Capuchins Document Decades of Abuse

I am impressed with the 132-page Audit and Review of the Capuchin Province of St Joseph regarding child sexual abuse. To my knowledge, it’s a first of its kind.

The Capuchins asked for feedback on two of the toughest questions facing any religious group:

The purpose of the audit was to have an independent group determine how many and which friars and employees of the province had sexually abused minors and vulnerable adults. Another purpose of the audit was to determine how the province had responded to reports of sexual abuse, what they did with friars who abused, and how they responded to and treated victims of the friars’ sexual abuses. (p. 3-4)

They were asking to hear the bad news. They chose credible auditors: a priest, an insurance expert and a psychologist, all three well-known as advocates for survivors of priest sexual abuse. In choosing that panel, the Capuchins chose to hear the news from people who devote their lives to helping the victims. There was no sugar-coating:

“The Capuchins outsourced the Gospel to the lawyers,” Doyle said. “And the lawyers were the ones that viciously attacked the victims.”

The Capuchins got the bad news they asked for. The report reveals strategic attempts to cover up abuse, concern for the reputation of the Church and the order, and even worry about the individual priest — with much less care for the victims.

Why the Capuchin Audit Report is a Hopeful Sign

  1. The request for an audit recognizes a pattern of problems. The US bishops required dioceses to undertake audits for that reason, but religious orders have not had to do so.
  2. The Capuchins sought out the people most likely to understand the victims’ perspective, and to be critical of their handling of abuse cases.
  3. The report was made public, and is receiving widespread media coverage.
  4. The Capuchins made all of their files available.

What’s Next?

SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) was generally positive about the report, recognizing its honesty and integrity. At the same time, SNAP pointed to documents beyond those held by the Capuchins, and to testimony by victims that would make their voices more audible. These would be worthy follow-up activities to the audit.

I hope other orders and communities have already begun to follow the Capuchin example. The current practice in which orders argue cases in court one-by-one is harmful to all concerned. It avoids recognizing the patterns that need to be changed. It puts an adversarial relationship between the victim and the order — and it doesn’t have to be that way. It elongates the time in which victims wait for the words of admission that they long to hear, and perhaps the time in which perpetrators are able to find new victims.

The Catholic Church is not unique in its history of “saving face” as first priority over “helping victims” and “controlling perpetrators.” The same is found in other big organizations — the Penn State scandal comes to mind. In the 21st century, many of these organizations now deeply regret the misplaced priorities; they have a hard time understanding how anyone could think that destroying documents or keeping quiet about incidents of abuse was to anyone’s benefit except the perpetrators. The audit recognizes the blindness of the past and the harm it did.

Why ask for an audit?

The Capuchins have made a courageous choice that is probably the best way forward for all concerned. The audit names all those who were credibly accused at once, and does not dispute them. It describes and reviles the practice of shifting perpetrators to other locales. Rather than slogging through one accusation after another with flimsy defenses followed by grudging admissions, they acknowledge the pattern and its details. Victims and their families get solid information rather than a long trial of skepticism and doubt. Those who have been afraid to come forward have less reason to fear. This is certainly best for the victims. It is also best for the Capuchins, who have the opportunity as a community to examine the patterns of the past, trust in God’s mercy, and make plans for a future that is different.

It is best, too, for the Church. Some will say that it invites claims based on false memories or even fraudulent law suits, especially regarding perpetrators who are now deceased. Even if that does occur, I am willing to trust the investigation process to uncover those inaccurate accusations if, at the same time, the real victims get the maximum amount of transparency and help possible. This audit helps to rebuild credibility, to provide a strong foundation for renewal within the life of the community, and to set the standard for the future.

Most of all, this audit report is a sign of seeking Truth. For this, I am truly grateful and giving thanks. As my patron saint, Edith Stein, wrote, “Those who seek truth seek God, whether they know it or not.” The Capuchins, in this first big step of seeking truth, are also seeking God. May they be blessed in this endeavor.

About Sister Edith

Benedictine sister of St. Scholastica Monastery, Duluth, Minnesota
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4 Responses to Capuchins Document Decades of Abuse

  1. Tom Doyle says:

    Dear Sister.I am one of the auditors and I am most grateful for your support and your observations. You are well balanced and constructive. Tom Doyle

  2. I consider myself well-informed on the pedophile issue; yet, my base reaction is still, how could this have happened? And to my mind anyway, the Franciscans have always had so such integrity. The shame felt must be monumental.

    • Sister Edith says:

      I share that sense of “how could this have happened?”

      I also know how intense dedication to one value can make the others invisible. I worked as an oncology social worker at a major research hospital. In social work, a holistic view of the client and their self-determination are primary values. For the medical researchers, the demands of science and the need to rigorously test possible treatments for the good of humanity were primary values.

      In those pre-hospice days, when my terminally ill patients wanted to stop treatment and go home, my profession’s values made their needs crystal clear and continuation of treatment that wasn’t working seemed ridiculous. To my medical colleagues, terminating the protocol and losing the patient to the study made no sense at all, especially if participation in the study paid for part of the cost of treatment. They were frequently infuriated with me, because caring for the expressed needs of the patient slowed or even harmed the progress of the study. I was frequently infuriated with them, for their utter inability to see what their actions did to the small amount of time remaining to the patients.

      In this case, neither of us were doing illegal acts — unlike child sex abuse. But one view put the good of an abstract entity (that also promoted their careers) over the needs of very vulnerable people who had little time remaining and could not always understand the choices they were asked to make. The reality of the patients as individual humans disappeared from their view.

      I do not for one minute excuse the actions that squelched reports of child sex abuse and allowed its perpetrators to continue. Rather, I recognize a natural human tendency that intense attachment with one set of values — even good ones like saving lives through better cancer treatment — can lead to actions that harm others grievously.

      The point? Our growing understanding of the nature of bonding and identification in organizations makes audits like this one an ongoing necessity. This is not something the Capuchins can do once and move on. The backlog of old instances will quickly or gradually recede – but without a yearly audit to highlight the risk of guarding friends and face over the needs of victims, people may easily fall into old patterns. Audits are like guard rails on the highway: totally useless until you veer off course without intending to, and then potentially life saving.

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