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Tuesday, 9 April, 2002, 01:35 GMT 02:35 UK
Catholic church shaken by sex scandals
Pope John Paul II
The Pope has spoken out against "evil" abusers
Peter Gould

The Catholic Church is now counting the cost of the revelations of sexual abuse by priests.

The growing scandal on both sides of the Atlantic has created a crisis of trust for the church, with claims that senior clerics failed to take action for years.

In Ireland, victims of abuse by priests have called for the resignation of the Archbishop of Dublin, Cardinal Desmond Connell. The government has ordered an inquiry.

The damage has been immeasurable, the toll is tremendous

Bishop Wilton Gregory

In England and Wales, the church has set up a national child protection unit. It follows the publication last year of the Nolan Report, which called for the "great evil" of child abuse to be rooted out.

In the United States, some dioceses have already paid out millions of dollars to settle law suits brought by victims. And the abusers are now being dealt with by the criminal courts.

In New York, the church has handed prosecutors a list of priests suspected of abusing children. And in Boston, a "zero tolerance" policy is now in force.


The allegations of abuse have created a climate of mistrust that has tarnished the reputation of the church.

Cardinal Desmond Connelll
Cardinal Connell: Demands for him to resign
The perception that church leaders have kept quiet about the problem has increased public anger over the activities of a small minority of their priests.

In the past, a priest who prompted complaints might have been moved quietly to a different area.

"Initially, the church viewed sexual offences as sins to be confessed, rather than a sickness to be treated," says Father Curtis Bryant, a psychologist who has treated American priests.

"Catholic authorities liberally forgave and trusted the offending priest, as they would any penitent, instead of putting him out of ministry."

Father Bryant is a former director of inpatient clinical services at the St Luke Institute in Maryland. It is one of the few centres in the United States that treats priests who are sexual abusers.


Writing in the Catholic magazine America, Father Bryant argues that sending people who need treatment to the criminal justice system is ineffective and inhumane.

There is no screening that would identify a paedophile

Dr Frederick Berlin

"So-called zero tolerance policies can lead to conduct unbecoming a loving Christian community," he says.

"We need to find ways to meet the legitimate concerns of the criminal justice system and the ability of mental health treatments to make sex offenders responsible for their behaviour."

Priests undergo a six-month period of treatment at the clinic, to help them understand their sexual disorders.

"The priest acknowledges that he does have a sexual problem," he writes.

"He acknowledges that his sexual disorder cannot be cured but can be treated, cannot be eliminated but can be controlled."

Father Bryant says that out of 450 priests who have undergone treatment over a ten-year period, only three "relapses" have been reported, and none involved physical contact.


So how should the church now deal with sexual abusers in its midst? Recent revelations have shocked many parishes.

Lord Nolan
Lord Nolan: "Root out child abuse"
They have also left many non-abusing priests feeling that they are now under suspicion.

And among gay members of the clergy, there is concern that they will be seen as part of the problem.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops says that while priority should be given to helping victims and their families, there needs to be a wider process of healing.

And whatever may have happened in the past, priests who have offended against children should never return to any ministry that includes minors.

But what about the next generation of priests? Can more be done to prevent paedophiles from entering the priesthood?


Dr Frederick Berlin, an expert on sexual disorders who has acted as a consultant for the US church, has found no evidence that paedophiles are particularly drawn to the priesthood.

"There is no screening that would identify a paedophile," he says.

So-called zero tolerance policies can lead to conduct unbecoming a loving Christian community

Father Curtis Bryant

"We can do some common sense things, such as background checks. We can provide more treatment so that paedophiles can get help.

"But there is no way that we can identify ahead of time a paedophile who has not previously been identified, and who wants very much to keep secret his own sexual yearnings."

But the church knows action is needed to restore public confidence in the priesthood.

"While we deplore the sexual abuse of young people, especially that committed by a cleric, we are confident that the numbers of priests involved in such criminal activity are few," says the president of the US Conference, Bishop Wilton Gregory.

"The damage, however, has been immeasurable. The toll this phenomenon has taken on our people and our ministry is tremendous.

"This is a time for Catholic people, bishops, clergy, religious and laity, to resolve anew to work together to assure the safety of our children."

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