‘Change in Vatican Culture’: A Sex Abuse Expert Sees Hope in Pope Benedict

Monica Applewhite is one of the foremost experts on screening, monitoring and policy development for the prevention of sexual abuse and risk management for those with histories of sexual offending. Applewhite has spent the past 16 years conducting research and root-cause analysis in the area of sexual abuse in organizations in order to assist organizations in developing best practice standards. Formerly with Praesidium Inc., she helped create an accreditation system for the Conference of Major Superiors of Men to hold them accountable to the highest standards of child protection. She has worked with more than 300 organizations that serve children and youth, including 28 Catholic dioceses, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the U.S. Jesuit Conference, and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of the Apostolic Life in Rome. Now director of Confianza LLC, a consulting firm specializing in standards of care and the dynamics of abuse in educational and religious environments, she resides in Austin, Texas. Applewhite spoke with Register senior writer Tim Drake…

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Much criticism has been leveled at Pope Benedict XVI. Do you view that criticism as valid?

From my perspective, deep change in the culture of the Vatican began with Cardinal Ratzinger and has been solidified since he became Pope Benedict XVI.

When I began working with priests who had sexually offended, they would sometimes try to intimidate me with threats that if they “sent their case to Rome” to appeal how they were treated, that they would “win.” This was in response to my developing systems to hold them accountable for how they spent their time, who they visited and whether the people in their lives were aware of the sexual abuse they had committed.

Many times I heard, “You are in violation of my rights!” They clearly felt they had the upper hand.

Since that time, and particularly since 2000, the balance of power has shifted. I have since worked with many priests and religious who have sexually offended against minors, and if you ask them today, they would be very unlikely to assume that “Rome” is on their side.

Today, clerical and religious sexual offenders recognize they can be laicized for their crimes or for a failure to adhere to obedience. This gives us much more leverage in terms of ensuring adherence to safety provisions.

Several men I know have “tested” the CDF (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) and found no tolerance for sexual abuse in the priesthood and no sympathy for the cleric who disagrees with programs of prayer and penance.
Evidence of where Pope Benedict XVI stands can be found in the following examples:

1. He was the one who declared the use of Internet and other forms of child pornography to be a delictum gravius (a “grave delict”) — the same as a contact offense with a minor. He came to this conclusion at a time when many criminal jurisdictions were still debating the criminality of Internet pornography.

2. When he [became Pope], he appointed Cardinal [William] Levada from the U.S., clearly the country most likely to produce a stringent successor. As the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Levada has continued the legacy of increasingly strong response to sexual offenses by priests and religious.

3. The victims of sexual abuse who met with the Holy Father here in the U.S. were deeply touched by their meeting. They said they felt like he knew their cases personally. It is possible he did or that he has just known so many that are similar. I give great credibility to those victims who met with him personally. If they say he “gets it,” I am inclined to believe them.

It is also important to know that in Pope Benedict XVI we have the individual who has seen more cases of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church than perhaps anyone else in the world. I believe he knows how serious the problem is, and that he understands the sacrifices that have to be made to fix it.

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