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Church's Defense Called Valid--to a Point

Priests: Experts agree the idea of rehabilitation once held sway, but fault transfers of molesters.

July 04, 2002|ROSIE MESTEL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In defending themselves against the sex abuse scandal, leaders of the Roman Catholic Church often point fingers of blame at the quality of mental-health advice they have received about reinstating errant priests.

In previous decades, when many of the incidents now in the news occurred, psychiatry and psychology had markedly more optimistic notions about how to handle sex offenders, church leaders say. That, they maintain, sometimes led the church to believe that priests who had sexually abused children were unlikely to re-offend.

Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, meeting with a group of Times reporters and editors Tuesday, repeatedly said it was unfair to impose today's standards of judgment on bishops who had kept priests in the ministry on the basis of psychological advice of a different era.

"Everyone is taking the matrix of 2002 knowledge and placing that matrix on what happened some time 15, 20, 30 years ago," he said.

Leading experts in the area of sexual abuse say there is some truth in this line of defense--but only some.

For one thing, they say, it is inaccurate to suggest, as Mahony has on occasion, that there has been a radical change in expectations from therapy as recently as the late 1980s or early '90s. The primary sea change in the way psychologists and psychiatrists viewed sex-abuse treatment began in the mid-1970s, when the notion of an easy cure started to melt away.

These specialists say blame also falls on church officials, who sometimes failed to provide sufficient information about priests referred for treatment, and in other cases ignored the advice of medical professionals or interpreted it too optimistically.

It is clear that both professionals and clergy operated with inadequate knowledge about treatment, especially in the 1960s and early 1970s, experts say.

Back then, optimism about cures was greater, psychological damage done to abused children was underappreciated and the therapies in vogue for treating perpetrators were fundamentally flawed. Many of the cases that have recently come to light occurred in the 1970s or '80s, but some go back as far as the '60s.

Psychology experts fault practitioners even more recently for meting out unrealistic or vague advice to church officials, taking on cases that were outside their area of expertise or insufficiently investigating the true extent of their clients' problems.

These experts also blame society for failing to take a pragmatic approach toward the unsavory problem of child sexual abuse. The government, they say, inadequately funds research into the roots of sexual abuse and ways to better treat perpetrators. Trained practitioners are lacking, as are teaching hospitals where therapists can gain expertise in this highly specialized area, they say.

'Polarized Thinking'

There are also few effective, communitywide treatment and prevention programs that coordinate with the criminal justice system so that those serving prison time also get treated.

Progress is sabotaged by "this polarized thinking--that you're either for the victim or for the offender," said Dr. Fred Berlin, associate professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore and founder of the Johns Hopkins Sexual Disorders Clinic. "In reality, they're opposite sides of the same coin."

The experts stress that such deficiencies cannot justify the repeated reassignment of abusive priests to ministries that put them in contact with children.

They refer to cases such as that of former Boston priest John J. Geoghan, the convicted child molester whom more than 130 people accuse of abusing them while he worked in the archdiocese of Cardinal Bernard Law, or of Father Michael Stephen Baker in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Mahony transferred Baker to several parishes after the priest told Mahony in 1986 that Baker had molested young boys. The cardinal later approved a secret $1.3-million settlement with two men allegedly abused by Baker in the 1990s.

Richard Sipe, a former priest living in La Jolla and a retired psychotherapist who has worked with hundreds of priests and victims, said the shortcomings in the mental health profession pale in comparison with the church's culture of secrecy.

"When did the bishops discover that sexual abuse of minors was illegal? Was that something that was hidden from them for the last 30 years?" he said.

Still, there are examples that make mental health professionals wince. Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist and an expert on sexual abuse by priests and other professionals, recalls that, in the late 1980s, he was asked by the then-archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis to review 15 years of case assessments involving priests who had sexually abused children or adult parishioners.

The priests, he said, had been sent for assessment or treatment to various places, including facilities specializing in treating clergy with behavioral problems. They returned, were reassigned--then abused again.

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