Shocking words from an elderly Catholic priest

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Anyone who follows the Catholic blogosphere knows that there was a major explosion last week sparked by some controversial — to say the least — remarks by Father Benedict Groeschel, a figure who has been much revered among conservative Catholics as an author, spiritual director, television personality and pastoral counseling professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers.

At the heart of the media storm was the priest’s statement that in some cases of clergy sexual abuse — Groeschel said “a lot” of cases — older teen-agers have been known to seduce weak priests and that priests who are first-time offenders may not need to be jailed. Here is what that looked like in the context of a New York Times report:

The comments were published … by The National Catholic Register, which is owned by EWTN, a religious broadcaster based in Alabama.

“Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him,” Father Groeschel, now 79, said in the interview. “A lot of the cases, the youngster — 14, 16, 18 — is the seducer.” He added that he was “inclined to think” that priests who were first-time abusers should not be jailed because “their intention was not committing a crime.”

On Thursday, the comments were taken off the publication’s Web site after the controversy erupted, and the editors, Father Groeschel and his religious order apologized.

“I did not intend to blame the victim,” Father Groeschel wrote in a statement published on The Catholic Register’s site. “A priest (or
anyone else) who abuses a minor is always wrong and is always responsible. My mind and my way of expressing myself are not as clear as they used to be.”

This particular Times piece, quite frankly, deals with all of the crucial issues in this case quite clearly — with one possible exception (more on that in a minute).

In fact, the only negative point I would like to make about what was published, in this case, is that the Times team was slow to follow up on a key element of the priest’s apology, the part where he says, “My mind and my way of expressing myself are not as clear as they used to be.” In this case, there is evidence that Groeschel was not simply making a quick and easy excuse. Toward the end of the story, readers learn:

But though he told The Catholic Register that he continued to teach at the seminary, the archdiocese said that the previous academic year had been his last because of what it described as advancing senility and other health problems. The Rev. Glenn Sudano, another founder of the Friars of the Renewal, whose adherents take vows of poverty and work extensively with the poor, said the remarks might have been the result of Father Groeschel’s advancing age and failing health, as well as the aftereffect of a near-fatal 2004 car accident in Orlando, Fla.

Thus the crucial question: Should journalists have cited this claim of senility higher in the story, not to excuse the priest’s words but to have put them into some kind of context? In other words, in addition to calling him a “conservative,” editors might have also noted that he is “elderly” and, according to church officials, in poor health.

Again, the words of the interview are what they are and that is bad enough. The apology is clearly stated and adds another layer to the controversy. If Groeschel wasn’t blaming some of the victims, he certainly was implying that some of the victims are less innocent than others.

However, note the priest’s emphasis on the ages of these victims that he claimed were somehow involved in their own seduction. Anyone who has covered cases involving clergy who are involved in improper relationships with adults — often relationships formed during pastoral counseling — knows that the actions of the clergy are always immoral and wrong, but that victims may reach out to the clergy in ways that are dangerous and often openly manipulative. These does not excuse the actions of the counselor, but the emotional reality of this “transference” tragedy is more complex.

For better and for worse, it appears that Groeschel was attempting to draw a line between two kinds of abuse, a line that is often blurred in mainstream news coverage throughout the three decades of these scandals in the Catholic Church (and other religious bodies, as well). The press often writes about the abuse of children without noting that the vast majority of the cases have involved “ephebophilia” — sex with teens and under-aged children — not “pedophilia,” with prepubescent children. In the past, Catholic officials have been tempted to believe that that priests involved in ephebophilia should be treated with more leniency than those wrestling with pedophilia.

Clearly that is part of what this priest was talking about, in that train wreck of a story. Should that have been part of this Times report, which is quite admirable in many ways? If there was room, and editors allowed the extra effort, then by all means “yes.”

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://aandbcounseling.com DrDonLCPC

    “Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him,”
    Why would a man having a nervous breakdown be allowed to be performing priest duties of an kind?

  • tmatt

    Of ANY kind?

    That’s a valid comment about the issue in the Times story. But what comments do you have about the coverage of the story itself, which is the subject of this post and this weblog? In other words, what is your journalism comment on this case?

  • Rachel K

    I’ve also noticed that no one seems to be talking about Groeschel’s senility as an issue. Which is sad, because if it truly is a major issue, then the media shining a spotlight on some of the more offensive statements he’s made is like dragging out any other offensive statement made by any other person suffering from mental degeneration–it almost borders on bullying. I think we’ve all had grandparents or other loved ones say some pretty terrible things that they never would have said before their senility or Alzheimer’s got really bad.

  • Passing By

    Having read the interview, and having worked with sex offenders for a few words, my first reaction was that Fr. Benedict was speaking more as a psychologist, which he is, that as a priest. The omission of his credentials is a telling aspect of of the NYTs article. In fact, he didn’t say much that I’ve not heard licensed sex offender counselors say. And, also in fact, first time offenders generally get probation, not prison time.

    So the journalism issue ought to be whether the article presents the whole story, or just seeks to promote outrage. In other words, is it journalism, or is it Ophra.

  • Passing By

    Oprah, of course. Sorry. had hand surgery today and still as little woozey.

  • tioedong

    Anyone who has covered cases involving clergy who are involved in improper relationships with adults — often relationships formed during pastoral counseling — knows that the actions of the clergy are always immoral and wrong, but that victims may reach out to the clergy in ways that are dangerous and often openly manipulative. These does not excuse the actions of the counselor, but the emotional reality of this “transference” tragedy is more complex.Ten percent of psychiatrists have sexual relationships with patients, and most of them are not predatory but where a deep emotional relationship crossed the line.
    And male doctors frequently have patients try to seduce them, something docs have known since the time of Hippocrates.
    From this link:
    In a 1972 random survey of psychiatrists, 7.2% admitted having had intercourse with a patient, and an additional 13% admitted to sexual contact short of intercourse. Interestingly, 18% of obstetricians, 13% of general practitioners, and 12% of internists admitted to sexual contact with patients. Kardener, Fuller & Mensh, A Survey of Physicians’ Attitudes and Practices Regarding Erotic and Nonerotic Contact with Patients, 130 Am. J. PSYCHIATRY 1077, 1079-80 (1973). A 1986 nationwide survey of psychiatrists showed 7.1% of male psychiatrists and 3.1 % of female psychiatrists admitting having had intercourse with a patient. Gartrell, Herman, Olarte, Feldstein & Locatio, Psychiatrist-Patient Sexual Contact: Results of a National Survey, I: Prevalence, 143 Am, J. PSYCHIATRY 1126, 1126-31 (1986). In addition, a 1977 survey of psychologists reported that 6.1 % admitted having had intercourse with a patient. Holroyd & Brodsky, Psychologists’ Attitudes and Practices Regarding Erotic and Nonerotic Contact with Patients, 32 Am. PSYCHOLOGIST 843 (1977).

  • tmatt

    PASSING BY:

    His academic background and train is in the NYTs piece. You may want to read it again.

  • Passing By

    tmatt -

    My bad. I’d blame the hydrocodone, but I was really going after his clinical licensure. My point was that, as a psychologist, he was not completely in left field. It’s not unrelated to your point about pedophiles vs. those who offend against teenagers.

  • suburbanbanshee

    Re: priest with nervous breakdown — why would he be allowed to do public work?

    Unless the priest, or someone else, reports the breakdown to the bishop, how would a bishop know to remove the priest from duty? And since priests know there’s not all that many substitutes, would a priest report himself as not mentally well — if he even recognized that as the problem? Most priests expect to live and die in harness, and that’s particularly true whenever priests are few. Our bishop offers his priests sabbaticals, but I only know a few priests who’ve taken him up on it — and it’s generally been because they intended to have major operations during their sabbatical.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    I’m kind of surprised none of the coverage has mentioned the last time this came up. (Senility doesn’t seem to be a factor there; at least, the Bishop of Tenerife is still bishop…) A little context might go a long way toward establishing how common or uncommon this attitude is.

  • Darrell Turner

    tmatt, I assume the “she” in this sentence was a typo, but you may want to correct it for the record: In fact, the only negative point I would like to make about what was published, in this case, is that the Times team was slow to follow up on a key element of the priest’s apology, the part where she says, “My mind and my way of expressing myself are not as clear as they used to be.”

  • tmatt

    Darrell:

    Thanks for the catch. Fixed.

  • mollie

    It’s a good question about where the senility should have been mentioned. I ruminated on it for the last day and I think it’s fair to say it should have been higher up, even if just briefly mentioned and then explained later. It’s just a sad story all around, though. And I want to go off topic and discuss why it’s so sad but we probably all agree any way.

  • Passing By

    Mollie -

    Having Altheimer’s in my family, I’ve watched the effects of advancing senility and am not sure how off-topic it is. Particularly in the case of Fr. Benedict, who has spent 50+ years serving the poor, it’s very sad, and very relevant.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benedict_Groeschel

    In 1960, Groeschel became the chaplain for the Children’s Village, a Dobbs Ferry, New York based facility for emotionally disturbed children. In 1965, he joined the staff of St. Joseph’s Seminary and has taught classes at Fordham University, Iona College and Maryknoll Seminary. In 1967, he founded The St. Francis House in Brooklyn, New York, which provides a safe haven for young men looking for a new start in life. The results of his counseling, teaching ability and the manner in which he treated his subjects attracted the attention of many, including Terence Cooke, then Archbishop of New York. In 1974, at the request of Cardinal Cooke, he founded the Trinity Retreat in Larchmont, New York, which provides spiritual direction and retreats for clergy. In 1984, New York’s Cardinal Archbishop John Joseph O’Connor appointed Groeschel to the position of promoter of the cause of canonization of the Servant of God Terence Cooke.[5]
    In 1985, he co-founded with Christopher Bell the Good Counsel Homes[6] for homeless pregnant women and children. In 1987, Groeschel and seven Capuchin colleagues left their order to begin the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal[7] with the mission of preaching reform and serving the poor.[8] Since joining the Institute of Psychological Sciences[9] in 2000, he has taught an annual intensive course focused on how to give practical assistance to people experiencing trauma, extreme stress, and sorrow – while at the same time integrating religious values with counseling and psychotherapy.
    Groeschel is Chairman of the St. Francis House and the Good Counsel Homes. He is on the board of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida and is a member of the American Psychological Association. Other works of charity that Groeschel is involved with are the Padre Pio Shelter, St. Anthony Residence, St. Francis Youth Center[10] and St. Benedict Joseph Medical Center in Honduras.[11]

  • sari

    I agree with Ray. It’s unclear how much the comment can be attributed to senility (which may or may not be attributable to Alzheimers) and how much to attitudes prevalent in the mental health community. The article was, overall, pretty good and very even-handed. My feeling was that Rev. Glenn Sudano’s explanation said less about Father Groeschel’s state of mind or level of function and more about the need for damage control. Father Groeschel’s mistake may have been to verbalize a now unpopular position that still subscribed to by many.

    As to those here for whom the distinction between prepubescent and pubescent children is important, anyone who has lived through their children’s teen years will tell you that each year represents a huge jump in maturity. A ten, eleven, or twelve year old girl may look mature, but her understanding of the world is still more like a child’s than like an adult’s. The same is even more true for boys, who mature, both physically and emotionally, later than girls.

  • The Old Bill

    “Anyone who has covered cases involving clergy who are involved in improper relationships with adults — often relationships formed during pastoral counseling — knows that the actions of the clergy are always immoral and wrong, but that victims may reach out to the clergy in ways that are dangerous and often openly manipulative. These does not excuse the actions of the counselor, but the emotional reality of this “transference” tragedy is more complex.”

    Bingo! Psychiatrists, psychologists, counselors and clergy have to serve people who are differently wired. Some of them are quite manipulative. I remember years ago a story about a high school girl who had an affair with (among others) a guidance counselor and her best friend’s father. My reaction was revulsion at the adults. Then I was in a room with the girl and several adult women. I can’t explain it, but her sexual aura was palpable. They used to call it animal magnetism. The women felt it, too. The guidance counselor and the friend’s father were wrong, but there was something going on there that words can’t describe. Humans are complex.

    As for the Times’ story. It was about Catholic priests. What should we expect?

  • sari

    The Old Bill,
    The subset of such victims is a small part of the overall pool, since many molesters (the entire pool, not just clergy) engage multiple victims. In the end we expect adults to act like adults. The study posted by tiedong reflects (I hope) the percentage of mental health professionals who had inappropriate relations with adult clients. No mention is made of children, though they may be lumped into the total. Such data is suspect anyway, since people did not have the same moral outrage towards child abuse of any kind in the ’70′s

    I found this quote, printed in the NYT article to be more upsetting than the one highlighted by tmatt and in other venues:

    “He also expressed sympathy for Jerry Sandusky, the retired Penn State football coach who was recently convicted of serial child molesting, calling him “this poor guy.” ”

    Is anyone here suggesting that Sandusky was seduced by *all* or most of the boys he raped? Is a ten year old boy pubescent in anyone’s book? I think we’re ascribing a lot to senility that may be more reflective of what used to be referred to as the old boys’ club.

    • Laura

      Perhaps, when he refered to Sandusky as a “poor guy,” He was sympathizing with Sandusky’s own suffering. After all, though abusers do terrible, often inexplacable things, they are not daemons, they are still human beings and need as much help as their victims. Does it excuse their behaivor, certainly not. They have stolen innocence and have commited violations which can’t be ignored, but Fr. Groeschel may be just as concerned for their souls as for the souls of their victims. Either way, it would’ve been a good follow up question to ask him.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    According to the John Jay Study of abuse by Catholic priests, more than half the victims were between the ages of 11 and 14. While they may not be pre-pubescent, they are certainly still children. The idea that most cases involved priests hitting on older teens who appeared to be adults is simply false. I believe you need to correct your statement.
    Also, while Father Groeschel’s mind may well be slipping, I’m aware of a case that he tried to intervene in more than 20 years ago. It’s been a long time since I read the documents that concerned him, but my recollection is that he went to bat for a priest who was a repeat abuser of boys as young as nine. He was trying to keep the priest out of a residential treatment facility for priests in favor of counseling sessions and a return to ministry (there was no criminal prosecution, so the question of jail wasn’t at issue). He chose to take the word of the accused priest over the conclusion of the bishop who knew the facts and had barred the priest from ministry. Perhaps he has only become less circumspect about saying that he has long thought.

  • Passing By

    Ms. Rodgers,

    Here’s the data you referenced. It’s from Wiki, but I checked it against the source and it’s accurate:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Jay_Report#Profile_of_the_victims

    Clinically and legally (at least in my state), 14 year olds don’t belong in the group with 11-13 year olds, which puts he older and young groups about the same percentages. Biologically, many 13 year olds are borderline if you want to talk about “pedophilia”.

    Having known (and locked up) more than a few true pedophiles, I can attest that they are indeed pathetic creatures. Not that it matters, I don’t agree with Fr. Benedict’s comments, but they do accurately reflect the thinking of psychologists prior to about 1980.

    For a good history, it’s always good to look back at Phillip Jerkin’s Pedophiles and Priests .

    • sari

      Passing By,
      Thanks for the link. It’s probably useful to note that 81% of the children were male and 22% were younger than age 10. Twenty-two percent is a significant and not inconsequential minority. Certainly it gives the lie to the assertion that molestation of pre-pubescents was rare. And, boys evidence secondary sexual characteristics later than girls. Some fourteen year old girls can pass for twenty year old women, but very few boys fourteen and under are indistinguishable from adult males. They have not yet had their final growth spurt.

  • The Old Bill

    Sari,
    I was in no way justifying any of the behavior. Adults must act like adults, and those adults in positions of power and influence have an additional responsibility. I’d even argue that those in positions of religious power have an even higher responsibility. But here is a religious issue: one of a priest’s functions is to hear confessions and grant absolution for sins. I have had had priests in my family who, while never repeating specifics, have said that they have heard almost every sin imaginable. They have to consider the state of mind of the sinner. I’ve spoken with old priests who have heard and seen so many bad things, they hope for God’s mercy for all the broken creatures. Here again, forgiveness does not mean letting someone off the hook. One can hope for Sandusky’s healing while sentencing him to prison for his horrific deeds.

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