Letters List


The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests

SNAP Letter

Letter to Pope Benedict

June 9, 2010

Dear Pope Benedict:

We suspect that many victims of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic priests won't be moved by what you say this week (or whenever you next express regret for the devastation caused by predator priests). Most realize that your long overdue apology is given grudgingly and belatedly, prompted mainly by worldwide revelations of current and recent clergy sex crimes and cover-ups, including some that observers say explicitly involve and implicate you.

But your apology will reach another important audience: church employees. Here, you may be better able to make a difference, and perhaps change irresponsible behavior. A vague, blame-shifting, excuse-making and responsibility-dodging apology will likely signal to church staff that it's "business as usual" regarding child sex crimes in the church. On the other hand, a clear, strong, honest apology may signal to them that ever-so-gradually, the deeply-rooted church culture of cover up and denial may finally be changing. So the content of your apology could, if phrased properly, help prevent future devastating harm to kids.

We are writing, therefore, to offer our views on how your words might make a greater impact. Specifically, we urge you to avoid minimizing the on-going crisis and blaming others for it.


Please don't minimize the crisis by claiming 1) the crimes occurred "in the past, years ago;" 2) the cover ups are "history;" 3) just "a few" priests are involved, and 4) abuse is as common in the church as in other institutions. And please don't rub salt into already deep and still fresh wounds of abuse victims by using vague, antiseptic, minimizing language to describe the horror that so many have suffered and are suffering, or by claiming that church policies are making a difference. Taking each of these separately:

-- "In the past." This claim is not only disingenuous. It's also dangerous. No responsible adult would claim these crimes no longer happen. In fact, we read about and hear about current or recent clergy sex crimes often. And as best we can tell, only US bishops have pledged to oust predators after "one strike." That means that 96% of the world's Catholic bishops haven't even promised that admitted, proven or credibly accused child-molesting clerics are or will be suspended from ministry. (Besides, as you well know, it always has and always will take child sex victims years, even decades, to come to the full realization that they've been deeply hurt, that others are also at risk, that they have legal recourse, and that they have moral obligations to speak up about their abuse, and then to find the courage and strength to step forward. That's why few six-year-old boys or ten-year-old girls walk into the police station or call the prosecutor to report current abuse.)

-- "Cover ups are history." Without exception, every single day we see news accounts that contain revelations of new incidents of abuse unearthed through criminal prosecution, civil lawsuits, investigative journalism, brave whistleblowers, and of course courageous victims. It's still painfully rare to read of truly voluntary disclosures by church officials who are prodded by external forces to disclose the painful truths about childhood assaults and often successful efforts by high-ranking church staff to keep those assaults hidden.

-- "Few priests." This claim is spurious. There's no solid, independent data available to support this claim. US bishops estimate roughly 4% of priests in that country were accused. But only a handful of dioceses have been scrutinized by effective external sources, usually law enforcement. In those dioceses usually between eight and nine percent of all priests are found to be proven, admitted or credibly accused child molesters. There's every reason to believe those figures are the norm and no reason to believe those dioceses are aberrations.

-- "Secular abuse too." This claim is similarly spurious. It also mischaracterizes the crisis, which, as you surely understand, is as much or more about the cover up than the crimes themselves. (Of course teachers molest. But where is the teacher with dozens or hundreds of victims who was knowingly transferred from school to school within a district by a powerful superintendent? It doesn't happen, because in most secular institutions, predators are caught, removed and prosecuted after eight or nine victims, not 80 or 90.)

-- Vague, antiseptic language. It hurts to read and hear often brutal, repeated child sexual assaults being described as "sins" or "misdeeds" or "petty gossip" It also hurts to read and hear of decades-long, deliberate, repeated decisions to hide this horror being described as "mistakes" or "misjudgments." Holy Father, you can do better than that. Please be honest and straightforward and accurate. These are intentional, selfish, life-shattering choices - by both predator priests and complicit bishops - and must be acknowledged as such if there's to be any hope of your being believed by the faithful and world opinion and of any real progress being made.

--The impact of church policies on abuse. Please do not exaggerate the impact, if any, of such new church policies on clergy abuse. At best, such speculation is premature. At worst, it is deceptive. Promises on paper, or voiced through your spokesman, especially those promises only sporadically and half-heartedly enforced, don't safeguard children. Only deliberate and decisive action protects children. And most church abuse policies are vague, recent, and lack any meaningful oversight or accountability mechanisms.


Please do not blame 'gay priests.' The cover up by church supervisors and co-workers is the prime issue, not the sexual orientation of predatory priests. Most non-Catholic pedophiles seem to be heterosexual and the sexual orientation of pedophile priests is largely irrelevant and should not be disingenuously used by church officials to deflect the very real problem of the massive cover up.

Please do not blame 'greedy lawyers.' You can't read minds; you don't know what motivates strangers. Most of what is known about clergy sex crimes and cover ups comes through civil litigation - both actual and threatened.

Please do not blame 'secular culture' or 'lax morals.' At best, that's irrelevant speculation. At worst, it comes across as unseemly excuse-making.

Please do not blame Catholics who aren't devout enough (as you seemed to do in your recent letter to Irish Catholics, and as a recent newspaper article suggests the Irish "visitation" may do). No research anywhere suggests that more children are molested and more crimes are concealed in cultures or countries that are 'more devout' than others.

Please do not blame alleged 'bad advice' from therapists. That is disingenuous, because most bishops choose therapists carefully and sent predator priests to a small group of devout Catholic therapists (many of whom were also priests).

Please do not blame the 'salacious media.' Here again, you can't know what is in the hearts and minds of strangers. And you can't, with any degree of credibility, be impartial in assessing their motives and their objectivity. Besides, it's best for you and your colleagues to focus on what you CAN change - your own behavior.

Finally, and most important, we urge you to take three clear steps to move beyond words and actually safeguard children now: 1) invite and cooperate with civil government inquires into abuse cover ups (like the Irish government has done), 2) push for reforming or eliminating "predator friendly laws" (like statutes of limitations), and 3) create a global child-molesting clerics registry and require it to be published on diocesan websites across the world, (including the names and last known whereabouts of all proven, admitted and credibly accused pedophile priests; roughly 24 US dioceses have taken steps like this.)

In the short term, these are, we feel, the most effective ways you can expose predators, protect children, and prove that your words are not just vague reassurances or hollow promises.

We know your apology could come any day now, or might, for inexplicable reasons, be delayed for weeks or months. Regardless, we urge you to think very carefully about how your words will impact others, especially current and former church members and employees, hundreds of whom likely have knowledge that could help police and prosecutors safeguard children by investigating, charging, convicting and jailing dangerous child-molesting clerics.

Please send your bishops and priests a strong, clear signal that they must call law enforcement with whatever information they have that might help stop the future devastation of children's lives.

Thank you.

David Clohessy, Director, SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, 7234 Arsenal Street, St. Louis MO 63143 (314 566 9790 cell, 314 645 5915 home),

Kristine Ward., Chair, National Survivor Advocates Coalition (NSAC)
PO BOX 41013, Dayton OH 45441 (937.272.0308)

Becky Ianni, Washington, DC/Virginia SNAP Director, 703-801-6044

Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests