The Fruits of Five Years of Zero Tolerance

By Joe Maher

In April 2002 I helped a Catholic priest who was accused of sexual abuse at my parish. Because of his status as a visiting foreign priest, his case made international news and before long more priests began calling me for help. So, along with my pastor and two other businessmen, we formed a non-profit group called Opus Bono Sacerdotii, which is Latin for “Work for the Good of the Priesthood”. Today we assist thousands of priests all over the world with personal situations, but mostly priests in the United States facing allegations of sexual abuse. We turn no priest away.

In June of 2002, the United States Bishops’ drafted and implemented the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, which is commonly known as the Zero Tolerance Policy. Since that June of 2002 we estimate that there are approximately five thousand priests that have been accused and removed from ministry and most of their names have been publicly disseminated by the Church. That is 12% of the 41,800 priests in the United States as reported by Agnes Orlowska of the Official Catholic Directory, and more are being removed every week.

No one doubts that some priests have been guilty of heinous crimes and that some bishops have been grossly negligent in not removing such priests from ministry. There are in fact individuals that are guilty of child sexual abuse and for varied reasons they have not yet been rehabilitated. For these men we must care for them in a special way that protects children and encourages them in their desire to grow in holiness. But this is a relatively tiny group of priests.

There are thousands of priests with outstanding reputations who are being removed from ministry and their reputations ruined on the basis of a single nebulous, unproven charge from decades ago.  Many of these are retired priests, in poor health, facing an accusation as far back as 40 or even 50 years ago.  As the British weekly The Economist said: “No crime, not even murder, is so vilified in the western world as pedophilia. Being accused, even wrongly, of anything to do with child abuse can ruin people’s lives.”

Guilty until Proven Innocent

The practice by some diocese of immediately removing priests on the basis of an unproven accusation flies in the face of the Gospel of Truth and leads everyone to believe that the priest is guilty. Through the Charter, the Bishops’ imposed a self-styled transparency policy, which effectively shifted the burden of proof in civil society for a priest away from the accuser or prosecutor to the accused, unbelievably even in Church law. The critical process of discovering truth and presenting realistic facts in order to achieve what is called the burden of proof is an immensely difficult and time consuming procedure. The bishops’ transparency policy fast-tracked this process by exposing to the general public, often through the release of arbitrary information to the media, unproven claims against priests without the opportunity for the accused to mount a competent defense, and obstructing the due process which is paramount in discerning truth.

Now, imagine the double burden of trying to prove that something didn’t happen. Instead of requiring that an accusation be proven, an accused priest is considered guilty unless he can prove his innocence, which is next to impossible. As one exasperated Chicago defense attorney put it: “Catholic priests are guilty until proven guiltier.”

Even now dioceses are removing more priests, announcing publicly that there is an accusation of sexual abuse against the priest and ordering him to vacate his rectory immediately with  no place to live. He is often given only a nominal sum for basic living expenses and generally receives no financial support or assistance in hiring a secular lawyer or even a canon lawyer. And, worst of all, in most cases he is cut off completely from his spiritual father, the bishop, who is morally responsible for the care and wellbeing of his material and spiritual needs. Rarely do bishops talk to their removed priests.

The Undermining Effects of Transparency

To really understand the motive for drafting the Charter in 2002, which received recognitio from the Vatican the following year, one must understand that it is not pastoral, but rather legal. The Church, following the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and espousing its own teachings on responsible sexuality, would never tolerate the abuse of children, much less the sexual abuse of children by one of its priests. So a new and separate policy of zero tolerance just for the United States would be unnecessary, unless, of course, a bishop was scared to death of law suits and had an unprecedented need to protect himself even to the extent of sacrificing his own priests thus compromising his Christian ideals. The fact of the matter is that the Charter is singularly focused on minimizing the risk of lawsuits, and that’s all it’s designed to do.

As one priest put it bluntly: “when the wolves came to attack, the bishop threw the sheep out in front of him in order to protect himself and the institution.” An American Cardinal’s statement to his brother bishops nearly five years ago that “unfortunately, some priests must be sacrificed for the greater good of the Church” has come to full fruition. I call that affectionately the “Caiphas Syndrome”. But, here lies the real dilemma: U.S. Bishops who were sure of their ground in the past have now let public opinion guide them. I do empathize with the bishop who told one of his priest-sons, after being questioned why he was ousting him on an unproven allegation, “because I’m afraid to go to jail. I won’t let them do to me, what they did to Cardinal Law in Boston.” Jail, lawsuits, public backlash, the fear of decreasing revenues from donations, a diminishing reputation and the general everyday feeling of oppression from what seems like the whole world pressing in around you, for a bishop must be a living hell on earth. After all, at the core of their being, these men are formed to be simple parish priests who entered seminary with the zeal of ministering compassionately to the masses and forgiving sins. They never expected to find themselves now as bishops and having to carry this kind of a heavy cross. I really do empathize with them.

However, a legal document dressed up to look like a public relations pastoral plan and disseminated to appease a bullying media is not the proper response for the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Even if there has been wrong doing by some priests, what does it say about us lay people when our own priests can’t be redeemed, forgiven and integrated fully back in to their rightful place in the Christian community? The blanket policy on exclusion from ministry ignores the reality that in some cases of sexual misconduct a bishop years ago made a responsible judgment that a priest was rehabilitated and fit to return to ministry in some fashion or other. If the intervening years have shown the wisdom of that particular judgment, through a priest’s exemplary life, by what rationale should that priest now be banished from ministry? There is no basis in canon law. It seems that the basis is simply public opinion, a poor guide to reasoned judgments.

In our experience at Opus Bono Sacerdotii in reviewing thousands of priests' cases, the bishops were mostly correct in the assistance they provided to priests in overcoming inappropriate behaviors and then returning them to ministry healed. Those which publicity has drudged up as the “poster children” of pedophile priests are very few indeed.

The Sinfulness of the John Jay Fiasco.

On February 27, 2004, the U.S. Bishops’ National Review Board hosted a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to reveal what they claimed to be the results of a study detailing 50 years of clerical sex abuse in the Catholic Church. The study was conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at an initial cost of $500,000. However, according to an October 27, 2006 news wire from Zenit, the study, which is to be completed in 2009, is expected to cost $3 million. Kathleen McChesney who was head of the Office of Child and Youth Protection of the U.S. Conference of Bishops at the time, said she believed the study “is well done and will produce good results”.

Flawed from the outset, this multi-million dollar expense is simply a polling of accusations made against priests. Many of them are unproven, as is evidenced by Karen Terry, the principal John Jay investigator, who told the Catholic News Service in March 2004, that “in the vast majority of cases the criminal statute of limitations had expired when the allegations were made. The Study said that 75 percent of the abuse incidents occurred from 1960 to 1984 but that two-thirds of the allegations were made after 1993.” She went on later to say in another March 2004 CNS article that “in many cases the long time lapse between the incident and the allegation made it impossible for church officials to gather the data necessary to prove or disprove an allegation.”

What the National Review Board presented at their grand press event was merely a tally of accused priests and their accusers - a far cry in deed from the proposed detailing of clerical sex abuse, which the report touted to be. No one in their right mind would believe that conducting a survey of mostly unproven accusations is worth anything, except that it played well in feeding the hungry press and in appeasing an irate American public that just might believe the obnoxious spin and thus restore trust.

However, there were some courageous bishops given the grace to refuse participation in the study. One of them, Fabian Bruskewitz, Bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska hit the proverbial nail right on the head when he outlined in his diocesan newspaper the reasons for his refusal to participate. He listed ten objections which he stated as "not complete or exhaustive, but sufficient for now". A quick look at some of his right reasoning and one can certainly see what a wicked disaster this study turned out to be.

First he said that the John Jay Study seemed to exist more to "satisfy curiosity" than to help victims. Then he accurately points out that it included “inconclusive allegations and anonymous allegations”, and furthermore that “many of the accused in the files of many dioceses are dead and will not be able to defend themselves.” Therefore he says that “serious sins against the Eighth Commandment are likely to be part of the result of the study: detraction, calumny, slander, contumely, etc.,” and that the study is “skewed and inaccurate from the start because any self-reporting can include both inflation and deflation of information.”

It is interesting to note that in Bruskewitz we see a Catholic bishop whose paramount concern is in holiness, by not participating in what he appropriately calls serious sin regardless of the negative public image his detractions might create. In the end he concluded that “the study, like ‘The Charter,’ while having some positive aspects, can be fairly judged as defective and flawed and not useful for the Diocese of Lincoln." I would humbly suggest that the study and the Charter is not useful for any Catholic diocese in America.

Putting children at risk in the name of protecting children

Perhaps the most outlandish innovation to develop in the last five years since the bishops’ 2002 charter are sex abuse programs designed to corrupt the innocence of our children. These initiatives are fully backed by some bishops and their diocesan personnel who, despite the objections of outraged parents, have made these dangerous sex education programs mandatory for all students in diocesan Catholic schools and religious education programs as early as kindergarten. In an introductory video for one of these sex-abuse training programs, which the archdiocese of Boston has implemented, called “Talking about Touching”, a video opens with a 5 year old child asking his mother, "Mommy, what is sex?" The mother responds, "Sex is when two people get undressed and rub their private parts together." Besides the obvious rude and offensive explanation of what is the most sacred act of intimacy, there is purposely no mention of the terms chastity, love, marriage, or even that two people should be of the opposite sex.

In 2006, the Catholic Medical Association asked the U.S. bishops to stop using these sex abuse education programs in their report entitled To Prevent and to Protect: Report of the Catholic Medical Association Task Force on the Sexual Abuse of Children and Its Prevention, It echoes complaints from parents and pro-family groups against the safety programs implemented by some bishops. They criticize the programs for exposing young children to sexual concepts inappropriate to their age.

In June 2003 Catholic World News reported that: “A pastor made the revealing statement that, as a priest in the current climate, he could not publicly oppose the program, because he could not risk being seen as an opponent of any measure that might conceivably protect children from clerical abuse.” The article went on to say that, “When several parents questioned the program's emphasis on the use of explicit terms for reproductive organs, they were advised that this terminology was necessary so that the children could be ‘good witnesses’ for prosecutors if abuse did occur.” Furthermore, when a couple of parents stood up to object, a spokesman in one diocese asked them what they were afraid of revealing about themselves. The astonished parents questioned, “I thought we were talking about clerical sex abuse?”

But not to worry, programs like “Talking about Touching" and the notorious “Good Touch, Bad Touch” program that was implemented in the Arlington diocese, but was later abandoned by Bishop Paul Loverde in favor of the VIRTUS program, known as the "Cadillac" of child safety programs, are heavily endorsed by such staunch pro-choice groups as Planned Parenthood. It is clear that programs being chosen by U.S. dioceses for the protection of children from sexual abuse, are putting our Catholic children up as the first line of defense against the abusers.

In that same June 2003 Catholic World News story, enraged parents addressed four specific objections: first, these sex education programs usurp their parental authority as outlined in Church teaching and The Code of Canon Law; second, the contents of these programs violate their children's innocence; third, secular, worldly principles are being taught contrary to genuine Catholic principles; and fourth, sex abuse protection curriculums place children as the first line of defense for diocesan legal liability.

To appreciate the gravity of the errors of these programs we need only reference Pope John Paul II’s 1981 apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio which states: “Sex education, which is a basic right and duty of parents, must always be carried out under their attentive guidance, whether at home or in educational centers chosen and controlled by them. In this regard, the Church reaffirms the law of subsidiarity, which the school is bound to observe when it cooperates in sex education, by entering into the same spirit that animates the parents.” Furthermore, the 1995 document of the Pontifical Council for the Family called Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, clearly defines that “parents must protect their children, first by teaching them a form of modesty and reserve with regard to strangers, as well as by giving suitable sexual information, but without going into details and particulars that might upset or frighten them.”

The Holy (Cash) Cow.

Of all churches, the Catholic Church is the easiest to sue because of its centralized, hierarchical structure and because of its extensive record keeping. There is no doubt that there are true victims who may deserve compensation. However, there is also the phenomenon that after a crash of a bus holding 50 people, sometimes 100 people file claims that they were on the bus. Therefore, some kings of torts have used irresponsible methods to solicit thousands of claimants.                                     

These unscrupulous lawyers understand that most dioceses prefer to settle even a dubious claim rather than go through the expense and the barrage of negative publicity involved in defending a lawsuit for an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor. The Archdiocese of Chicago reported that it spent $1.2 million about ten years ago to defend one priest who was falsely accused of sexual abuse of a minor. All through the years of protracted litigation, the Archdiocese was pilloried for using “aggressive legal tactics,” despite the fact that Cardinal Bernardin tried to be eminently fair and even hired a retired federal judge to study the record and to advise him as to whether he was following the proper course.

The Statutes of Common Sense.

On February 24, 2007 the Washington Post reported on a settlement agreement for the diocese of Spokane, Washington which was under review by a bankruptcy court because the diocese filed for Chapter 11 protection. According to the agreement, William S. Skylstad, Bishop of Spokane, and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, “will publicly support a complete elimination of all criminal statutes of limitation for child sexual abuse.”

As horrible as child sexual abuse is, I can’t stress enough how harmful the implications will be of revising the Statute of Limitations both now and well in to the future for every US citizen who could be accused of sexual abuse from decades ago. What is even more distressing is that the Church, in trying to appease an American Episcopacy that is essentially running for legal cover, has suspended its own statute of limitations called prescription in priest sexual abuse cases.

A quick study of the five points of the United States Model Penal Code, which outlines the Statute of Limitations, shows us the right morality and framework in dealing with decades old cases of sexual abuse: “First, and foremost, is the desirability that prosecutions be based upon reasonably fresh evidence. With the passage of time memories fade, witnesses die or leave the area, and physical evidence becomes more difficult to obtain, identify, or preserve. In short, the possibility of erroneous conviction is minimized when prosecution is prompt. Second, if the actor refrains from further criminal activity, the likelihood increases that he has reformed, diminishing the necessity for imposition of criminal sanctions. If he has repeated his criminal behavior, he can be prosecuted for recent offenses committed within the period of limitations. Hence, the necessity of protecting society against the perpetrator of a particular offense becomes less compelling as the years pass. Third, after a protracted period the retributive impulse which may have existed in the community is likely to yield to a sense of compassion aroused by the prosecution for an offense long forgotten. Fourth, it is desirable to reduce the possibility of blackmail based on a threat to prosecute or to disclose evidence to enforcement officials. Finally, statutes of limitations promote repose by giving security and stability to human affairs.”

Charles J. Chaput, Archbishop of Denver, Colorado in an article written for First Things Magazine accurately described the motivations and the concerns around the controversy of amending statutes of limitations. He wrote: “Under Colorado law, plaintiffs’ attorneys have a problem. So many years have passed since the incidents claimed by their clients that their suits may be barred by the statute of limitations. This frustrates victims who seek what they perceive as justice and closure. It also stymies attorneys who know that suing the Catholic Church can be extremely lucrative. Since the early 1990s, the flow of current abuse cases has steadily declined. Breaking open the past could provide a new and profitable frontier for continued sex-abuse litigation. Statutes of limitations exist for good reasons: to protect justice, not prevent it. They were created to encourage a timely and fair resolution of claims, which is why law-enforcement officials support them. Over time, memories fade, witnesses die, evidence grows stale, and fraudulent claims increase. But state laws involve two different kinds of statutes of limitations: criminal and civil. Criminal statutes cannot be amended and then applied to past actions, since the United States Constitution expressly forbids retroactive criminal laws, known as ex post facto law. But some lower courts have ruled that civil statutes can be extended into the past. Civil lawsuits have a much lower threshold for proof than criminal cases. As a result, retroactive civil liability puts a huge defense burden on any accused individual or institution. In fact, just the possible cost of a legal defense can force a diocese into settlement talks. This serves plaintiffs’ attorneys and the persons they represent quite well. Whether it really serves justice is another matter.”

Suddenly Remembering Abuse.

Psychological scholarship has debunked the idea of recovered memories of sexual abuse. When people have experienced a trauma like sexual abuse, they have trouble forgetting it, not trouble remembering it. Studies have shown that people who are emotionally unstable are susceptible to developing false “memories” of sexual abuse. This doesn’t mean that they are making up stories. They may truly believe that they were abused, but it may never have happened. As renowned author Dr. Philip Jenkins from the University of Pennsylvania so passionately points out in his book Moral Panic, this is especially true in times of public hysteria over alleged sexual abuse.

Imagine a person suffering from an emotional disorder who feels that they have been ostracized from family, friends, church and community. Their emotional instability often leads to substance abuse, failed marriages, lack of consistent employment, chronic illness, and fantasy or lying. They feel stuck in a never ending cycle of misfortunes and mistakes compared to others. Add to their emotional makeup a family tradition of Catholicism which they are estranged from, but where family and friends continue to practice the faith and thrive, especially their parents from whom they so desperately crave love and acceptance. In these poor souls you have the blue print for a victim of false memory, and there are plenty of psychologists, support groups and lawyers to help draw it out of them.

There are chiefly three reasons why someone would go the route of making a false allegation against a Catholic priest. First, they receive celebrity like public exposure which they so badly long for. The kind of sensational media attention that brings with it for the accuser an artificial feeling of uprightness. After one phone call to an attorney, they are immediately catapulted in to a whirlwind of frantic activity and the process of civil litigation which is supposedly on their behalf is electrifying. Second, this intoxicating experience gives them the public forum where they can finally lay blame for all their past failures at the foot of the Catholic Church and the priest who supposedly so viciously abused them. In a word, they are “exonerated” from all the sins of their past. And third, there is that grandiose carrot dangling in front of the ass – they hit the lotto with promises of huge monetary settlements.


Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, is a non-profit group devoted to providing a place where those that feel they have been abused in some way, mostly sexual in nature, by a Roman Catholic Priest can find a network of others sharing the same fate. Their director David Clohessy, who claims to be a victim after recovering memory, gives them a listening ear and a compassionate understanding of their abuse, often hidden for years, without feeling the threat of reprisals if they were to confide directly in their family, friends or more importantly the Church hierarchy. At SNAP, an alleged victim can finally feel relieved of the heavy burden of the “dirty secret” of sexual abuse by a priest. In addition, they have resources on the Internet for sharing personal stories of tragedy with an open forum of discussion to vent their hurt feelings, and they can inquire about any priest and possible abuse situations. Many groundless accusations against priests are made during these on-line bulletin board conversations.

SNAP’s philosophy seems straightforward as demonstrated in the plethora of media coverage and public appearances with and for lawyers suing the Church. It is painted as a grass roots group performing the noble duty of watch dogging the Church in order to reform its priests and bishops from the voracious conspiracy of child sexual abuse. In short, with their promotion and publicity efforts in “encouraging more victims to come forward”, they have become the feeding tube for some civil attorneys to build fortunes in settlements. At SNAP, an alleged victim doesn’t have to prove truth to be referred to an attorney with the hopes of one day receiving a large monetary reward for joining.

I think Bill Donoghue of the Catholic League summed it up best when he said: “Look who the players are. No attorney has made more money suing the Catholic Church than Jeff Anderson; three years ago it was estimated by the Associated Press that he'd won $60 million in settlements from Catholic dioceses. He will stop at nothing: he has tried to sue the Vatican; he has attempted to use the notorious RICO statute against the Church; and he has called the seal of confession a "loophole." He is also one of the most generous benefactors to SNAP. And for greasing SNAP, Anderson gets what he wants.”

Perhaps the biggest boon for lawyers like Anderson who has been lying-in-wait since his first lawsuit against the Church in the 1980s, was the enormous media coverage in Boston. The fact that donations around the country from the average Catholic family in the pew has not dwindled, as so many dooms dayers have predicted, has been the added icing on the cake for Anderson and his cohorts, since they believe it will provide them with a never ending gravy train of lucrative settlements. Let me be clear, it seems that the SNAP-Anderson team is set on their own brand of reform for the Church by lining their pockets with gold.

And where does that leave the exploited accusers in the wake of all the frantic media attention and fanatical law suit battles previously waged against the big bad Church on their behalf? As lawyers become millionaires and go on heroically suing the Church, their clients return to the real world. Their life must pick up again and with comparatively little financial gain from what they hoped. For all their righteous efforts they now bare publicly the stigma of being a “victim”. The wounds they lament that can’t be forgotten become ever more increasingly painful and some unfortunately slip in to an ever deepening pit of suicidal despair. There is nothing healing about any of it. Once again, they feel like they’ve been betrayed, and they are right. But then again, no one ever promised them they would be healed, they just promised them retribution.

The Solution is the Age-Old Axiom.

Psychologists continually point to the fact that healing can only be fully realized when those abused by clergy, and those clergy who abused, accept God’s loving and unconditional forgiveness for them and they for each other. It is the age-old formula spelled out so dramatically in the prayer taught by Jesus Christ: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that have sinned against us.”

This mutual forgiveness will then be felt in a deeply personal way; it will be a freeing from the emotionally destructive chains of anger and resentment to a loving peace and at last to joy. For, as Martin Luther King so often said, “Those who are hurt the most, must be the first to forgive.” True love can only flourish with true forgiveness, and it is only love that can ultimately heal our lives – the love of Jesus Christ.

How we manifest this love is through the acts we perform in charity toward all of God’s children, in spite of the immense pain it may cause us and even under the threat of great personal persecution, even incarceration. In this way, we share in the sufferings of Jesus Christ the High Priest as our actions will demonstrate to the world above all the saving power of Divine Mercy. We must act in a way that communicates to everyone what the Church stands for and propagates through the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the authentic teaching of the Church and of the Holy Father and his predecessors even though it may not be politically correct or litigiously expedient.

Therefore, I respectfully disagree with those in the Church who forsake their Christian morals in order to minimize litigious risk and call it healing. I vehemently oppose the greedy ambitions of unprincipled lawyers and the revenge sought by some special interest groups, because in the final analysis, this whole thing is really about none of that. It is about loving. And, we have forgotten what genuine courageous, self-sacrificing love is, so we must all now learn how to love each other again. Jesus is the answer.

Joe Maher is President and Co-founder of Opus Bono Sacerdotii. A non-profit organization comprised of lay people and clergy that helps thousands of Catholic priests around the world who have been accused, or that have personal situations that require their help. Visit them on the web at

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