School Choice & Charters

Catholic Church’s Priest Abuse Crisis Tests School Policies, Educators’ Faith

By Mary Ann Zehr — April 03, 2002 8 min read
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Some of the nation’s Roman Catholic schools have been hit directly by the crisis facing the American church over cases of alleged sexual abuse of minors by priests that have come to light in recent months.

A handful of schools suspended or removed priests from faculty or administrative positions last month after allegations of such misconduct surfaced.

The actions against those priests have come as bishops and other church leaders across the country are confronting public anger about hundreds of cases of alleged wrongdoing over several decades. Those leaders have responded in part by revising diocesan policies to help prevent abuse and rebuild public trust.

Sister Glenn Anne McPhee, the secretary for education for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said last week that she hoped to see new laws passed that would require clergy everywhere to report suspected child abuse. She also said parishes should enact policies that would require criminal-background checks for anyone who works with children and youths.

“I’d hope that everyone is learning a lot from the current situation, and that background checks would extend to everyone who has the responsibility for the safety of our children,” Sister McPhee said. “Anything less than that wouldn’t be right.”

Most Catholic educators haven’t been affected in an immediate sense by the current crisis, but they have felt its spiritual and emotional impact, said Sister Mary Anne Foster, a counselor for two Roman Catholic elementary schools in Boston, where the archdiocese has been at the center of fierce controversy over its handling of abuse cases involving priests.

“The teachers are far more affected than the children are,” she said. “This is an issue that shakes your faith and helps you redefine what you believe in. Your belief is in God, not the human people in the structure of the church or the structure.”

Priests Suspended

The problem of sexual abuse of minors is a familiar one to many educators in public schools. In recent years, sexual misconduct by school employees has been a subject of intensifying public concern. (“Sex With Students: When Employees Cross the Line,” Dec. 2, 1998.)

The Rev. Joe Fitzgerald said he was forced to deal for the first time with allegations of sexual abuse of minors by a priest when his religious order, the Order of Carmelites, last month removed the president of the school where he works after allegations against the priest were reported to a hotline set up by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“We were shocked we had to deal with this issue so close to home,” Father Fitzgerald said.

Father Fitzgerald, the alumni director for Crespi Carmelite High School in Encino, Calif., took on the job of explaining to the news media and the school community that the Rev. Dominic Savino, 63, had been told to leave his position and been prohibited from functioning as a priest because of allegations that he had sexually abused two former students on a nonschool-related outing in the late 1970s.

According to news reports, Father Savino acknowledged that he had acted inappropriately and said he had sought psychotherapy and counseling.

Boston College High School, a 1,200-student school operated by Jesuit priests, suspended a faculty member last month after TheBoston Globe reported that the Suffolk County, Mass., district attorney’s office had begun a probe into child-sexual-abuse allegations against him, according to a spokesman for the school.

The priest was included in the district attorney’s investigation of sexual-abuse allegations against five current or former Jesuits who had been associated with the school. The allegations were connected to incidents in the 1970s and 1980s.

Some of the fallout also is hitting public education.

The 43,000-student St. Louis public school district last month suspended James A. Beine, a former priest who was a counselor at Patrick Henry Elementary School, after the St. Louis Post- Dispatch informed the district that the St. Louis Archdiocese had settled two lawsuits accusing him of sexual abuse. The content of the lawsuits had been sealed from the public until last month.

The St. Louis district had first learned about the lawsuits in 1994 from the newspaper and had temporarily removed Mr. Beine from working with children at that time, but he had returned to working for a school once again after a new school year began, according to a district spokeswoman.

Meanwhile, the removal of a priest from the faculty of a Catholic school in Florida last month demonstrated the climate of heightened awareness about possible sexual misconduct that the current publicity about allegations against priests has created.

The Rev. Richard McCormick, a teacher at St. Petersburg Catholic High School, was granted a leave from his job after a female student reported he had greeted her with a hug and a kiss as they passed in the hallway last month, according to a statement released by the Diocese of St. Petersburg.

The statement says that the school administration and Father McCormick “have mutually agreed that it is in the best interest of the school community that Father McCormick not return.”

Role of Schools

Several Catholic officials interviewed last week said they believe that the nation’s 8,100-plus Catholic schools, which enroll some 2.6 million students, generally are more direct in dealing with the issue of sexual abuse of children than parishes are, partly because teachers and other school staff members have been required to report suspected child abuse to social service authorities for years.

“Most of the allegations that are coming forth are 15, 20, or 25 years old,” said Sister McPhee of the Conference of Catholic Bishops, based in Washington.

“Schools are doing a better job today than they were 25 years ago in terms of having firm policies in place to protect children,” she said. “There are good curricula available on ‘good touch, bad touch.’”

She added that most Catholic schools have detailed sexual-harassment policies in place.

Relatively few priests have much interaction with children at Catholic schools these days, Sister McPhee added, because of the decreasing number of priests and the increase in other parish ministries that consume their time and energy.

In the 176 Catholic schools in Boston, which include 19 schools run by religious orders, only 8 percent of the faculty and administrators are religious personnel, and that includes nuns as well as priests. Schools operated by religious orders—such as the Society of Jesus, as the Jesuits are formally known—tend to have the most involvement by priests.

Sister Kathleen Carr, the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Boston, where sexual-abuse allegations against some 90 priests—most dating back many years—have recently been made public, said she knew of only two schools in the Boston area that reportedly had employed priests who are now being investigated for alleged sexual abuse: Boston College High and Catholic Memorial High School.

While most sexual abuse of minors by priests has tended to occur in rectories, the youths’ homes, or on trips, and not at schools, many incidents do have a school connection, said David Clohessy, the national director of the Chicago-based Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, known as SNAP. “In other words,” he said, “Father got to know kids through schools.”

Mr. Clohessy, who said he was abused by a parish priest from age 11 through age 16 and sued the priest in 1991, argues that efforts to end such abuse will require more than new legislation. He said he lost his lawsuit, which he filed when he was in his 30s, because too much time had elapsed between the alleged abuse and the filing of the lawsuit.

“This is a problem that is very widespread and deeply entrenched in the structure and culture of the church,” he contended. “It’s naive to think a legislature can pass a law, and the problem is fixed, and we can all become complacent again.”

Mr. Clohessy advocates the use of “safe-touch programs” in all schools. In such programs, children learn about their private parts; when it’s appropriate to be touched; and whom to tell if inappropriate touching occurs.

Robert J. Shoop, an educational law professor at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kan., who often testifies in child-sexual-abuse cases, agrees that schools must make a more concerted effort to educate children, teachers, and administrators about the issue.

“In the cases I’m aware of where children alleged that a clergy [member] abused them, they were afraid to tell someone,” Mr. Shoop said. “They didn’t know it was happening to someone else, and they didn’t know who to tell.”

In addition, he said, adults need to be taught how to detect the warning signs of possible sexual abuse and intervene before a child or youth is harmed.

“These people are not wearing trench coats, hiding on the playground, and jumping out at children,” he said. “It’s a culture of seduction and grooming that takes place over time. Schools should be dealing with inappropriate touching, inappropriate language, and environments that allow it to take place.”

The Rev. Quinn Conners, a Carmelite priest and clinical psychologist who works with priests on psychological issues, advocates ongoing, in-service education of Catholic-school teachers and staff members about the issue of sexual abuse, “so it is not seen as ‘this is the hot topic this year,’ but that it’s been going on for years.”

He said the current spate of disclosures about misconduct by priests has made him feel “angry, sad, and hopeful.” He said he is angry and sad that sexual abuse of minors continues, and he faults the church for not having been more accountable over the years.

“This kind of accountability is going to be there in a stronger way than it has been in the past,” Father Conners predicted. “That’s going to benefit children and adults in the church.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 03, 2002 edition of Education Week as Catholic Church’s Priest Abuse Crisis Tests School Policies, Educators’ Faith


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