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What we do know about sexual abuse

Fron April 2002:

With reports of clergy sex abuse scandals bombarding us daily, prudence dictates that we summarize what we have learned about such abuse to act wisely.

From the nightmares described by abused persons, we now realize more than ever the devastating effects that a single incident of sexual abuse can have on a youth. Because of this, there is a consensus that sexual abuse must never be taken lightly or covered up.

When cases of sexual abuse in other professions are compared to the number of cases involving clergy, we learn that the percentage of clergy cases is comparatively low. Even so, one reason massive publicity has been given clergy sexual abuse cases is that priests and clergy of other denominations are considered the foremost defenders of morals. One thing that truly outrages the public is having the leaders it trusts betray that trust.

We now understand that pedophilia cannot at this point be cured, but only arrested. Most professionals put it in the category of a disorder that not only is extremely difficult to control but that also negatively affects one's ability to make good moral judgments.

Almost all experts agree that there is no correlation between a person being celibate or having a homosexual orientation and being more prone to abuse children. They also agree that being married would not alleviate the problem but would actually harm the marriage.

We know that a number of the Church's bishops have acted in the past under the erroneous notion that priests who were pedophiles and others who had abused teenagers could be reassigned if they underwent treatment and were considered rehabilitated by psychiatrists. We also know that after repeated offenses by certain priests, some priests' offenses never were properly addressed by people in authority.

It is estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars have been paid by dioceses worldwide as a result of lawsuits involving sexual abuse.

We know from other religious denominations that they faced the same problems and took measures similar to those taken by the Catholic bishops.

We know that with the recent cases of sexual abuse, dioceses throughout the United States have doubled efforts to make their policies clear, firm and up to date.

We know that seminaries have set strict screening standards for those studying for the priesthood and that their spiritual formation programs address human sexuality much more than they ever did in past years, but that even more could be done.

One hopes that what has been learned proves to be a road map that will help us avoid minefields and find the best route to follow in these critical times.

Father Hemrick is an administrator with the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

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