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Religious Communities and Sex Abuse

Though she has the work history, the education, and the resources to sit back and theorize on the clergy sex-abuse crisis from afar, Monica Applewhite, PhD, has, for over fifteen years, been in the weeds of this crisis, working closely with dioceses, religious orders, and review boards on matters of abuse, abusers, and protecting the innocent.

Renowned as an expert in the prevention and response to abuse of vulnerable people, this Texas resident and Catholic parent of two young children has spent her career working to identify the reasons why abuse occurs, creating ways to prevent it, and responding to accusations appropriately.

A major, though not exclusive, focus of Applewhite’s work has been religious communities. Since the crisis erupted in the media in 2002, dioceses across the country received the lion’s share of scrutiny. Religious communities, on the other hand, were spared much of the negative focus. Why?

Applewhite answered that question and many others when she spoke to St. Anthony Messenger recently. She discussed her work throughout the crisis, the roles of religious priests and brothers, the contributions of Catholic and non-Catholic laypeople, and what the future holds for our Church

Q. Describe your role during the crisis.

A. I started working with religious orders and congregations in 1996. At that time, it was not out of the question for an offender to go back into ministry. So how do you set up a supervised ministry so that offenders can’t cultivate relationships with minors?

One of the things that we learned over the next several years is that you can supervise a ministry, but it’s not possible to identify a “safe ministry” that will allow you to put a person there and never worry about them again. They will find ways to transition that ministry into something that is closer to what they’re looking for.

In 2002 there was not openness about men who had sexually offended but were taken out of ministry. That was normally how I worked: with a handful of men’s communities who wanted to develop safety plans.

Q. Were you shocked when the crisis hit in 2002?

A. It wasn’t a crisis where we suddenly had new cases. The crisis was that more people were coming forward and saying they had been abused. Suddenly we had knowledge about how much abuse had occurred. We knew that it had happened, but the volume had never been recorded to this scale before.

The commitment that was made by the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was that men would be laicized if they had committed sexual offenses. And in some cases that did happen. The religious communities recognized that some of their own had to be laicized because they weren’t living as religious anymore.

But there are a significant number of men who were still part of their communities and wanted to live as religious. We continued our commitment to helping them walk the path, and we wanted to do that properly and safely.

In 2003, the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM) contracted with the company I was working with at the time—Praesidium—trying to figure out what could be the standards for prevention, response, and supervising men who had abused. The CMSM adopted accreditation standards that would guide that supervision.

Hitting Close to Home

Q. In your accreditation work with religious communities, how well did the Franciscans rise to this challenge?

A. From the beginning, the Franciscans were involved in the development of the accreditation process. The friars were among the leaders who said they needed to adopt an accountability system and open themselves up to outside scrutiny. And believe me: this was not an easy pill to swallow.

The friars were among those who said, “I don’t care if it’s hard. It has to be done. We are never going to give up on our charism. We’re never going to stop being brothers. But there are areas where we have failed. There are areas where we need help.”

I think that was a very courageous move.

Q. Beyond the religious communities, what role did the laity play in the last decade?

A. Laypeople played a number of key roles. They were advisors throughout from the perspective of what is appropriate prevention, what’s going on in similar child-serving organizations, what’s going on in other denominations.

The accountability system was made up almost entirely of laypeople doing the actual accreditation work. But also there was a role for review boards that would be either in each religious institute or on a regional basis.

Some laypeople had backgrounds in psychology or working with sex offenders. Some were victims, families of victims, worked in criminal justice, judges, attorneys, officers, FBI. They came from all walks of life.

Q. Have the review boards been successful?

A. It took time for religious communities to develop openness with the review boards because they may not have always involved laypeople with the private business of religious congregations. From 2003 to 2005, the comfort level grew exponentially, and the review boards began to be viewed by religious leaders as comrades.

In the last six years, it has become a real support for the leadership. Even from the beginning they had a humbling honesty with the struggles that they were facing. And the laypeople appreciated the fact that they were finally being called upon for their expertise.

In most cases they donate their services and their time. They consider it a ministry. And they don’t let things go, either. If you’re not holding people accountable, you’re not in service to them.

Our Progress Report

Q. How have things improved in the last ten years?

A. Ten years ago a lot of good things were happening, but we didn’t have enough accountability. The problems were in the exceptions. The worst problems came because you had men who were extraordinarily gifted in their ministry and in their work—so gifted that people wouldn’t believe they could cause harm.

Without accountability, leaders would take care of the easy problems. But when it came to the extraordinarily gifted men who they weren’t 100- percent sure had actually abused, they could easily make a wrong decision. So introducing the accountability and openness and eliminating the exceptions— that’s where my confidence
comes from.

Q. Let’s compare what happened to a suspected priest in 1999 versus what happens today. What’s the difference?

A. The major difference would be that, in 1999, he could easily have stayed in ministry while being investigated. His rights as a priest versus the victim’s right to be heard would be irregular. It would be inconsistent.

Today’s protocols state that he cannot have contact with the people [whom he ministered among] while he’s being investigated. He has to be removed during the investigation, but the allegation has to be credible. If it’s a credible allegation that says a certain person was in a parish or a school and was abused, he’s going to be pulled out of ministry while he’s investigated. That’s a big change.

In 1999, it wasn’t clear whether or not the religious community or dioceses had to do their own proactive investigation. Sometimes the man would go to treatment. They’d ask, “Did you do this?” If he denied it, they might come back and say, “He didn’t do it.” They weren’t tasked with performing an investigation, but his treatment could have been considered an investigation back then.

Nowadays there’s a real distinction between a psychological evaluation and an investigation. And on top of that, we’re also using risk assessments that are designed specifically to evaluate him as a sexual offender.

Q. Is there more or less sex abuse today than fifteen years ago?

A. Although people could find flaws with the John Jay Reports [two studies of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy], they’ve done a good job in telling us when the sexual abuse occurred. I know that the years when we saw more abuse in the Catholic Church are also the years when other youth-serving organizations saw more abuse: the 1970s, with a drop-off beginning in

We know that sexual abuse has been on the decline since 1994 overall in society, and a lot of that can be credited to people becoming more educated, understanding what it is,
understanding the harm that it causes. We’ve also seen a decrease in some of the correlated issues such as teenage runaways and teenage pregnancy. So I believe that’s a real change, not a measurement error.

Prevention Among Vowed Religious

Q. What actions are taken within religious orders for prevention?

A. One thing that’s been a part of the prevention program for religious communities is that every single community has to educate every member about what the warning signs are in communities. They also include in their policy specific interactions that are not permitted.

For example, inviting a child to spend the night in the home of a religious— they’re not allowed to do that. So every province has to have those policies about what’s appropriate and what’s inappropriate.

Q. Do religious communities have a place to send offenders?

A. A lot of religious communities are using secular programs, which are good because sometimes they’re ahead of the game as far as treatment and supervision of sexual offenders. There are also specific places to send religious members who need psychological help, treatment, and development of supervision plans.

If they can’t live in community anymore, it’s unsafe for them, or if they’re not able to continue being obedient, there are places they go to live out the rest of their lives.

Q. How do you respond to those in parishes who can no longer trust their priests, religious or diocesan?

A. One of the most difficult things that happened in 2002 and 2003 was that, within the United States, religious orders and communities, as well as dioceses, made a commitment to remove from ministry men they knew had abused, no matter how long ago.

Religious communities, unlike the dioceses, have to show the accreditation team, Praesidium, all their files. [The communities receive accreditation when that team is assured that proper safety systems have been established.] If there’s a file that states a certain priest had an allegation, but we don’t believe it because he’s a really good man, then the team says, “That’s not a good enough answer.”

With religious communities, the accreditation team sees the actual files. That’s a very important distinction of that accreditation system [compared to dioceses].

If I were a priest, I would want people to know that, if I’m standing up in front of them, I wouldn’t be in ministry if I had abused. American Catholics should be assured that if a man has ever abused, you don’t have him in a parish.

He’s just not there.

Q. What are the key differences between religious orders and the dioceses when a priest is suspected?

A. With religious communities, there are a lot more guidelines about how he’s supposed to be supervised even during an investigation. He’s supposed to have a supervision plan.

The diocesan system doesn’t require a written supervision plan for each and every person who has an allegation against him; the religious accreditation does. There has to be a written plan that communicates exactly what the member is and is not permitted to do.

Canon law still applies to both, but there’s a lot more specific regulation for the supervision and what goes on in the daily life of a religious who has sexually abused.

Not only can a religious priest or brother not be in a ministry position, he also cannot have any position—even volunteer position—in any parish or school.

Also, religious communities are held accountable for how they manage supervision because the standards are part of accreditation, so that is another distinction.

Q. Why has the media’s focus been more on diocesan priests and not on religious?

A. Dioceses are more visible. There’s just a greater understanding of the diocesan structure.

Being a religious is more like being in a family. With religious leaders, most of them are just humble people who don’t think of themselves as all-knowing or particularly powerful, so I think it’s been harder to cast religious in a negative light. Yet there have been a number of big news stories that have shown genuine failings in religious communities.

It’s always been a struggle for religious to hold their own men accountable because they value privacy and respecting one another. It’s never been easy and it probably never will be easy for them to supervise one another at this level. But they realize that there is a need for ongoing accountability in that area.

Shards of Light

Q. How do you maintain faith in our religious leaders?

A. I have worked with so many other religious communities and denominations. I don’t have any question in my mind that those other denominations have about the same amount of abuse
that we’ve experienced.

I pay attention to the trustworthiness of the person. I pay attention to behavior. I pay attention to whether or not their behaviors match what they say. People shouldn’t stop paying attention when they believe somebody is inconsistent in their behavior. I don’t think having a collar or a title or a certain degree should put anyone in the realm of not being accountable.

Q. Should Catholics be hopeful?

A. I believe that Catholics should be proud of the steps that have been taken. We have, as a community, been challenged to take on the problem of sexual abuse. I think we’ve risen to the

I think we are among the most educated people in the world about the problem of sexual abuse. We understand the effects. We understand the dynamics. And I think that’s something to be proud of because these have not been easy lessons to learn.


Reading the Signs

Monica Applewhite has worked with enough sexual offenders—and has been active in developing safety plans to monitor them—that she’s become all too aware of what to look for when the relationship between an adult and a minor crosses a line.

“There’s a problem here,” she says. “Sometimes when people see warning signs today in the Catholic Church, whether it’s with a volunteer, priest, or teacher, they can’t believe somebody would be stupid enough to sexually abuse a child. But it still happens.”

What are the signs?

“I pay a lot of attention to the interactions between adults and children. I pay most attention to adults who are interacting with kids in a way that seems possessive, over-involved, or if there’s too much physical contact,” she says.

Applewhite draws a distinction between predators who groom teens and those who focus on younger victims.

“If it’s a young child, a lot of time is spent cultivating relations with the parents. If it involves teenagers, a lot of time is spent cultivating relationships with them. Relationships themselves do not mean trouble, but I pay attention to adults who use physical contact that’s unnecessary or who have poor boundaries in other ways.”

Applewhite is quick to mention that the vast majority of priests out there are not sexual

“We can’t be afraid to have physical contact. We can’t be afraid to be in relationships,” she says. “We need our priests and brothers to be part of our lives. We have to be able to preserve wholesome relationships.”