The Abuse Crisis and Church Independence

St.Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), designated a “Doctor of the Church” along with thirty-two other saints, is best known for her Dialogues, in which she speaks with God the Father. The first parts of the Dialogue constitute a treatise on the spiritual life, in which the Father describes several stages, and even indicates the possibility of a final stage of constant perceptible union with God. The stages are similar to what may be found in St. Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle or in the works of St. John of the Cross.

In a later chapter of the book, however, God begins to chronicle for Catherine numerous examples of sinful corruption in the Church – priests and bishops greedy for wealth and power, committing fornication, visiting prostitutes, carousing in secular clothes in taverns, openly marrying despite their vows of celibacy, even shamelessly having their wives and children bring the gifts up to the altar during Mass. 

A separate and long chapter discusses the scandal of sodomy, which the Father excoriates as completely unnatural. He adds, however, that one should never despair of salvation, because “my mercy, which you receive in the blood [of Christ], is incomparably greater than all the sins that have ever been committed in the world.”

But the Father also makes a statement that many of us, in the current cultural climate, may find surprising – and even counter-intuitive: “By the dignity and authority I have bestowed on [priests and bishops and other clerics] I have freed them from slavery, that is, from submission to the authority of temporal rulers. Civil law has no power whatever to punish them; this right belongs solely to the one who has been appointed to rule and to serve according to divine law.”

Putting this into context, we should realize that Catherine was living in an era fraught with struggles between the papacy and the Italian city-states, which were vying for influence over the papacy; and also that civil laws at that time differed from our own – notions about who are “minors,” who are “children,” what constitutes a felony, etc. In other words, the Father is not intending to exempt clerics from prevailing and just civil laws, but is emphasizing that rectification and punishment should come from bishops and superiors of religious orders, who are castigated for their inaction – inaction due to their fear of unpopularity, or of losing prestige or property; or because they themselves may be involved in the same sorts of sins.

In the context of our own times, and the civil laws now prevailing, the most recent John Jay report offers the statistics related to the clerical abuse issue: Approximately 5 percent of priests between 1950 and 2002 were accused of sexual abuse; the vast majority of victims were post-pubescent and adolescent males; 0.3 percent were children; 138 of the abusers were convicted and 100 served time in prison.

Those who are guilty of pedophilia or sexual abuse of minors should face justice from civil authorities. But anyone who has learned about the “presumption of innocence” and other legal safeguards in a basic high-school civics class – and follows recent media reports – should realize that justice is hard to come by for an accused but innocent priest. David Pierre’s book, Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church, includes the following examples:

– After the state of California lifted the “statute of limitations” for sex abuse accusations, the Los Angeles diocese faced an avalanche of suits, resulting in a $60,000,000 settlement to plaintiffs. But 30 percent of the accused priests were deceased!

– In 1993 the Archdiocese of Chicago spent massive sums defending Cardinal Bernardin from accusations by a man who later recanted the “repressed memories” discovered by his therapist.

– Fr. Gordon McRae ( has been in prison for fourteen years, and will probably be there for life, because he refused to plead guilty to accusations against him.

– In 1992 a diocese in New Hampshire, facing accusations from sixty-two individuals, paid out millions to avoid the legal expenses of case-by-case examination.

The constitutional “separation of Church and State” is a two-way street. The Church is not allowed to control the state, and vice versa. But the state can control the Church in subtle ways by discarding the basic constitutional principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” nullifying “statutes of limitation,” weakening the rights of “due process” in the face of media frenzy, and being cavalier about traditional “rules of evidence.”

What evidence is relevant to cases in which an accused priest denies an accusation of sexual abuse? Convincing evidence might include witnesses, a history of previous convictions, DNA samples, possibly lie-detector tests taken by accused and accuser. But many such cases end up analogous to the “he said, she said” situations common, for example, in domestic abuse cases. And accused priests are often at the mercy of their bishops, who may be pressured by civil authorities to report the case for public consumption, in spite of a lack of convincing evidence.

Many young men at present, experiencing the grace of a call to the priesthood realize that if they were to make enemies bent on retaliation, or be in close contact with those willing to concoct stories, they could easily face “abuse” charges. Understandably, this might give aspirants “second thoughts.” 

In some dioceses, and under some civic jurisdictions, they would be, for all practical purposes, guilty until immensely powerful evidence exonerates them; they would be transferred, maybe to “administrative” positions; and even if civil charges were dismissed, their vocational aspirations might be under the shadow of suspicion if, for example, they were assigned to normal pastoral duties with younger people.

The “vocation crisis” in the Catholic Church is ascribed by liberals to various causes – celibacy, restrictions on the ordination of women, etc. But the current incursions of the state, egged on by greedy attorneys, against the independence of the Church, may be another major factor discouraging entrance to the priesthood. And perhaps this, along with historic anti-Catholicism, is part of the motivation for the harsh punishments that our legal system now permits to be dealt out against priests, and virtually against priests alone.


Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz

Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.

  • Manfred

    You overmake your case. The Traditional orders, which produce sacerdotal priests instead of mere “presiders”, cannot handle the number of applications applications to their seminaries. Fr. Charles Fiore, the priest who advised Steven Cook’s attorney that Steven and then Abp. Bernardin did have sexual relations, explained to me that Cook’s only reason to sue was to gain money for medical care as he was dying of AIDS, “recanted” when money mysteriously appeared. The U.S. Church has paid three billion in settling these cases and, as Philadelphia shows, the Church still cannot understand the problem.

  • Richard A

    What is often not appreciated in evaluating Pope John Paul II’s response (or supposed lack thereof) to the clergy sex abuse scandal is this: in his experience as a priest and bishop under totalarian regimes (Nazi and communist), such charges were always 1) directed against those priests most injurious to the regime, and 2) false. And thirdly, one never took such concerns to the police and public magistrates.

  • Howard Kainz

    @Manfred: Cardinal Bernardin, in his book, The Gift of Peace, writes about this incident, “Although Steven was pursuing a case only against his seminary teacher, his priest adviser began mentioning me, Cardinal Bernardin, suggesting that, if I were included in the case, Steven would surely get back what he wanted from the church. This ‘spiritual guide’ pushed my name, urging Steven to name me along with the other priest in the legal action.” According to the New York Times, Feb. 1, 1997, Fr. Fiore thought he was the priest Bernardin was referring to, but “Father Fiore said that he spoke to Mr. Cook once, two days before the suit was filed, but that he neither discussed it nor advised Mr. Cook to name the Cardinal in it.” Many psychologists have characterized the recall of “repressed memories” as quack science. See, e.g. Elizabeth Loftus and Katherine Ketchum, The Myth of Repressed Memories (1994). In general, I think it would be prudent to trust the word of Cardinal Bernardin against the repressed memory of Stephen Cook.

  • jsmitty

    I found this piece a little tone-deaf. Brad Miner’s the other day was much more on the money.

    The vast majority of these cases were highly credible. Many more surely went unreported because of the desire of the victims to get on with their lives.

    Of the handful of cases which were unjust or like the enemies of the Church are piling on…what can one say but that this is the suffering the American Church has brought on itself for years of mishandling this problem, from the seminary culture forward. It will take a long time to rebuild the credibility of the Church and the prestige of the priesthood.

    This is the season for serious repentance and soul searching and not more whining about “greedy attorneys” and “historic anti-Catholicism.” Do you expect many people to buy your argument that the Church really the victim here?

  • Howard Kainz

    @jsmitty: About 6000 priests were accused during the half-century examined by the John Jay report, and, as I mentioned, 138 were convicted. I’m not sure that either you or I can know that “the vast majority of these cases were highly credible.” The principle, “innocent until proven guilty,” should apply in these cases as well as any others.

  • Manfred

    Howard: There was no question of “repressed memories”. Fr. Fiore was phoned by Cook’s Chicago attorney because he, Fiore, lived in Lodi, WI and knew the Church in Chicago very well. The attorney wanted to know if he, Fiore. would be able to tell if Cook had indeed a sexual liaison with Cdl. B. Cook was told to speak to Fiore by phone from a private room. This was done. Fiore gave no advice to Cook!Cook’s attorney called Fiore and was told: As each homosexual has his own pattern and as I have been told of Bernardin’s, I will attest that Stephen Cook had at least one liaison with Bernardin. What you do with this information is up to you and your client. As Fiore said to me, “I never told anyone to sue anyone. I would never suggest or recommend that a Church leader be sued.” By the way, Randy Engel in her book “Rite of Sodomy”,insists that Bernardin was the only source stating that Cook had recanted.

  • jsmitty

    Actually 252 priests were convicted. But the real problem here is that “convicted” is a classic statistical dodge. Your argument is profoundly misleading and disingenuous.

    “Convicted” implies criminal charges were pressed and guilty verdicts were the outcome. That’s were the standard “innocent until proven guilty” applies. But the vast majority of these cases were settled out of civil court with no criminal charges ever filed. The Jay report itself says that only 384 of the priests and deacons alleged to have committed abuse were ever criminally charged. That’s well under 10% of the total number of clergy accused. In nearly 3/4 of the cases the police were never notified.

    In most cases, the Church essentially paid most of the victims to go away quietly. You and I both know there were far, far more than 138 priests and bishops who did terrible things to those under their care. The Jay report itself makes that obvious while noting that surely many cases of abuse were never reported.

    I honestly don’t know what you are trying to accomplish by trying to cast the Church as a victim here.

  • Howard Kainz

    @jsmitty: The 252 priests you mention are not the ones convicted, but the ones accused of pedophilia out of a total of 109,694 priests during that period, in other words, 0.3%.
    @Manfred: Unlike others, I have no “behind the scenes” knowledge about whether Cardinal Bernardin was guilty. I am just saying that any priest or bishop who is accused of abuse should be considered innocent until proven guilty.

  • jsmitty

    @ Howard Kainz…OK. I’m going to try one more time. On chart 3.7.4 in the John Jay report, it clearly states that the total number of convictions was 252. Whereas on table 3.7.3, it clearly states that the number of priests criminally indicted was 384.

    But the larger point here is that these convictions are a red herring. They are not even the tip of the iceberg since in only about one quarter of the cases were the police even involved anyway. You don’t seem to grasp this.

    Not only are you grossly understating the scope of the problem, the fact that thousands of these cases were settled out of court utterly contradicts your bizarre claim of “state incursion” into church affairs.

    No, as for the perpetrators of these outrages, the vast majority,if they suffered any consequences at all (which many didn’t), simply got reassigned to a new parish, or sent on retreat or laicized, after which many no doubt resumed their careers as predators in secular environments.

    I don’t always agree with pieces in the Catholic Thing but this one is about as impervious to facts and logic of any that I’ve read.

  • Manfred

    Howard: You have no “behind the scenes” knowledge…? Good, let’s remedy that. Please Google:
    Archbishop McCarrick Syndrome

    Fr. John Minkler (look for Paul Likoudis’s article.)

  • MikeM

    Part of the problem has been the Church’s constant out-of-court settlements. By settling so many cases out of court, with fairly little review of the veracity of many of the accusations, the Church, itself, short-circuited the “innocent until proven guilty” maxim.

    In an ideal situation, abuse would have been reported to the police when it happened. Accusations brought to the Church decades later, after evidence has dried up and the statute of limitations has expired, can’t be dealt with justly. The Church’s feeble attempts to appear to be dealing charitably and in good faith have only made matters worse.

    Of course, the Church has yet to recognize (or, at least, to publicly state) that victims should skip calling the chancery office altogether and report rape to the police. Counting on Bishops, who lack the investigatory powers of civil law enforcement and are expected to provide for the defense of their priests, to be the ones leading investigations into abuse accusations seems little short of madness.

  • Howard Kainz

    @jsmitty: on chart 3.7.4, the report on the John Jay website states, “Of the 217 priests who were charged with a crime, a majority (138)
    were convicted.” And on chart 3.7.3 it says the total number of priests charged was 217. Are you sure we are looking at the same report? See In any case, this is not just about numbers. I agree with you that sex abuse of children and minors should be vigorously prosecuted, but with the usual constitutional safeguards for every priest charged.