Vatican Looks to Science to Curb Sex Abuse

National Catholic Reporter, February 27, 2004 | Go to article overview

Vatican Looks to Science to Curb Sex Abuse


In confronting the clerical sex abuse crisis, the Catholic church needs to work more closely with scientific experts to identify potential perpetrators and make sure they cannot harm the young, a soon-to-be-published Vatican report says.

The 220-page report, "Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: Scientific and Legal Perspectives," represents the Vatican's first comprehensive effort to examine recent research into the psychological causes and types of abuse, screening procedures, recidivism rates, effects on child victims and the possibility of successful therapy for abusers.

Although cautioning that each case of sexual abuse against minors is unique, it sketched general characteristics of priest-abusers and identified a wide range of possible "risk factors," including sexual immaturity, narcissistic traits, alcohol and drug abuse, hormonal abnormalities and endocrine disorders.

While drawing on the experience of U.S. bishops in confronting sexual abuse, the report made a case against the U.S. policy of "zero tolerance" for clerical abusers. It suggested that the church and society are better off when abusive priests are kept in the priesthood but away from children.

The report, to be published by the Pontifical Academy for Life, was based on a Vatican-sponsored symposium of scientific experts held last April. It includes the papers delivered at the symposium, summaries of follow-up discussions involving Vatican officials and the experts, and introductory and conclusive chapters.

Catholic News Service obtained a preliminary copy of the report, which was expected to undergo minor editing changes before being sent out to bishops' conferences in early March.

The report said that while the church has been rocked by the "terrible phenomenon" of sexual abuse, the church also has some unique advantages when it comes to preventing future abuse--particularly in using psychological techniques more carefully during the long period of seminary training.

It said that in facing the problem church leaders need more contact with scientific experts in the field.

"This is only a first step. For the benefit of all those who have suffered due to sexual abuse and for the common good, other steps must be taken," said an introduction by Bishop Elio Sgreccia, vice president of the pontifical academy.

Sgreccia said some of the data already could be put to good use in the selection and training of seminarians and in the ongoing formation of priests.

The report was highly unusual at the Vatican for its unflinching examination of the clinical aspects of the problem of sexual abuse and for its stated aim of reaching a wide audience. The volume is intended for "all those concerned with preventing and responding to sexual abuse" and was written for nonspecialists, the editors said.

In several aspects, the report confirmed the approach taken by U.S. bishops as they have grappled with the problem of sex abuse in recent years. The consensus of the experts was that sexual abuse of minors is a bigger problem than previously believed, in the church and in the wider society.

They emphasized improved tools to recognize abuse when it occurs, more careful screening, clear policies of disclosure, and cooperation with civil authorities when a crime has been committed.

But in an important divergence, the report took issue with the U.S. bishops' "zero-tolerance" policy of dismissing priests from ministry for even one act of abuse.

The scientific experts, all of them non-Catholics working in the fields of psychiatry, psychology and psychotherapy, appeared to agree unanimously that "zero tolerance" goes too far, saying it was ultimately counterproductive.

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