Over the last few years, there has been a barrage of accusations, civil suits, and settlements involving child sex abuse that have crippled Catholic dioceses all over the country, both financially and spiritually. Our Church has experienced the same types of issues, but, so far, on a much smaller scale. It appears to me that the decentralized natured of Church administration, the use of a lay clergy, and the clergy-penitent privilege have minimized Church liability in civil suits accusing the Church of failing to adequately respond to abuse (though there have been many millions paid out in settlements). The spiritual damage to the Saints as a result of these cases, on the other hand, is profound and probably unavoidable.
Abuse by Church members, or by those that use the Church to gain access to victims, is not a new problem, of course. Back in 1985, Gordon B. Hinckley addressed the issue in General Conference:
There appears to be a plague of child abuse spreading across the world. Perhaps it has always been with us but has not received the attention it presently receives. I am glad there is a hue and cry going up against this terrible evil, too much of which is found among our own. Fathers, you cannot abuse your little ones without offending God. Any man involved in an incestuous relationship is unworthy to hold the priesthood. He is unworthy to hold membership in the Church and should be dealt with accordingly. Any man who beats or in other ways abuses his children will be held accountable before the great judge of us all. If there be any within the sound of my voice who are guilty of such practices, let them repent forthwith, make amends where possible, develop within themselves that discipline which can curb such evil practices, plead with the Lord for forgiveness, and resolve within their hearts henceforth to walk with clean hands
In 1994, President Hinckley addressed a similar theme:
And then there is the terrible, vicious practice of sexual abuse. It is beyond understanding. It is an affront to the decency that ought to exist in every man and woman. It is a violation of that which is sacred and divine. It is destructive in the lives of children. It is reprehensible and worthy of the most severe condemnation.
Shame on any man or woman who would sexually abuse a child. In doing so, the abuser not only does the most serious kind of injury. He or she also stands condemned before the Lord. …
If there be any within the sound of my voice who may be guilty of such practice, I urge you with all of the capacity of which I am capable to stop it, to run from it, to get help, to plead with the Lord for forgiveness and make amends to those whom you have offended.
These remarks are addressed to the perpetrators of abuse, and I hope and pray that they reached at least some of their intended audience. But the Church has also addressed the problem from another angle: establishing policies to help local leaders deal with abuse when they become aware of it. In 1995, the Church established a 1-800 hotline to counsel priesthood leaders in situations involving sex abuse. The hotline staff tells leaders to protect and arrange help for victims, and and discusses the leaders’ legal obligations. According to a 1999 interview with Church attorney Von Keetch, the Church has now established a system to ensure that if an abuser confesses to his bishop, his Church membership record is annotated to indicate such. The annotation is intended to prevent the abuser from ever having a position involving children. Bishops and Stake Presidents are also now trained to immediately report any knowledge of abuse to local authorities, except in the case when their only knowledge of the crime is from an ecclesiastical confession by the abuser. They are also taught that normal repentance counseling is rarely able to “cure” a pedophile, and that professionals are better equipped to deal with this problem.
There’s only so much the Church can do, however, by way of condemning this evil and promulgating policy to prevent it. Abusers are incredibly resourceful, and priesthood leaders sometimes fail to do their duty. Ultimately, it is up the members — each of us — to be vigilant in protecting our children and making sure church policy is being followed. From my experience, we have a long way to go in this effort — we tend to be a trusting, optimistic, and forgiving people, which is precisely the type of community in which pedophiles thrive. Yet we certainly don’t want to lose these commendable qualities. So I would like to open up a dialogue here on the topic. What can we all be doing better to prevent and address abuse in the Church? How can we help our leaders to deal with this problem appropriately? How do we better show compassion and facilitate healing for the victims of these crimes? In your comments, please avoid discussing specific incidents.