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Archbishop Rigali: Sex abuse is a crime

From April 2002:

The Church will not tolerate the sexual abuse of minors, Archbishop Justin Rigali said in an interview with the Review April 12.

Archbishop Rigali said the Church deeply regrets and apologizes for actions in the past and will not take any chances in the assignment of priests with substantiated allegations of abuse.

The Archbishop called sexual abuse a crime. He encouraged victims to report it to authorities and said that the archdiocese, when there is an allegation of abuse of someone who is currently a minor, has contacted and will in the future continue to report the allegations to the Missouri Division of Family Services for further investigation and possible criminal charges.

The Archbishop spoke about his interviews with local media, the role of settlements and confidentiality agreements with victims, the status of priests who have committed abuse, the role of celibacy and the impact of the abuse cases on vocations efforts, the archdiocese and his ministry.

Though a tremendous evil has occurred, Archbishop Rigali said, the abuse involves a small percentage of priests, with the vast majority faithfully serving the Church and community. He cited the vitality of the Church, with priests and laypeople continuing to do tremendous work in numerous areas ranging from education to helping the poor.

The following are the Archbishop's responses to the Review's questions.

Q. During Holy Week you completed a comprehensive round of interviews with the local press. What kind of response did you receive from that? Are there key issues in regard to the matter of sexual abuse by the clergy that you are concerned some people don't understand very well?

A. I was happy to be able to speak to the media on that occasion ... Many people told me they were glad that I did that. Obviously, the subject itself is so complex and the situation changes from week to week. You just can't say this once. It's a question of assuring the community once again that the Church is very intent on dealing with this issue. It is very important for the Church that we root out sexual abuse of minors - in the Church and the world, wherever it is found. ... It is totally incompatible with the priesthood, human dignity and human decency.

What is so important is that young people, children, always be safe. We want them safe in the home, safe around priests. We believe they are safe in the vast majority of cases. Their dignity demands it. The Church ... will not tolerate the sexual abuse of minors.

We deeply regret the cases that have occurred in the past. We apologize that some of God's young people have been victimized. This is a horrible thing. This absolutely has to stop. At the same time we know the victims need help. Therefore, it always has been a part of our policy, our desire, to try and help these people who have been the object of this terrible, terrible abuse. We will continue to do this. We know that any person who has been victimized has a right to come forward and tell this. ... It is not only a sin but a crime. It is good for these people - victims and perpetrators - to come forward and tell legal authorities. Some people may not want to do that, but we encourage them. At the same time, we want to make sure there are no unjust accusations - no priest, no person, should be unjustly accused.

Our hope is that with God's grace and the collaboration of many people, we will make sure that children are safe and secure. We regret any mistakes that have been made in handling this in the past. Certainly we know in hindsight some of the methods used in the past were totally inappropriate. By today's standards that's totally unacceptable.

Q. Why do you think people who believe they have been victims of abuse sometimes come to the Church rather than go to the police? What does the archdiocese do when it receives an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor by a priest?

A. Sometimes victims of abuse and their families are very reluctant to come forward, and sometimes they only want to tell the Church about this. We strongly urge them to go to civil authorities. It is the right thing, if it is a question of a crime, to go to the police, and they are free to do so. Some people choose not to do so, and we have to respect this. However, if there is an allegation of sexual abuse of a current minor, it has to be referred to the Division of Family Services. The archdiocese has done this and will continue to do this.

Q. You spoke in some interviews during Holy Week about the "evolution" of the psychological approach that has been taken to these issues over the years. When a priest has undergone treatment for these disorders, how does the "exit report and recommendation" he might receive today differ from what he might have received in the '70s or '80s? Why did bishops reassign priests with a substantiated case of sexual abuse?

A. From what we know today, we are convinced that such priests must not be reassigned to parishes, must never be given the opportunity to repeat these actions of sexual abuse. There has been an evolution in the way these cases are dealt with by experts. ... They were sent away for treatment and in some cases they were actually given an evaluation that they could be returned to ministry. Society as a whole has learned so much in regard to sexual abuse. We would never do it now. We regret very much that it was done in the past, even though it was not in any way characteristic of the Church alone in dealing with people who sexually abused minors. We definitely want to make sure this is not repeated ... We are sorry that the Church was not more cognizant of this at the time and we deeply regret that people were abused by a priest who had been reassigned.

That should not happen today. We believe the policy today is very effective. No priest, no clergyman with a substantiated accusation of abuse of a minor will be reassigned to a parish or any ministry with children even though he may be judged to pose no danger. We can't take any chances. The experiences of the past have shown this, not only in the Church but in society.

We know how important it is to speak about the value of chastity in the world. It must be learned in the family, and priests in particular have to be supreme witnesses to this ... Parents must exercise great responsibility in helping their children be chaste and in giving good example. Priests must be on the side of parents as protectors of children.

Q. Don't money settlements with victims and confidentiality agreements imply an effort to cover up wrongdoing?

A. Settlements have been viewed in the past as an effort to help victims who were in need of therapy and help. Everyone knows now that abuse constitutes a tremendous trauma. The Church's efforts in the past and present is to help these victims. ... As far as confidentiality agreements, we never understood and don't understand now these as in any way impeding victims from approaching civil authorities, the police. Many of these confidentiality agreements were inspired by the fact that the people themselves wanted them. The archdiocese encourages victims to bring complaints to the police.

Q. What is the message of the Church to those who have been victims of this abuse and their families?

A. We are deeply sorry. We apologize that bishops, priests and deacons have done this. They acted totally contrary not only to the priesthood but contrary to the Gospel and commandments of God. We will try to do everything possible to eliminate, to uproot this abuse so it will not be repeated. We express solidarity with the victims and their families and hope that the Church through her efforts will also help society to realize the magnitude of this problem ... and be aware that this abuse must not be tolerated, especially where vigilance and care are most needed - in the Church and in the family.

Q. When a priest has been relieved of parish ministry because of a substantiated allegation, is there some kind of priestly ministry that he can still carry out? In some cases should a priest be laicized (forbidden to function as a priest) and leave the active ministry?

A. There are many different types of circumstances that vary from case to case. There are indeed those cases where a priest should be laicized and in no way identified with the priesthood. A priest who has been relieved from parish ministry will not be eligible for parish ministry again. In some cases, depending on the circumstances, he can be of service to the Church, but we do know he will not be assigned to a parish or ministry with children.

No human being is a disposable commodity. We believe very strongly in the forgiveness of sins and mercy of God, but we also know we cannot permit someone who has offended in this way to repeat the abuse.

Q. There have been some calls for a common policy for all dioceses in the United States - or even a worldwide Catholic policy on sexual abuse by clergy. Should all dioceses deal with these issues in the same way?

A. The American bishops for the past decade have all been inspired by certain basic principles - the importance of helping victims, guaranteeing the safety of children, listening to victims and making sure this is not repeated. There are different circumstances in different dioceses. I don't know that we need the exact same policies in every diocese, but we need a strong amount of united effort and solidarity in rooting out this evil. That means no one has the opportunity to commit the act again. We do want to perfect these policies and benefit from insights in dealing with these cases.

Q. Has this intense focus on sexual misconduct hurt our vocation efforts?

A. Certainly the focus has caused a great deal of suffering and has scandalized. That is rightly so, but people, because they have common sense and good intuition, are able to distinguish between what an individual does and what the Church stands for. We know that every individual priest who has committed sexual abuse has done so in direct contradiction to his vocation. Therefore, we believe that the power of Christ's paschal mystery, which is the source of vocations anyway, will continue. Just a couple weeks ago we had the Come and See Weekend at the seminary, and it was even larger than in past years. That shows that even in this period of difficulty, bombarded by a number of scandals when even one is too much, our young people know that the priesthood is something important to the Church and when lived properly is a wonderful vocation to aspire to with great joy.

Q. There are hundreds of examples of people in the Church doing wonderful things. They're just not on the front pages, correct?

A. In all of this discussion, very often we are concentrating on the evil - and it is a great one - committed by a small percentage of priests. This in no way can detract from the faithful, loving service the majority of priests give to their people. They are with the people when they are dying, when they are baptized and when they are married. They are there in pain and sorrow and find fulfillment in this way, with the Eucharist and in the parish.

There is an immense amount of good happening in the Church - the wonderful contribution of Catholic Charities, the contribution of Catholic education, service by individual Catholics, by parishes, twinning that exists, support for the poor, help that is given to the cause of life and human dignity. None of this can be eclipsed by the evil caused by a few people. We can tell the story of the vitality of the Catholic Church and the vitality of the priesthood. We know that all the evil in the world is not equal to the goodness we find in so many people.

Q. Catholics today never have known the priesthood apart from celibacy. Is it part of the problem, as some have suggested?

A. We believe that celibacy in the Latin Rite is indeed a wonderful enrichment that many live faithfully with great spiritual fulfillment and joy. We also believe that celibacy is not the issue when it is a question of sexual abuse of minors. We know from statistics that the majority of cases of sexual abuse of minors are not committed by celibate priests but by married men. This does not justify any of this by priests, but it does show the problem is very great and goes across all society. We know it must be rooted out not only in the Church but in society in general and families in particular.

Q. As the bishop of the diocese, you are essentially a priest yourself and a brother to all the priests here. At the same time you are the shepherd of the flock, and - in a sense - a guardian of children and families. Has it been difficult to care for both the priests and the faithful in the midst of this crisis?

A. It is a big challenge to care for both priests and for our children and families, but this is the meaning of the episcopacy - the bishop is the servant of all. He is the brother of priests and must encourage them. It is easy to do because the vast majority are faithful and generous in service of the Gospel.

The bishop is called to point out the contributions the priests make and call the faithful to encourage the priests. Our people are good at this. ... It is not easy for parents to bring their children up in view of the Gospel because there are so many challenges, especially to the virtue of chastity. We stand by the parents and encourage them on the wonderful mission they have. We will do everything we can possibly do together to ensure that children are educated in the faith and are protected ... I'm convinced that together we can help build up a society in which sexual abuse of minors is indeed rooted out.

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