Commentary Magazine

How the Church Hoodwinked Its Anti-Abuse Experts

AP Photo/Fernando Lavoz

In 2003, an American Catholic prelate shared his diagnosis of the roots of the Church’s abuse crisis with a group of lay experts. The problem, he said, traced back to the “psychological immaturity” of many young seminarians, which meant that they couldn’t cope with the rigors of priestly life and acted out sexually as a result. The solution, per this powerful churchman, was to institute better “psychological testing” to sift the wheat from the chaff among would-be priests.

The expert group was known as the National Review Board, established by the U.S. bishops conference in 2002 when the crisis first came to light to the dismay of American Catholics. Its members included then-Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, media executive William Burleigh, New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Petra Maes, California congressman (and future CIA director) Leon Panetta, and the Johns Hopkins psychiatrist Paul McHugh, among others.

The prelate in question—the one who blamed the mental immaturity of seminarians—was Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick aka “Uncle Ted,” the frocked predator who last week resigned from the College of Cardinals as the abuse accusations against him multiplied. Now, in the wake of McCarrick debacle, at least one charter member of the National Review Board is furious with what he sees as the Church’s failure to come clean in the last decade.

“Why didn’t they tell us—trusted laity asked to lend our expertise—why didn’t they tell us about the supervisory nature of the abuse and especially the McCarrick situation?” McHugh, often described as the preeminent psychiatrist of his generation, told me in an interview on Monday. “It’s got to be more than McCarrick” who is held accountable but “all of them, since it’s been revealed that all was not revealed.” He added: “We, the charter members, were kept in the dark.”

The bishops tasked the National Review Board to uncover, first, the scope of the abuse problem and, second, its causes and context. At the time, McHugh felt that the board did a fine job with uncovering the scope of predatory behavior in the Church. The findings were not pretty. “There were many priests involved and many children impacted,” he recalled, “and this was mainly homosexual abuse of boys and young men.” As many as 10 percent of seminarians in the first half of the 1970s may have been implicated, according to one influential study.

“Ten percent were criminals!” McHugh said. “Imagine if 10 percent of the graduates of Yale, Harvard, and Princeton at a given point were criminals!”

As alarming as the statistics were, there was a silver lining. It was clear to McHugh that “children hadn’t been abused forever,” across 2,000 years of Church history. Rather, Catholics were dealing with a specific “epidemiological surge” that had risen in the 1960s, crested in the ‘70s, and receded by 1980. That meant that it was possible to root out the scourge and protect future generations of children and young people, provided the Church understood its real origins.

Enter McCarrick and his “psychological immaturity” diagnosis. Set aside the eye-watering hypocrisy of a serial abuser besmirching the character of thousands of priests and seminarians, even as he himself wounded their souls and bodies. The bigger issue, to McHugh’s mind, is that such psychologizing conveniently obscures the responsibility of prelates who rose through the ranks in those years and helped create the culture of abuse, either directly (by fondling the faithful and younger priests) or indirectly (by averting their gazes and keeping mum).

Abusers can sexualize the culture and physical space of an institution, McHugh explained. “So to have a cardinal or bishop [with such proclivities] running the seminaries, no wonder we’re seeing this! And this is not just one we’re talking about [McCarrick]. This is something that was systematic.” When the board finished its work, there were those who warned McHugh that he and his colleagues hadn’t gone far enough. Today he thinks that the pessimists were right.

Even now, the veteran psychiatrist warns, there is a risk that the Church will lose sight of the moral dimension by viewing the crisis through a primarily medical or legal or financial lens. “The Catholic Church in relation to this problem, whatever the causes, was not dealing with this in a Catholic way.” The Church, in other words, has lost sight of sin and how to expiate it. Priests who sit in the confessional know the process: admission of fault, an earnest commitment not to fall again, then penance.

“They haven’t done enough penance—moral penance,” McHugh said. “We should have a day a year when everyone from the Pope down shows penance for this. If we have a yearly march for pro-life and whatnot, we also have to have a day of ‘God have mercy’” over the abuse crisis. And the Church, which knows something about sin and its expiation, must remain vigilant. If it happened at one point, and there was insufficient disclosure and penance, the abuse might return.

For McHugh, a devout Catholic, all this is deeply personal. “This is the Church that nourished me as a child and guided me as an adult,” he said, which means it “pains me” to chastise its leaders. “But I am not so religiously orthodox as to not be offended when I’m misled.”

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