Abuse allegations: true, false and truthy

A number of important questions need to be addressed in regard to the allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviours against minors by 21 priests from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia who were placed on administrative leave on Ash Wednesday. This would include the process of further evaluation of priests previously evaluated and found to be innocent.

When minors accuse adults of inappropriate sexual behaviours, the response must be immediate, compassionate, in-depth and sincere and should be conducted by skilled criminal justice and mental health professionals. If the charges are found to be credible, criminal charges are filed against the individual and the charges made public.

To protect the good name of an individual, accusations of inappropriate sexual behaviours are not made public until the evaluation process is completed and accusations are deemed credible. This policy is in place for accusations against employers, co-workers, parents, teachers, coaches, physicians, attorneys and others.

The placement of 21 priests on leave shortly after the Philadelphia Grand Jury’s report on the outrageous child abuse by two priests has had a severely damaging effect upon the reputation, good name and future priestly ministry of these priests. This is because the majority of people in the Philadelphia area and around the country believe that all 21 priests were guilty of the same heinous acts as the two priests identified by the Grand Jury.

In fact, the majority of the 21 priests identified for further evaluations of accusations made against them previously went through such an intensive process in the past conducted by competent professionals without any new charges being filed against them. The result of the investigation was that the charges were not substantiated against many of those 21 priests. Then, these priests were notified and there was no disruption of their priestly ministry.

The failure of the Archdiocese to communicate these facts to the public is difficult to understand. The public falsely believes these priests are guilty.

Priests and Catholic laity who know these priests were cleared earlier and deemed victims of false accusations are justifiably incensed and believe this deserves further investigation.

It is important to understand that false accusations occur regularly against employers, co-workers, spouses in divorce cases, parents, educators, and members of the clergy. Such accusations have led often to reputations and careers being ruined, family relationships destroyed, and both professional and religious lives shattered.

False accusations are made for a number of reasons, including a desire for financial gain, excessive and misdirected anger, jealously, mental instability, prejudice, a sociopathic personality disorder and, in regard to priests, a hatred of the Church.

In the Church false accusations have related recently to confusion in regard to what is referred to as “boundary issues” which are buzz words arising from the post-crisis programs in the Church. Boundary violations are behaviours that are viewed as being suspicious, but are not directly sexual. Priests are being increasingly accused of so-called boundary issues and of grooming minors while engaging in completely appropriate priestly ministry and behaviour toward youth in Catholic schools, on playgrounds and in parish centres or rectories.

In our professional opinion the failure to address clearly the basic causes of the crisis, described in 2005 by a member of the first National Review Board, Dr Paul McHugh, former chair of psychiatry at John Hopkins, as the homosexual predation of adolescent males, in the post-crisis programs led instead to a focus on ambiguous boundary conflicts.

In our clinical experience many of the priests accused of so-called boundary violations were strong in faith and in loyalty while their accusers often harboured resentment toward them. While accusations of specific sexual behaviours need to be immediately addressed, caution needs to be exercised in regard to the evaluation of so-called boundary violations. Certainly such priests should not be removed from ministry while an accusation is assessed, nor do they necessarily need a mental health evaluation.

Veteran attorney David Steier played a role in over 100 investigations of claims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

He stated in his deposition to the Superior Court in November 2010 that, “One retired FBI agent who worked with me to investigate many claims in the clergy cases told me, in his opinion, about one-half of the claims made in the clergy cases were either entirely false or so greatly exaggerated that the truth would not have supported prosecutable claim for childhood sexual abuse.” Most Catholics in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia do not know that thorough evaluations were done on the majority of the 21 priests and that they were found innocent of the charges against them.

A number of important questions need to be addressed. We need to know how it was determined that second evaluations determined to be necessary on priests previously evaluated by competent professionals and found innocent without further accusations being brought forward and who made such decisions. One of these priests was evaluated by us and by the leading forensic psychologist in Delaware County for “boundary violations.” Our reports indicated that he had not engaged in any inappropriate behaviours in his priestly ministry to students at the parish school.

Why did the Archdiocese not separate priests who were accused of boundary violations from those accused of sexual abuse? Why are priests treated differently than all other adults who do not have to leave their jobs while accusations of sexual abuse or boundary violations are investigated? Why are “repressed” memories of abuse from decades ago against priests given credibility when those against parents have been found to be false by mental health experts, including Dr Paul McHugh, former chair of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, and Dr Elizabeth Loftus, who wrote “Creating False Memories”, (Scientific American, September, 1997) and the Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse.

Most importantly, we deserve an explanation as to why the second evaluations of priests were not done confidentially while these priests continued their ministry, as occurs when sexual accusations or “boundary violations” are made against teachers, employers, lawyers, doctors, spouses and parents, so that their good names could have been protected.

Richard Fitzgibbons is the director of Comprehensive Counseling Services in West Conshohocken, PA. He has practiced psychiatry for 34 years with a specialty in the treatment of excessive anger. He co-authored Helping Clients Forgive: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, 2000, for American Psychological Association Books and has also written on conflicts in priestly life. He is a consultant to the Congregation for the Clergy at the Vatican. Peter Kleponis, PhD, is the assistant director of Comprehensive Counseling Services. He has given conferences in many dioceses to priests on pornography addiction.


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