions have yet to adopt the standard set by Archbishop Charles Scicluna, a key figure in the church's fight against clergy sexual abuse, for the Maltese Ecclesiastical Province. The archbishop of Malta also is adjunct secretary of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Those 2014 directives make clear that sexual contact or sexualized behavior between a "pastoral functionary" (including any bishop, cleric, religious, or lay person) and adults in a pastoral relationship "is considered to be always abusive, whether with or without consent."

Similar to the Minnesota law, the 2014 Maltese directives recognize the clergy are responsible for maintaining boundaries in their pastoral relationships, and prohibit a defense alleging the sexual relationship was consensual.

Reporting and information sharing regarding allegations of the sexual abuse of adults within the church remains inconsistent and often murky, said Kathy Kane, editor of Catholics4Change, which describes itself as an "accountability blog" focusing on child protection issues in the Catholic Church.

"We know there have been a number of investigations under the 'Vos Estis' norms, but there is still very little transparency about even which investigations are ongoing, and what the results of the completed ones are," she told OSV News. "The reality is that there's been some positive progress in terms of accountability for bishops, but we still have a system where we're asking bishops to police other bishops, specifically those who are located close to them and often have personal relationships with them. That's a system that in itself lacks the kind of transparency and accountability we need."

"I have heard anecdotally of cases where priests ... who are facing allegations of abuse of adults are removed with a false explanation given to their parishes for their absence," said Sara Larson, executive director of AWAKE Milwaukee, an independent nonprofit that supports those who have experienced sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. "They're simply put on 'medical leave' or moved to another parish with no explanation."

Both Larson and Kane cited instances where priests under investigation for alleged sexual abuse of adults have continued in ministry with a public character. Larson pointed to concerns over Jesuit Father Marko Rupnik, accused of abusing women religious but reported by Italian media in March to have concelebrated a Mass in Rome that, though ostensibly private, was nonetheless open to the public.

Kane noted the case of former Philadelphia priest Kevin McGoldrick, now a defendant, along with the Archdiocese of Philadlephia, in an April 18 civil lawsuit filed by "Jane Doe," who claims McGoldrick abused and raped her during his tenure as a chaplain at Aquinas College in Nashville, Tennessee.

Even after Doe advised the Archdiocese of Philadelphia of the alleged abuse, McGoldrick -- a singer-songwriter -- appeared at a family music festival in the Diocese of Duluth, Minnesota.

"When you have a man onstage headlining a music festival, singing the 'Sesame Street' theme song while he's under investigation for the alleged assault of a college student, how is this progress?" asked Kane.

A national database tracking reports of abuse investigations and their outcomes in the Catholic Church throughout the U.S. could help dioceses and other Catholic entities be aware of red flags about clergy, religious, or lay leaders from outside their jurisdiction, particularly those that may have responsibilities or roles in multiple organizations.

Mike McDonnell, communications manager for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), told OSV News that a national database would greatly enhance transparency, while improving protections for both minors and adults.

"A national database hosted by the USCCB, with oversight by a third party, would absolutely be a great tool," he said.

"Each diocese would then have the opportunity to say, 'We cannot take this cleric or professional, because we see there were reports of concerns in the home diocese.'"

Preventing and addressing abuse, while ensuring the healing and affirmation of survivors, is a task for all Catholics, said the National Review Board's Healy.

"This is not just for the bishops or the people working in the diocese," she said. "The whole church needs to be open to this work, helping to create and adhere to policies, saying something when you see something amiss, and helping survivors to heal by believing, affirming and accompanying them."

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