Is the clerical sexual abuse crisis over?

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Anyone who imagines the clerical sexual abuse of minors, explosively uncovered in the U.S. media in 2002, is a contained scandalous episode fading in the church's rearview mirror is mistaken. The facts speak for themselves: between 1950 and 2002, an emerging 10,667 victims accused 4,392 priests of sexual abuse. The numbers touched 4.2 percent of diocesan priests and 2.7 percent of religious order priests, including four percent in every region in this country. The time frame of 1970-1974 was the most volatile for abuse, as social factors contributing to it were rooted in the generation born between 1920 and 1949. This suggests that while the wave of abuse is receding, the most hard-hit generation of victims are currently in mid-life.

Children who suffered direct and shocking abuse aren't the only victims of this period. Their families, past and present, have shared this terrible anguish with them. And since the revelations have gone public, the Catholic community across the nation and around the world has been crushed by the shame, blame, and guilt of this horror. The loss of institutional credibility in the public eye is immense, but perhaps more significant is the enormous loss of faith that many Catholics themselves suffer in regard to their leadership, their church, and in some cases their God. This won't "blow over" as the media finds other headlines to pursue. What has rent the Body of Christ so violently and intimately must be healed.

The healing of this scandal involves tending to the direct victims of abuse with therapeutic care and just recompense. It also requires the identification, isolation, treatment, and/or incarceration of the clerical perpetrators (and in some cases, some visible penalty rendered to their enabling bishops) as the law allows. The genuine full confession and penitence of the institution that in many cases protected its priests and its reputation over and against its children is necessary. But all of these measures are only the beginning of the cure.

The final phase of the healing process will begin when the structures and attitudes that inadvertently fostered and then covered up such egregious behavior are addressed and undergo conversion, as we all do. As church historian Joseph Chinnici suggests, "operating relationships between the clerical and lay, male and female, celibate and married, elite and nonelite, sacred and secular dimensions of the church" must all come under review. Our willingness to do this reflects our genuine readiness to repent, and to restore what has been lost in this scandalized generation.

Websites:, which since 2003 keeps documents related to the scandal

Books: When Values Collide: The Catholic Church, Sexual Abuse, and the Challenges of Leadership by Joseph Chinnici, OFM (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010)

Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus by Bishop Gregory Robinson, Donald Cozzins (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2008)

Reprinted with permission from ©TrueQuest Communications.

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