Breaking the Learning Curve: Local priest on the Catholic Church’s reform after sexual abuse charges

It was a failure in a sense of recognizing how serious the issue was and not taking the appropriate steps to resolve the issue.

Father Bob Stine, of Christ the King Catholic Church, explains his take on the Catholic Church’s “trial and error” attempt in taking control of serious sexual abuse cases within multiple dioceses across the nation. Two of the notorious accounts involved a former priest, John J. Geoghan, in the Archdiocese of Boston, and the other being a reverend in the Diocese of Lafayette, Gilbert Gauthe.

“As soon as Gauthe broke in Lafayette, we realized that this was going to be a major problem and a lot of dioceses were slow to catch up, but we right up there at the very beginning,” said Stine, as he discusses his experience in the Catholic Church as a prominent sexual abuse scandal emerged in the 1980s involving Rev. Gilbert Gauthe and over 30 children.

According to an article in the Minnesota Public Radio, during Gauthe’s 11 years as priest, he was removed from and transferred to four different parishes in Louisiana, where he had shown a particular interest in young boys – hosting practices for altar boys, inviting them to stay the night in the rectory with him and bringing them on camping trips – all of which being an opportunity for him to molest and provoke the boys into sexual behavior with him and even requiring them to take part in sexual activities with one another.

However, no one took severe notice until 1984 when a victim’s parents brought a number of sexual molestation suits to the Diocese of Lafayette. The year prior to this, in 1983, he was removed from St. John’s Catholic Church where his clerical career officially ended. It wasn’t until 1986 that he finally plead guilty and was sentenced to 20 years in prison, after a family sued the diocese upon finding that their son had been sexually abused by Gauthe for over a year.

Although this was groundbreaking for mainly surrounding dioceses in Louisiana, this case became widespread, so much that it caught wind in Minnesota, and initiated what eventually became the turning point for the Catholic Church as a whole, in regards to sexual abuse.

According to Stine, the Diocese of Baton Rouge took this account very seriously and began setting up a policy that states that “if any of our priests, or even deacons, are accused of sexual misconduct, we put into place a process, that many other dioceses follow, where the priest or deacon would be put on administrative leave.”  From that point on, a committee of Catholic laypeople, priests, judges, psychiatrists and lawyers would review the case, enact an independent investigation and presents their findings to the bishop who then determines if the suspect should be defrocked or face criminal consequences.

A few years after that is when the scandal in Boston hit and the eyes of the Church were being opened.

The Geoghan case grew to be so scandalous that it singlehandedly rocked the Catholic Church beginning in the 1990s when accusations started being made. Overall, John J. Geoghan, the former Catholic priest in Boston, Massachusetts, was accused of sexual abuse toward over 130 boys in his 30-year career, which began in 1962. After being transferred out of six different parishes for undocumented reasons and being defrocked in 1998, the Boston Globe uncovered sealed documents proving Geoghan to be guilty for more than just his molestation charges in 1991. He was found guilty in 2002, and was sentenced to nearly 10 years in prison.

“Within the following year, the bishops as whole decided to go to Dallas; that’s where they set up a universal policy similar to what was already in place, but going further in asking for training to detect child abuse”, said Stine in response to asking how quickly the Catholic Church reacted to this debacle.

The crime film and drama, “Spotlight”, which was released in 2015, was focused on this scandal that was prevalent from Geoghan’s initial charges to the early 2000s. This was the outrage that Fr. Stine mentioned was the ultimate turning point for the Catholic Church at the time, so the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops gathered in Dallas, TX to create a new policy on sexual abuse within the church.

“No one had a policy like this before. For any sort of wrong doing done by a priest, whether it was robbing a bank or being addicted to gambling or drugs, there was no specific policy; but they knew they had to get specific”, explained Stine. This new agreement was made explicitly in response to sexual abuse by priests. Since going into effect, the Dallas charter was universally adapted by almost, if not, all dioceses in America.

Now, according to the USCCB, there is a Zero Tolerance policy that went into effect in 2002 and it is defined as such: “When even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest or deacon is admitted or is established after an appropriate process in accord with canon law, the offending priest or deacon will be removed permanently from ecclesiastical ministry, not excluding dismissal from the clerical state, if the case so warrants.”

In addition to this, there is now “Safe Environment Training” taking place for adults to recognize the behavior of sex offenders and abusers to ensure the safety of children in every diocese.

Prior to this policy being set, Stine explained that the protocol for cases of indecent behavior, such as sexual abuse, “was very generic and not as narrowed as it should have been.” Depending on the severity of the case, the accused priest or deacon would simply be transferred to a new diocese to avoid scandal, in which they would be required to retreat, and upon attending the required counseling, they would come back to full ministry in another parish.

This was simply because “the church did not fully understand the idea of pedophilia and how intractable it was”, said Stine. “There was a sense that if you went to counseling, you did a retreat, it was over and done with. You would treat it as a sin, in other words, not a psychological disorder.”

They dealt with it on the level of sin and forgiveness, then getting a new start, instead of long term therapy. This is something that took a while for the psychiatric community to discover, as well as the Catholic Church, but eventually they “broke this learning curve”, said Stine.

“That’s all it was, a learning curve for the institutional church, we were just ahead of the game because of the Gauthe case being so near to us”, he explained. “But eventually, after everything came out in Boston, it was too revolutionary to not realize that change was eminent.”

Without having any former knowledge of the reform the Catholic Church was, in fact, making before and, especially, after the Geoghan and Gauthe cases, many people shunned the church for having involvement in the scandals themselves. What people were unable to realize was that the church was merely following the typical protocol by moving these members of the clergy to and from parishes. It was easily mistaken that they were trying to lessen the magnitude of the crimes being committed; however, long-term healing for the church was just beginning. Clergy men, such as Fr. Stine, are proud of the growth and resilience among the Catholic community, despite the shadow of such a dark period.

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