Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Top Tips for Reading Accused Clerical Sex Offenders Lists

Thomas G. Plante and David E. DeCosse

Thomas G. Plante is a professor at Santa Clara University and an adjunct clinical professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. David E. DeCosse is the Director of Campus Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are their own.

This article was originally published in Psychology Today on September 5, 2019.

Recently the statewide Diocese of Burlington, Vermont released the names of 40 Catholic priests with credible accusations of sexual abuse of minors during the past 70 years while the Diocese of Juneau, Alaska released their list of 7 names of priest offenders at the same time. And several weeks earlier the Archdiocese of New York released 120 names of priest offenders while the Diocese of Providence, Rhode Island released their list.

From coast to coast during the past year following the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests in that state, dioceses have offered lists of priests accused of being sex offenders. The reports are a long-overdue exercise in transparency. And they are shocking and upsetting. But they should also be read with a prudent eye, aware of the catastrophe the crisis has heaped on victims and on the church and aware, too, of signs of progress even amid the constant revelation of such difficult news.

Here are some tips for sorting through the reports.

First, these reports from attorneys general and dioceses and religious orders offer often an unprecedented public collection of information that may not have been gathered together before or that may have existed in separate documents. As such, the release of this information gives the public a renewed sense of the scope of the abuse (even if, see below, it's important carefully to consider that "scope"). Moreover, the reports also attach names and parishes to instances of abuse and, in doing so, make the entire scandal more concrete and vivid to millions of American Catholics. Like it or not, this sort of public truth-telling is an essential step in moving forward.

Second, the release of these lists of names, with many from the far past, also has the effect of signaling how deep the trauma of sexual abuse goes. Victims seeing this information in public for the first time may well re-live or re-visit long past instances of abuse because, whatever the case, the depth and delicacy of the wounds lives long. We have to confront what these actions have done to victims. As far back in time as the lists go in naming perhaps long-dead abusers, so, too, do the agonizing wounds of abuse go that far back in time, too.

Third, it is critical to consider how many of these offending clerics abused children after 2002. The vast majority of released names of clerical offenders are very old cases where the abuse occurred mostly prior to the 1990s (with peaks in the 1960s and 1970s). Many of the accused offending priests are now dead while the vast majority of those who are still alive have been removed from ministry, often for many years, and are now elderly and infirm. The year 2002 was a critical time in Church reforms as the Dallas Charter and Essential Norms became operational following the news from the Boston Globe Spotlight team that brought the topic of clerical sexual abuse to the headlines and to the public imagination. For example, the 2018 Pennsylvania grand jury report reviewed cases over 70 years yet offered only two cases of reported abuse after 2002. Most casual readers may assume that this well-publicized report focused on cases that were much more current.

Fourth, many people have expressed dismay at how church officials, such as bishops, managed or mismanaged the priests under their supervision who were accused of abuse. Again, 2002 proved to be an important and critical year as the reforms set forth then by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops provided clear and generally accepted guidelines about how bishops should manage these cases when they came to their attention.

Fifth, people often wonder about what a “credible” accusation of abuse actually means. Credible accusations do not mean that someone accused of abuse was found guilty in a court of law or that the accusations were found to be true or substantiated by outside observers and by law enforcement professionals. Credible suggests that the accusations appear, in the judgment of the lay review boards comprised of experts in law enforcement, psychology, child protection, social work, and so forth, to have enough evidence to suggest that the accusation could have indeed happened and that the accusations are believable.

Sixth, a critical question one must consider when reviewing the list of accused clerics is might children be at risk now? Thus, it is important to know if anyone on the list of credibly accused priests is still active in ministry, have unsupervised access to children and to the public, and are thus potentially at risk of hurting anyone now or in the future. Church reforms in 2002 reflected best practices in child protection and certainly any cases of abuse after these reforms were implemented need closer inspection.

As we address the abuse crisis, we face a delicate balance. The abuse itself is shocking and often catastrophically harmful. There is a duty to be transparent about the history of abuse—a duty especially imposed by the decades of silence and cover-up. At the same time, amid these disturbing revelations, we also need to seek distinctions, incremental improvements, and signs for what might work to address this scourge. Asking thoughtful questions when reading these reports will better help everyone act in ways that keep the Church safe for children and families.

Sep 13, 2019