February 23, 2010

Clergy Sexual Misconduct and the Abuse of Power

While I usually get a range of responses, I was struck by the fact that this year three of my students described situations in which family members left the Roman Catholic Church due to a priest’s sexual misconduct. The concerns of my students, along with a recent incident taking place in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, point to the need for a critical reassessment of the Roman Catholic Church’s implementation of policies surrounding clergy sexual misconduct on a local and global scale. The incident in question, as reported in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette,** is described below:

After deeming allegations of sexual molestation of a 16 year old girl in the 1970s credible, the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh announced the reassignment of Fr. Alvin Adams as a chaplain to the Sisters at Whitehall convent. According to the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesperson for the Diocese, Adams’ duties would be restricted to sacramental ministry to the sisters who lived there. The next day the Diocese revoked the assignment due to complaints from parents of children who attend a day care located on convent grounds. When asked about the decision-making process involved in the priest’s reassignment, Lengwin explained:

"Rome would say that there was no crime at that time [1976] because a 16-year-old was considered an adult. In a prior case, not in this diocese, a priest had to be returned to some form of very restricted ministry.”

While the diocese was aware of the day care on the convent grounds they did not believe it posed a problem because it was in a separate building from the convent AND the priest in question was never accused of interest in small children.

Fr. Adams maintains his innocence.

[**Sources: “Diocese Reassigns Priest Over Abuse Charges” and “Accused Cleric won’t Serve in Convent, Diocese Says,” by Ann Rodgers on February 19, 2010 and February 20, 2010, respectively.]

In the local media frenzy surrounding this issue, conversations have centered on the young girl’s age at the time of alleged molestation. Diocesan officials maintain that because she was 16 years old at the time the abuse began in 1976 and legally considered an adult by canon law, “no crime” was committed, and, therefore, they were unable remove Fr. Adams from all ministerial responsibilities. In light of this legality, Fr. Adams’ case cannot be classified under the jurisdiction of child molestation. Given the fact that the incident occurred with a student at the Catholic high school in which he was serving as vice-principal, this classification seems to go against the spirit of the law. While the issue of the girl’s age with respect to canon law is important from a legal perspective, it obscures the real issue at stake in cases of sexual misconduct: the abuse of power. And, in this case, gender inequality plays a large part of the equation. Until these issues are addressed, the Church’s efforts at healing and reconciliation among its members will continue to limp along.

While the Pittsburgh Diocese did the right thing by rescinding Adams’ placement [and I think their quick response points to a sincere effort (on the part of Church officials) to listen to concerns of the local community], it does not address the fact that for 34 years Adams continued to serve in a public ministerial capacity. Nor does it suggest that there are any substantive practical consequences for sexual misconduct. Moreover, in reassigning a priest charged with allegations of sexual misconduct—on the grounds of a technicality—the Diocese missed a critical opportunity to take a stand against the ills of domestic and sexual abuse, both which of have a high prevalence in Allegheny county. [According to the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Allegheny, Fayette, and Somerset counties have some of the highest rates of reported domestic and sexual abuse in the state.] Clearly, this story points to continued need for ongoing reassessment of the policies surrounding sexual misconduct and abuse in the Roman Catholic Church as well as a greater involvement of members of the local community in addressing the reality of violence against women.

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