June 1999

    Catholic Bishop Urges Faith Communities to Look at the "Root Causes" of Clergy Sexual Abuse
    By Heather Elizabeth Peterson

    Faith communities that are facing the crisis of clergy sexual abuse need to move beyond "the medical triage model" and "look more deeply into its root causes," the Most Rev. John F. Kinney told participants at the Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute (ISTI) Second Annual Conference.

    The conference, which was held in Collegeville, Minnesota, from June 13-15, focussed on the subject of "Sex and the Abuse of Power in Religious Systems." ISTI is an interdenominational organization that addresses the issue of clergy sexual misconduct.

    "It is essential . . . that we begin some serious study of our religious systems overall," said Bishop Kinney, who is founding chair of the United States National Catholic Conference of Bishops' committee on clergy sexual abuse. "We want to know the profile of the perpetrator. We need to know the profile of the victim. But we also need to get a real fix on the values, codes, internal climate, and principles of behavior that mark the life of our religious systems . . ."

    To show the need for this in-depth study, Bishop Kinney recounted the story of a person who rescues someone who is drowning in a river, then rescues a second person and a third person. Finally, the rescuer walks away from the scene. "A bystander approaches and asks in surprise where is going, to which, the rescuer replies: 'I am going upstream to find out who's pushing all these people in and see if I can stop it!'"

    Bishop Kinney continued, "While our efforts to attend to individual victims and manage individual perpetrators are critical to our overall pastoral care and our desire to 'restore trust,' we have to move to more than downstream helping to prevent these abuses in the future. We all need to go upstream and see if we can stop it! In order to accomplish this kind of prevention, we must have a systemic approach. We must not only look at the profile of perpetrators and victims, but of the human, societal religious systems in which these individuals interact"

    Among the steps that the Catholic Church in the United States has undertaken, Bishop Kinney recounted, are establishing sexual abuse policies in all of the denomination's dioceses (districts) and adding "boundary education and professional ethics" to Catholic seminary training. Moreover, Bishop Kinney said, working with clergy offenders has forced the Catholic Church to address fundamental theological issues. "We have had to face the fact that in some cases, a priest may never be able to return to the active ministry," said Bishop Kinney. "This has led us to seek permanent removal from the clerical state for such priests. This, in turn, at the international level, has raised a number of concerns in the area of sacramental theology."

    Elisabeth A. Horst, a Minneapolis psychologist and member of the ISTI board, agreed with Bishop Kinney that clergy sexual abuse can arise from fundamental religious traditions. "Power imbalance is not in itself a bad thing," she told the 142 participants at the conference in a presentation entitled "Boundaries," but she believes that it is important for clergy to recognize that they have power.

    "Recently, I asked a group of campus ministers, 'How many of you feel your role gives you lots of power?'" Dr. Horst reported. " Most of them looked amused; a few looked startled. No hands went up. Ministers think of themselves as helpers, servants, not power seekers, and rightly so. Like it or not, though, the role of professional helper does involve being entrusted with a great deal of influence over those in one's care. If we (clergy and congregants both) insist on ignoring the power inherent in the role, it becomes easy to mistake compliance for love, to confuse coercion with leadership."

    A sexual relationship can only be sacred, Dr. Horst said, "when it is a loving connection between equal partners fully committed to honoring the individuality of each. . . . The offender will never get true love from someone who can't really say no. Love is not love unless it is given freely."

    Other keynote addresses given at the conference were entitled "Accounting for Power: Theological Reflections," "God, Power, and Control," and "Hope: God is in the Detail." Workshops addressed such issues as abuse prevention, pastoral power, and long-term systems change.

    In addition, ISTI took the opportunity to create four regional chapters: Eastern, Central, Western, and International.

    The ISTI Millennium International Conference has been scheduled for June 11-13. Like the 1999 conference, the millennium conference will be held on the campus of Saint John's Benedictine Abbey and University. In response to requests from participants at the 1999 conference, ISTI hopes to include monastic liturgies at the millennium conference for any interested participants.

    Related Links

    Interfaith Sexual Trauma Institute

    Welcoming Address. By the Most Rev. John F. Kinney. [ISTI Sun]

    Boundaries. By Elisabeth A. Horst. [ISTI Sun]

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    © 1999 Heather Elizabeth Peterson
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