Wrong then, wrong now: the bishops’ top adviser on sexual abuse

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April 25, 2013 4:48 PM

By Phil Lawler

“Just as the banishment of lepers was fueled by medieval myths, the hysteria surrounding child sexual abusers is exacerbated by myths about those who suffer from sexual deviancies. Child molesters incarnate our deepest childhood fears… Our myths about child molesters come more from the projections of what lies within our own inner psyches than from the truth about who these men are.”

Does that quotation suggest that the author is motivated primarily by a desire to protect children from sexual abuse? Would it surprise you to learn that the author was–and to this day remains–one of the most influential voices advising Catholic Church leaders on the handling of sex-abuse cases?

The quotation comes from a 1995 article by Msgr. Stephen Rossetti in America magazine, with the revealing title: “The Mark of Cain: Reintegrating Pedophiles.”

”Reintegrating Pedophiles” was, in a sense, Msgr. Rossetti’s job from 1996 through 2006, when he served as director of the St. Luke Institute, the most prominent of the facilities treating American priests accused of abusing children. When the sex-abuse scandal erupted in the US, we learned that dozens of priests were released from such facilities and returned to ministry, only to molest children once again. Today, looking back regretfully on their decisions, many bishops explain that when they returned abusive priests to active ministry, they were following the best advice given by experts—experts like Msgr. Rossetti.

“Generally speaking, the results of treatment of priests and religious who have sexually abused children are excellent,” Msgr. Rossetti wrote reassuringly in 1994. “Pessimism about the effectiveness of treatment is simply not warranted.”

Nearly a decade later, having paid more than $3 billion to settle lawsuits brought by sex-abuse victims who persuaded courts that the bishops should have known better, do you think the American hierarchy should still be listening to that advice, or even to that adviser? Well, they are.

Msgr. Rossetti was a key adviser to the US bishops in 2002, when they developed the “Dallas Charter.” He helped develop the “VIRTUS” program that has been adopted in many dioceses as an abuse-prevention system. As the American bishops have come to be seen (rightly or wrongly) as models for Church leadership on the sex-abuse question, Msgr. Rossetti’s fame has spread abroad. In 2003 he address an international symposium in Rome sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life. Last year he was a featured speaker at a symposium on sexual abuse organized by the Gregorian University in Rome, and attended by bishops and religious superiors from all over the world.

If the American bishops recognize that they were listening to the wrong sort of advice when they mishandled sex-abuse complaints in the past, why are they still listening to the same adviser now?

“Can the recovering perpetrator of child abuse ever minister again?” asked Msgr. Rossetti in his 1994 book, Slayer of the Soul. Answering his own question, he said that most of the molesters who had been treated at St. Luke’s “are productively engaged in some form of ministry.” He added, however: “It is usual to have some strictures imposed which honor public sensibilities as well as to help the individual steer clear of risk situations.”

Notice the reasons cited for those restrictions imposed on the molesters: first to “honor public sensibilities”—that is, to avoid PR problems—and then to “help the individual” avoid further transgressions. Conspicuously absent is an expression of concern about the young people who might be endangered by the presence of a predator.

To his credit, during his term as director of St. Luke’s, Msgr. Rossetti was recommending that if a priest was found to have abused children, he should never again be cleared for unrestricted ministry. So abusers were returned to their diocese with a warning label, as it were. But only diocesan officials saw that warning label; parishioners were not informed. If the priest was assigned to supervised ministry, but his supervisor was lax (perhaps because he was under the guidance of a pastor who was himself ignorant of the troubled priest’s background), he might easily find occasions to be alone with children again.

By 2009 Msgr. Rossetti was saying that of the 339 priest-abusers treated at St. Luke’s under his direction, just over 6% had been found to abuse children again. That rate of recidivism, he reports, was far better than the rates achieved by other treatment centers. Still it meant that 21 priests who had been identified as abusers were let loose to abuse children again. We don’t know how many children they abused, nor whether there were other repeat abusers, beyond those 21, whose transgressions have gone unreported.

Could a prudent counselor have foreseen that abusive priests should not be returned even to supervised ministry? Yes; in fact one prudent counselor did. In the 1950s, Father Gerald Fitzgerald founded the Servants of the Paraclete to serve troubled priests. Father Fitzgerald soon began advising anyone who would listen that a priest who abuses children should be removed from ministry permanently, and preferably placed in a monastery or other remote location, far away from potential victims. Somehow that wise advice was silenced as the years passed, and instead the American bishops began to listen more carefully to therapists from institutions like St. Luke’s, who took their psychological cues from secular training rather than Thomistic tutors. Even the Servants of the Paraclete forgot their founder’s advice.

In 2009, when the National Catholic Reporter questioned him about Father Fitzgerald’s approach, Msgr. Rossetti said that until recently he had “never heard of this guy.” What a remarkable admission! Father Fitzgerald was a pioneer in his field, treating American Catholic priests at a time when others would not acknowledge the problem. Yet just one generation later, working in that same field, Msgr. Rossetti was not even aware of his predecessor’s work!

What happened, between the 1960s and the 1990s, that caused American Catholic leaders to forget Father Fitzgerald and turn instead to Msgr. Rossetti? The answer to that question might furnish the material for a doctoral dissertation in psychology. But an important part of the problem, I fear, is that few if any Catholic universities today boast psychology departments staffed by professors who still retain an interest in the distinctively Catholic approach that nourished the thought of Father Fitzgerald.

Meanwhile, until that important dissertation is written, let me ask another question. Having learned such painful lessons from their errors, why aren’t Church leaders urgently looking today for Father Fitzgerald’s intellectual heirs, rather than continuing to rely on the adviser who told them that in handling abusive priests: “Pessimism about the effectiveness of treatment is simply not warranted?”


Maryland center claims success treating priests

Abuse: The scandal of Catholic clergymen molesting children has focused new scrutiny on St. Luke Institute, its methods and results.

The Baltimore Sun

April 11, 2002

Tucked away on a 43-acre suburban campus in Silver Spring, the St. Luke Institute boasts garden courtyards, tennis and handball courts and, by its own account, extraordinary success over the past two decades in treating the dark and complex problem of clergy sexual abuse.

But as the Roman Catholic Church struggles with the latest scandal involving the sexual abuse of minors, the efforts of the church-run psychiatric center and its self-reported success rate are under new scrutiny, with critics saying the facility has been too willing to let potentially dangerous priests return to the ministry in order to please church officials heavily invested in the priests’ training and recovery.


“These centers, particularly one like St. Luke, do a big, big business with the church,” said Gary R. Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist who has closely studied the Maryland center and similar facilities. “It’s the same problem consultants have – when you have one big customer, the tendency is to treat them nicely and have things go the way they want it to go.”

Current and past officials with St. Luke dispute that suggestion. They say that far from being part of the problem in the roiling Catholic sexual abuse scandal, the center – with its blend of progressive art and drama therapy, drug treatment and exhaustive group and 12-step counseling sessions – is part of the solution.

An internal study of the more than 450 priests who underwent the center’s six-month treatment program between 1985 and 1995 showed only three of the men relapsed – a conclusion based on reports from the men themselves, their church supervisors or law enforcement officials.

Center officials say few of the priests they treat are ever returned to their old duties or allowed to work again with young people.

“I never had pressure from any bishop to send a priest back and, in many cases, we had people who we thought were able to go back, and we had a hard time convincing any bishops to take them,” said the Rev. Canice Connors, a past president of St. Luke.

The current church crisis, however, has focused new attention on St. Luke’s role in advising the church on whether known sexual offenders should be returned to ministry. In several high-profile cases, church officials knew about sexual abuse allegations – and had priests evaluated or treated at St. Luke – but still shuttled them from parish to parish.

  • In Boston, former priest John J. Geoghan, accused of molesting more than 130 people, underwent weeklong evaluations at St. Luke in 1989 and 1995, according to court records. He was treated for three months at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn., a secular facility that, like St. Luke, has been widely respected for treating clergy accused of sexual abuse.
  • Another defrocked priest from Boston, Paul J. Mahan, was reassigned to a parish after a 1993 evaluation at St. Luke found he was sexually attracted to teen-age boys. Mahan, who underwent a six-month treatment at a Canadian facility and was evaluated again by St. Luke in 1997, is accused now of molesting a young nephew between 1993 and 1995.
  • A priest from the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., Andrew Millar, was sent to St. Luke in 1999 after he was accused of sexually abusing a 10-year-old altar boy eight years earlier. Millar retired after completing treatment and was allowed to celebrate Mass at a parish where nobody was informed of the charges against him. In May 2000, he was arrested and charged with sodomizing a learning-disabled teen-age boy in a park bathroom.

    As those and other cases unfolded, they exposed rare fault lines between the church and the psychiatric facilities it has relied on for years.

    The staff at the Institute of Living, reacting to a suggestion from New York Cardinal Edward Egan that the church relied on faulty psychiatric evaluations in reassigning priests accused of abuse, said recently that church leaders gave them limited background information on troubled priests and then ignored their treatment advice.

    The head of the St. Luke Institute, in an interview last week, drew a sharp distinction between the center’s role and the church’s in placing priests who are known sexual offenders. The Rev. Stephen J. Rossetti said his facility can only make a recommendation about a priest’s future – it is up to the church to decide what happens after that.

    But Rossetti, who said he could not talk about Geoghan or other cases, signaled that St. Luke continues its close, cordial relationship with the church.

    “There’s the impression that people are being given, that [priests accused of sexual abuse] are all going back” to their parishes, he said. “That’s just not been my impression.

    “What I’ve been seeing is the bishops take it very, very seriously. They send them to treatment and, the majority of times, they’re removed from ministry completely.”

    St. Luke’s treatment regimen has been praised for years as one of the country’s most rigorous programs for child abusers.

    “St. Luke’s has, in my estimation, an excellent staff, and I think their program was set on a very solid medical model,” said A.W. Richard Sipe, a psychologist and former priest who was one of the first to study and write about the church’s sex abuse problems.

    In business since 1981

    St. Luke opened in 1981 as a treatment center for priests with alcohol and drug addictions. Named for the patron saint of physicians, the facility was founded by the Rev. Michael Peterson, a Washington psychiatrist and Catholic convert who became a priest.

    The center expanded its counseling mission in 1983 to include clergy accused of sexual abuse, partly as a response to the case of Gilbert Gauthe, a Louisiana priest who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for sexually abusing at least 35 youths.

    Peterson and St. Luke gained attention in subsequent years for bluntly drawing new attention to the problem of clergy sexual abuse.

    A 1985 report Peterson co-wrote for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops warned that there is “no hope at this point in time for a cure.” And, it noted, the “recidivism rate is so high with pedophilia … that all controlled studies have shown that traditional outpatient psychiatric or psychological models alone do not work.”

    The church, particularly the Vatican, has not always looked favorably on St. Luke. This response appeared to be based at least partly on the fact that St. Luke’s founder, Peterson, who was openly gay before becoming a priest, died of AIDS in 1987, one of the first such cases involving Catholic clergy to gain national attention.

    This ambivalence apparently figured in the Vatican’s opposition in 1993 to an American bishop’s efforts to oust a suspected abuser from his diocese. The Signatura, the Vatican’s supreme court, ruled against Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh, appearing to side with a canon lawyer for the accused priest, Anthony Cipolla.

    “St. Luke’s Institute, a clinic founded by a priest who is openly homosexual and based on a mixed doctrine of Freudian pan-sexualism and behaviorism, is surely not a suitable institution apt to judge rightly about the beliefs and the lifestyle of a Catholic priest,” said the brief, first published in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The Vatican court reversed itself two years later and supported the decision to remove Cipolla.

    At St. Luke, priests undergo a range of assessments and follow-up treatments, at a cost to the church of about $300 a day.

    Rossetti, who would not allow a reporter to visit the Silver Spring facility, said sexual offenders make up only about a quarter of the center’s clients – about 18 of the center’s 70 beds.

    Evaluations and tests

    When priests arrive at St. Luke, their initial evaluations include a battery of psychological, personality and intelligence tests. They also typically undergo CAT scans of the brain and are attached to a device designed to measure arousal in men when they are shown pornographic photographs.

    That device, called a penile plethysmograph, is one of the most controversial parts of St. Luke’s approach, and some priests subjected to it call the experience humiliating.

    Dr. Fred S. Berlin, founder of the Baltimore-based National Institute for the Study, Prevention and Treatment of Sexual Trauma, said the arousal measurements, as well as sometimes confrontational counseling sessions, are important components of the program.

    “The idea is not for these guys in treatment to be comfortable,” said Berlin, who worked with St. Luke as it began its sexual offender program in the early 1980s. “St. Luke’s is very much focused on what the primary objective should be – that the behavior is not acceptable.”

    If a patient is admitted to the full, six-month program, his treatment typically begins with a dose of the drug Depo-Provera to weaken the sex drive. In group and individual therapy sessions, priests undergo art and drama therapy to help them better express their feelings. They are instructed to keep a detailed sexual history diary.

    In group therapy sessions, they are confronted by other priests who challenge the most common denials or protests – that the offenders’ actions weren’t really abusive, that the child involved didn’t mind.

    The goals of the program are straightforward: Priests are expected to acknowledge their sexual problems, accept responsibility for their actions and learn how to prevent relapses.

    No one at St. Luke talks about a cure, and priests finish the program with the understanding that they will face long-term monitoring. Connors said priests typically report back every six months for five years.

    Other psychologists say that is at least one factor allowing the center to claim a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent.

    “They’ve got such a closely supervised program once they get out, so there’s less opportunity to offend,” said Thomas G. Plante, a California psychologist and editor of a 1999 academic study of priestly sexual abuse.

    Schoener, however, questions whether the reports of relapses – which have never been subjected to an outside review – are complete. Sexual offenders in the general populace typically have higher repeat rates.

    “To believe that whatever measure they are using is catching every victim is absurd,” he said.

    Schoener and others say that St. Luke suffers most from its close ties to the church. In reviewing St. Luke and two other facilities seven years ago at the request of the archbishop for St. Paul and Minneapolis, Schoener said the clinical reports by St. Luke’s professional staff were solid. But he criticized the center for relying too heavily on the church for initial investigations and follow-up monitoring.

    Sipe, the psychologist and sex abuse expert, said St. Luke has to overcome the cloistered “clergy culture” in which it operates. That is echoed by the Rev. James J. Gill, who said the institute offers less of a real-world treatment environment than some secular treatment facilities.

    “If a bishop feels he has to send a man to a place where only priests and nuns and brothers are, a Catholic ghetto, they send him to the St. Luke Institute,” said Gill, a psychologist and consultant at the Institute of Living.

    Rossetti, St. Luke’s president, counters that its religious affiliation can be beneficial. Priests at his facility aren’t given any special respect or the benefit of the doubt because of their profession, he said.

    What is missing, he said, is more aggressive secular involvement from criminal and child welfare investigators, who often decline to review allegations of priest sexual abuse because the claims typically are raised years after the abuse occurs.

    “What professional, secular organization is going to do a criminal investigation?” he said. “And they don’t – the bishop ends up becoming judge and jury and parole officer, and that is unfortunate.”

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