The Church's Secret Document On Pedophilia

The crisis of pedophilia in the Roman Catholic priesthood exploded in 1985, when a pasty, bespectacled Louisiana priest named Gilbert Gauthe admitted under oath that he'd sexually abused 37 young male parishioners. Gauthe was sentenced to twenty years hard labor with no possibility of parole.

The Catholic Church doesn't keep an official tally of its child molesters, but Tim McCarthy, a journalist who covered the scandal for the National Catholic Reporter, estimates that since Gauthe, at least 150 priests have been prosecuted or are awaiting trial for sexual crimes against children. In Arizona and other states, victims have also filed negligence lawsuits against the offending priest, diocese, church and, in some cases, the Pope himself.

Faced with a growing shortage of priests, the Church is loath to fire the aberrant clerics. But the crisis poses so many legal and public relations problems for the Church that a 93-page document entitled The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy: Meeting the Problem in a Comprehensive and Responsible Manner was prepared in 1985 by a priest and the lawyer who represented Gauthe in the Louisiana trial. It was sent that same year to every bishop in the country, and a Diocese of Phoenix official confirms that it was received by Bishop Thomas O'Brien. The bishop declined requests for interviews about the subject.

The secret paper, which was obtained by New Times, gives short shrift to the victims. It focuses on ways to protect the Church from the courts, press and financial catastrophe and warns, "Church attendance by the victims, their families and other members of the faithful may decline." The document lists 75 possible problems a bishop might face in the midst of a pedophilia disaster. A sample question for the bishops to ponder: "If the teen-ager appeared to initiate the sexual contact and seemed to continue to enjoy it over a period of time, would this change the offense in the eyes of the law or in the eyes of a psychiatrist?"

Only two of the 75 possible problems deal directly with the welfare of the victims. The document does not spell out procedures for counseling victims and their families. But it does suggest that a "crisis control team" be set up, in part to "advise local parties, priests and psychiatrists in regard to drawing a plan for immediate intervention with families of victims with the least possible negative fallout."

Money worries get more emphasis. The document estimates that pedophile priests will cost the Church $40 billion in court settlements and legal defense costs in the decade spanning 1985 to 1995. "There is simply too much at stake for the Church, its leaders, its clergy and the faithful not to attempt to provide the best possible response to the overall crisis," the writers say. The document calls for special groups of experts--overseen by a handful of bishops--to write up a game plan for what to do when a pedophile priest is discovered in the ranks. Such a game plan was never published by the bishops.

But the document itself probably influenced how individual bishops, including O'Brien, handled their scandals. For instance, O'Brien's terror of the press after the sentencing in July of pedophile priest George Bredemann was similar to the document's fear that the "secular press attempts to portray the Church as hypocritical, as an organization preaching morality and providing sanctuary to perverts. . . . "

The document, written by Gauthe's civil lawyer F. Ray Mouton and priest-lawyer Thomas Doyle, stresses that "the necessity for protecting the confidentiality of this document cannot be overemphasized. The national press has an active interest in items discussed herein . . . it is requested that each reader return the document to the person from whom they received same, without copying. It is requested that no copy be retained by the reader. The rationale for this request is the great interest of the press. . . . "

Mouton and Doyle say the bishops, in striving for a strong "public relations" policy, should:

* Present the Church as "a sensitive, caring and responsible entity that gives unquestioned attention and concern to the victims of misconduct by priests."

* Separate the Church authorities from the offender. "That does not mean that the church authorities abandon the offender. . . . It means that his actions . . . will be portrayed . . . as actions which the Church views as profoundly unfortunate."

* Control and monitor all public statements, including legal briefs. "Public statements . . . all statements including written legal pleadings must be entirely consistent and aligned with the image of the Church."

* Avoid "the appearance of being under siege or drawn into battle. . . . Cliches such as `no comment' must be cast away. In this sophisticated society, a media policy of silence implies either necessary secrecy or cover-up."

Ironically, the whole thrust of the document is secrecy and cover-up. For instance, the writers suggest that bishops send offending clerics for therapy in states where the therapists are not required to report sexual-abuse offenders to authorities. The bishops themselves should also keep files on pedophilia a secret, the document cautions. Church law requires each bishop to maintain a "secret archive" accessible only to him. Doyle warns that "reports of alleged sexual abuse or sexual misconduct as well as records of investigations" should be stored in the secret archive.

The bishops never responded as a group to the report by Mouton and Doyle. There is still no national policy to guide bishops through the crisis. So when a priest is caught sexually abusing children, each bishop muddles through the crisis as best he can.

O'Brien's handling of the three Phoenix pedophile priests is neither the most nor least enlightened strategy in North America.

The Church's most recent pedophile scandal blew up in Newfoundland, Canada, a few months ago when eighteen priests, former priests and religious brothers were charged with sexually abusing boys in an orphanage. Bishop Colin Campbell told a radio audience that the boys should have known better and stopped the assaults themselves. Campbell's comments sparked public outrage in Canada.

Neither O'Brien nor any other church official has suggested--or even implied--that the victims of the Phoenix diocese's three pedophile priests were to blame.

But the Phoenix bishop is far less willing to acknowledge the problem of pedophilia than is Raymond Hunthausen, the liberal archbishop of Seattle. In February 1988, Hunthausen put together a team of lay and clergy experts to deal with the victims' needs and made it clear the victims also could seek help from outside counselors--at the diocese's expense. The Phoenix diocese has no MDRVsuch team but the bishop did offer professional counseling to Father George's victims, says Marge Injasoulian, the diocese communications director. Hunthausen was also candid enough to admit that a priest in his diocese had been allowed access to kids after he'd molested several others, says Kay Lagreid, the archdiocese communications director. Lagreid says that even before the public discovered the priest was a pedophile, Hunthausen had for years not allowed him near any kids without a chaperone.

Nevertheless, Hunthausen admitted he'd made a mistake. And he did two things that church officials in Phoenix haven't done. He allowed the press to cover parish meetings on the topic. And he wrote a letter to be read to all diocese parishioners at Sunday Mass: "I am writing in hopes that this situation, as painful as it is, will serve as an opportunity to break the cycle of silence that perpetuates abuse in the human family. . . . We wish to create a new atmosphere based on education and dialogue, so that the problem of abuse and exploitation will become a distant chapter in the past."

The bishops should keep files on pedophilia a secret, the document cautions.

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Terry Greene