Questions of Recidivism
Recidivism # 1 Recidivism # 2 Recidivism # 3
Sexual Abuse by Clergy:
Repentance, Cure, or Repeated Offence?
November 1, 2005  -  Many bishops, during civil and criminal investigations of priests who abused minors, claimed that they always thought that abusing clergy could be “cured.” They claimed that psychiatrists and mental health personnel misled them. And indeed, that may be a fact in some instances. It is also true that many bishops and superiors did not give treating doctors and facilities the whole truth about the men they sent to them for help. And in some cases bishops and superiors disregarded the advice offered them.

Already in 1952 Fr. Gerald Fitzgerald, founder of the Servants of the Paraclete, wrote: I myself would be inclined to favor laicization for any priest, upon objective evidence, for tampering with the virtue of the young. In the same letter he said of priests who sexually abuse minors: Many bishops believe men are never free from the approximate danger once they have begun. In 1957 he said even more clearly that he considered that priest abusers of minors could not change. He stated firmly that priests who abuse even once should be dismissed from the priesthood.

In their June 2002 meeting in Dallas the American bishops came to a similar conclusion with their zero tolerance policy. This was only after extreme public opinion, media exposure, and legal pressure forced them into some action.

In fact, as Fitzgerald’s apostolate expanded in the 1960s from New Mexico to California, Minnesota, Ohio, Vermont, Puerto Rico, England, and to a house of studies in Rome, he became more convinced that religious measures alone were unable to rehabilitate child abusers. He bought an island (Carriacon) in the Caribbean on which he proposed to isolate priest offenders in a life of prayer and repentance and keep them from any contact with children.

Bishops’ defense of their actions that blame psychiatrists and lawyers for their actions have not stood the test of scrutiny by grand juries (Philadelphia, Boston, New Hampshire, Phoenix, Cincinnati, Suffolk County, NY) or indeed, by their own National Review Board that all put the burden of misconduct on the bishops, the failure of their oversight, their conspiracy to conceal, and their neglect to warn or report abuse.

No American bishop had to be told by a psychiatrist that sex with a minor is a serious violation of celibacy. No bishop had to be told by a lawyer that sex with a minor is a violation of the law. Even here Fr. Fitzgerald in 1963 reminded a bishop: the gravity of this offence (sex abuse of a minor) has strong civil and even stronger divine retributive sanctions.

Although many bishops had ample experience of the repetitive nature of sexual activity by priests who get involved with minors they disregarded the deeper issues of celibate practice and civil responsibility in favor of forgiveness without adequate evidence of reformation.

Most of the studies on repeated sexual activity by men who abuse minors (recidivism) come from the criminal justice system. These studies have to be accommodated to the clergy population in which over 5,000 priests have been credibly accused of sexual abuse over the past 50 years and yet fewer than 300 have been incarcerated. That fact alone has profound implications for the culture of abuse within the priesthood that protects clergy from the civil consequences of their actions.

(Since 1980 the number of imprisoned sex offenders has grown by more than 7 percent per year. In 1994, nearly one in ten state prisoners were incarcerated for committing a sex offence. Cf. Greenfield, L.A., Sex offenses and offenders: An analysis of data on rape and sexual assault. Washington D.C., U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics. 1997)

Mental health facilities that have treated or even specialized in the treatment of sexual abusing priests and bishops (Paracletes, Southdown, St. Luke, Institute of Living, and Seton, etc.) have not yet done extensive studies of their clientele. At one time some claimed zero relapse. In 2003 St. Luke claimed that they knew of only 16 of its over 300 patients had re-offended 

Five of the most prominent treatment centers proposed to join together to cooperate on a statistical study of their collective experience. In 1993, after giving initial approval, the American bishops pulled their endorsement and funds for the study on the basis that “the press could get hold of the results.”


For understanding and treatment acts of sexual abuse of a minor by a Catholic priest or bishop consideration of three agencies or dimensions—religious, mental health, and criminal—must be addressed.

The criminal justice system, from which we gather most of our statistics on sexual offences and re-offences, has a word for repeated acts of the same crime—recidivism.

The mental health and medical system has a word for an illness that recurs—relapse (or simply a recurrence in the case a new bout with a previously diagnosed disease that was suppressed or cured.)

But the moral/religious system has no one word for the recurring moral acts, each one forgiven and then repeated. The cycle (sometimes unending) of repentance, forgiveness, and re-offense is known in religion, but we do not have a name for it.

A man involved in such behavior can accurately be called recalcitrant, but that is not a common designation in talking about priest abusers. The presumption of redemption (or damnation) in the realm of faith is more absolute than can be postulated in the areas of mental illness and crime.

“Forgiveness” is the word that trumps all others in the realm of religion. It is freely used to deny civil responsibility or the consequences of deviant behavior.

Many bishops, religious superiors, priests, brothers, and nuns are willing to accept the burden of sin when it comes to sexual activity with a minor, but they resist the reality that their activity cannot be isolated in the sanctuary of the church—in a culture that understands, protects, and forgives them without adequate control and assurance that they will not continue to harm others.  But bishops and priests are citizens of a larger society and culture that demands moral conformity and exacts retribution for sins (criminal acts) forgiven or not.