SEXUAL ABUSE AND FAIRNESS FOR PRIESTS: A STATEMENT OF THE ST. JOSEPH’S – ST. PATRICK’S COLLEGE ALUMNI ASSOCIATION BOARD
write to address the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. Particularly,
we write out of our concern for priests in the American Catholic Church.
Our concern arises from the implementation of the charter/norms for the protection
of children and young people, initially adopted by the American bishops in
Dallas in June 2002, and revised in Washington, D.C., in November 2002.
We are the Board of Governors of the St. Joseph’s – St. Patrick’s College
Alumni Association. St. Joseph’s – St. Patrick’s College was the high school
and college seminary for the Archdiocese of San Francisco from 1924 until
the closing of the college program in about 1991. The faculty were priests
of the Society of St. Sulpice (Sulpicians) headquartered in Paris.
Prior to coming to the seminary we were children and altar servers. Some
of us became priests and bishops. The majority have become parents, doctors,
lawyers, engineers, politicians1, social workers, educators, union leaders
and businessmen2. The number of living alums is approximately 2,000 –
Because of our seminary experience, we believe that we are in a unique position
to speak out. Unique or not, we are convinced we would be irresponsible to
Most of us were in the seminary before the Vatican II Council. Many of us
were in the seminary during and immediately after that Council. In those
seminary days, our personal sexuality was not discussed, ever. To the contrary,
we were being groomed to be ”perfect” even as our heavenly Father is perfect.
The marriage tract in moral theology at St. Patrick’s Seminary was popularly
known as the ”dirty linen class,” sadly symbolic of the expectation that
we should somehow be ”above” our own humanity. With noble intentions, the
seminary unintentionally groomed us for superiority and clericalism. We studied,
prayed and played together so that we might be an ”alter Christus” and ”all
things to all men”.
Now, years later, most of us have come to better appreciate God’s gifts to
us, all of them. Many of us have come to reject clericalism and to try to
accept, lovingly, the power that lies in powerlessness, as modeled to us
The Sulpicians also gave us many gifts. One gift provides the theme upon
which our statement is rooted: ”... have this mind in you which was in Christ
Jesus.” (Phil. 1:5). So immense is this scandal that we can only respond
by humbly searching for the attitude we think Jesus would have.
While our focus is the condition of priests, we start by restating, unequivocally,
our deep concern for all youthful victims, past or present. We, too, feel
the shame and bitter, bitter, almost unspeakable hurt. Nothing we say here
should be interpreted to mean that we suggest any equivocation on this point.
Surely some of our own members may be among the victims. The Church has a
continuing duty to victims to apologize and to provide emotional and financial
support for recovery from their wounds.
The morale of the parish priest is gravely low and becoming worse. One of
our diocesan priests accuses the American bishops of shoving priests into
the muzzle of a cannon and then firing it in the direction of the criminal
authorities and the media.
We find the article in the Dallas charter which states that ”even a single
act of sexual abuse of a minor – past, present or future – will result in
the permanent removal of a priest or deacon from his ministerial duties,”
to be too broad as to some ”past” offenders. It seems to us that Jesus would
want to know whether there had been repentance, conversion and justice for
the victim – and whether there is evidence that the People of God and society
need protection currently.
Some would have us presume that a past offender has continued to offend.
(Rev. Kenneth Lasch, Commonweal, Sept. 27, 2002, p. 8.) We think such speculation
fails to recognize the wide spectrum of improper acts, some of which are
curable, others not, some of which are not even civil/criminal wrongs and
others of which so clearly are. The failure to make such distinctions can
deny the accused priest due process. Such un-nuanced speculation, moreover,
is not something in which Jesus would engage.
Putting priests ”on leave” because of a ”credible allegation” of ”sexual
abuse” alleged to have occurred 20-plus years ago, denied by the priest,
violates due process. There are no standards to determine what a ”credible”
allegation means. With the passage of time, witnesses have moved or even
died; memories have dimmed. The decision to put a priest on leave will be
decided differently by different bishops, depending on their susceptibility
to pressure to reclaim episcopal credibility. On essentially the same facts,
a priest in one diocese might be put on leave and a priest in another diocese
One Cardinal said during the debate in Dallas that he had found from personal
experience that a person could rely upon the police/district attorney to
recognize and reject the truly spurious charge of abuse. But, there was no
one to put the Cardinal on leave while that process went forward. True, he
had to suffer being charged; but he did not have to suffer a sullied reputation,
the raw fear and hollow ache of alienation and ostracism, of indefinite duration,
after a life of service. Bishops are to care for their priests and to ensure
they are treated fairly. That duty is not delegable to the public authorities.
We fear that the priest who has denied wrongdoing must now effectively bear
the burden of proving himself innocent. There is no ombudsman to speak for
him. We think that many dioceses fear being accused of taking the priest’s
part and are concerned for civil liability, which might flow from the alleged
abuse. The priest becomes a pariah.
The burden of proving oneself innocent of very old charges is more than just
the impossibility of proving a negative. The wrongfully accused priest suffers
his own Gethsemane.
Some of the recent revisions, adopted by the Bishops at the behest of Rome
in Washington in November, appear to insist on more due process for priests.
These revisions, however, raise more questions than answers. We are, moreover,
troubled by certain public statements attributed to various Bishops in the
press. These statements admit that the revisions do not afford complete fairness
to priests because of the need of the Bishops to limit their discretion in
order to regain their credibility with God’s People. This attitude continues
to put institutional credibility ahead of personal fairness. We are confident
Jesus would not do that. In the long run, credibility will be regained only
if the Church can both fully protect children and young people from predatory
clergy and also guarantee complete fairness to priests.
To those of our alumni who have been wrongfully accused, you continue to
have not only our support but our affection. You need not feel alienation
from us who studied, prayed and played with you. We know you.
To those of our alumni who are not serial offenders, who offended in the
past and now are being ousted, we continue to hold you in our hearts because
that is what Jesus does. You are, we know, much better than the worse thing
you have ever done.
We feel both anger and pity for the serial offenders. We are deeply troubled
in the face of such evil. We pray for truth and conversion in order that
the forgiveness of Jesus may be theirs.
To the bishops, we know most of you now recognize that the failure of the
past was putting the reputation of the institutional Church ahead of the
good of children. Authoritarianism and a distrust of consultation with the
laity contributed heavily to this.
To the Bishops we say allow the laity to help. It is our Church, yours and
ours. The laity are more understanding and wiser than you think. The laity
is rightly angry at the cover-ups. The laity however, recognizes perhaps
better than bishops and priests give them credit, that (to quote our alumnus
Bishop Frank Quinn) the Church is not a museum for saints but a hospital
The diocesan Review Board created by the Bishops in Dallas is charged with
evaluation of the charges against priests, as well as for the care of the
victim. Those functions are in hopeless conflict. They should be separated,
creating additional decision making opportunities for lay responsibility.
We wish to express our confidence in St. Patrick’s Seminary. The laity can
have confidence that under the leadership of our alumnus, Fr. Jerry Coleman,
the priests of tomorrow are being forced to confront their personal issues
before admission and before ordination.
We are concerned, however, for what kind of men may now seek the seminary
after these scandals and for what seminaries will be expected to do to turn
out a more ”perfect” priest. Striving for false perfection is partially what
caused this problem in the first place. The People of God need men whose
understanding of their own imperfections allows them to embrace, console,
advise and absolve. The People of God do not need men whose striving for
a false perfection makes them superior, unapproachable and ineffective.
For tomorrow the very number and quality of priest depend directly upon how
we support our current priests today. Even in the face of investigations,
indictments, and money judgments, may we courageously seek the mind of Jesus.
Board of Governors
St. Joseph’s – St. Patrick’s College Alumni Association
(1) We count one former Speaker of the
California Assembly and Lieutenant Governor, and at least two State Senators
and several mayors/councilmen.
(2) The priest members of our Board have not taken an active part in the
preparation of this statement and are not responsible for its content.