Santa Clara University

Keynote address

What follows is the keynote address of Leon Panetta ’60, J.D. ’63, who spoke in May at a clergy abuse conference held at Santa Clara University. Panetta, a former eight-term congressman and White House chief of staff, spoke at the conference “Sin Against the Innocent: Sexual Abuse by Priests and the Role of the Catholic Church.”

Leon Panetta
Leon Panetta


I’m honored to be here for several reasons. First of all as a graduate of Santa Clara, both undergrad and law school, I really want to commend those who have put this conference together because I think if no place else, campuses have to serve as centers of dialogue. Also, it gives us the ability to talk with one another and be able to exchange views without worrying about being criticized for those views and those thoughts. This is the center of what patriotism and democracy is all about.

Secondly, I’m honored as a Catholic to be able to participate in this conference because I’m deeply concerned about this crisis in the church and how it impacts and undermines trust in the church. Our faith depends on trust, just as our democracy depends on trust and we must do everything possible to ensure that that trust is restored. I’m also concerned about how the leadership of the church responds to this crisis. They must recognize the depth of this crisis and how it’s impact on the credibility of the church. They must also recognize that they have to deal with it, whether they like it or not. This is a challenge that tests their leadership as shepherds of the flock and this is an issue that they cannot ignore nor is it something that will go away nor is it something that can be resolved simply by mandate. You can’t mandate discipline or order or good behavior here by edict. What you have to do is follow the example of the founder of our faith, which is to teach, to understand, to be a good example and to love. That is what has always strengthened our faith throughout it’s history and it is ultimately the only way that we can strengthen our faith today and make it relevant to the times that we live in.

Lastly, I’m honored as a member of the national review board. This was a difficult responsibility. Not easy to do. To evaluate the causes and the context of this crisis and to make recommendations as to ultimately how do we restore the trust that is so essential to our faith? I do not pretend to be an expert on this issue. There are many of you that I think in your own professions and in your own experiences understand this issue perhaps better than I do. I’m reminded of the story of the Nobel prize winner from University of California who was going throughout the state of California giving exactly the same address on this very intricate area of physics that he had won the Nobel prize in and so he continued to go around the state and he was heading toward Fresno and his chauffeur leaned back and he said “You know professor I’ve heard that lecture so many times. I honestly think I could give it by memory myself,” so the professor says “Well look why don’t you put on my suit and I’ll put on your uniform and you give the lecture” and they did that and the chauffeur got up for a standing room audience and gave the lecture word for word, talked for an hour and he gave the lecture perfectly and he got a standing ovation and the professor who was seated in the audience just couldn’t believe what had happened. Somebody that raised their hand said “Professor, that was an outstanding address. Very complex area of physics law, but I have a question,” so he went into two paragraph question that included some formulas and equations and he said “Now, what do you think of that?” There was this long pause and the chauffeur said, “You know. That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever gotten and just to show you how stupid it is I’m gonna have my chauffeur answer an audience.” There are a lot of chauffeurs in this audience when it comes to this issue and I acknowledge that, so understand what I bring to this issue is basically my concern and my compassion.

A little bit of the background on the review board. What I want to do is obviously summarize some of our key findings and recommendations. The review board itself you should understand was established in charter by the U.S. Conference of Bishops. This was done at its conference in Dallas in 2002. There were 14 members originally appointed to serve on it representing a great cross section of this country. Our chairman ultimately stepped down and Anne Burke who is Justice Anne Burke from the appellate court in Illinois became our acting chairman. It’s been a wonderful experience working with the board, because all of us had to basically walk through the very, very difficult issues and challenges that we had to confront. I should point out that Article 9 of the Dallas Accords actually lays out the tasks that we are to perform. When bishops criticize what we’re doing, I often say to them “Excuse me but that’s what you told us to do in Dallas with the charter.”

Basically we were responsible for overseeing the creation and work of the new office of Child and Youth Protection and Kathy MacChesney who’s here, was appointed as a result of the board doing an effort to try to ensure that we had a good person take that job and she has done an outstanding job at running that office. Sometimes again under very difficult circumstances. Having worked for the FBI, it helped being head of this office.

Secondly, we were again asked to do a comprehensive study of the causes and the context of the current crisis and that ultimately became wrapped up in what is the report of the board. For those of you that haven’t seen it, this is it. The report on the crisis of the Catholic Church in the United States.

And thirdly, we were asked to do a descriptive study of the nature and scope of the problem within the church including statistics on perpetrators and victims and that involved really two things. We did an audit of all of the diocese to determine not only what the problems were, but actions were being taken to basically follow up on the urgings and the dictates of Dallas. And in addition to that, we commissioned the John Jay report, which Kathleen has summarized in terms of what exactly are the statistics with regards to this issue in the church.

The board conducted this review through what was called the Research Committee and a series of interviews. We interviewed almost 85 individuals including cardinals, archbishops, bishops, church leaders both here and in the Vatican, priests, former priests, seminarians, theologians, victims, psychiatrists, other medical professionals involved with this issue, civil lawyers, canon lawyers and law enforcement individuals that are involved in cased in this area.

Before summarizing the report I think it’s very important to establish some predicates here. Number one, this is not a scientific survey in the sense that we did not go out and do all of the science and studies and the analysis that are involved in standard scientific reports. This is not a scientific report. This was an effort to go out, interview individuals and try to gather as much evidence as we could on that basis as to what were the causes of this crisis in the church. It is important and we have stressed in the report that additional studies must be done to follow up on this as well as additional studies on the John Jay report to ensure that we are continuing to look at this issue and try to determine exactly why this crisis happened and how we can prevent it in the future. There is an urgent need to do additional studies and we have urged the bishops to do that.

Secondly, the board believes that the overwhelming majority of priests that are serving in the church here in the United States fulfill their duties honorably and chastely and morally. Even in the John Jay report, which the number as you know is something like 4,392 priests that were alleged to have committed sexual abuse. That represents a little over 4 percent of the 109,694 priests that are in the active ministry. So it’s important to keep that in mind the vast majority of priests really do operate honorably.

Thirdly, the problem of sexual abuse of minors is not unique to the Catholic Church. The reality is that this is a continuing societal problem here and for that matter in many other areas of the world. It affects numerous families. It affects many secular organizations in this country as well as churches. We had an estimate of something like 90,000. Between 90,000 and 100,000 cases that are reported to the criminal center in Washington every year that involves sexual abuse and the vast majority of those usually occur within families, so we have to recognize that this is a larger societal problem. And I think we also have to recognize that frankly there is very little evidence of what’s happening out there. I mean what we did in the Catholic Church through the John Jay report was unique. Frankly, the same kind of studies need to take place with regards to other areas in order to determine the depth of this problem as it impacts elsewhere.

Lastly, having said that, the number of victims that are involved here approaches almost 11,000 is significant and it’s disturbing and we ought not to simply excuse it as part of a larger problem in the country. This is in fact something that is truly disturbing for our religion and for our faith. It’s a failing. It’s a failing on the part of priests. It’s a failing on the part of those bishops and church leaders who did not act effectively to preclude the abuse that they became aware of and they failed to respond appropriately when it occurred. Bishops through what they did in Dallas have acknowledged their mistakes and they did take action in Dallas and they adopted zero tolerance at that time and many—not all—have acted to meet with victims to try to remove priests from the ministry and to try to implement safe environment policies. I commend Bishop Gregory who is head of the Bishop’s conference. He’s taken a lot of hell and I told him as somebody who was involved in politics “Welcome to politics Bishop Gregory,” because that’s the nature of it but he has to his credit continued to support the work of the review board and hopefully with his leadership and the leadership of others in the church, they will act with commitment to implement meaningful reform.

Having said that let me talk about the nature of the crisis. What exactly is the nature of this crisis? The statistics you’ve heard from John Jay as I said are serious and disturbing. Most of these numbers occurred during the 60s and 70s, but the reality is that because of the delay of the reports that are made by victims because that many of them are so embarrassed by what has taken place that they will not come forward. We don’t know what the continuing numbers look like and although it spiked during that period, it is likely to spike again as these victims come forward. Eighty one percent were male victims and the largest number of those were priests or rather the largest number perpetrating these abuses were diocese priests. To understand the nature of this crisis, you really have to address two fundamental questions. One, why did individuals with a disposition to pray sexually on minors gain admission to the priesthood. And secondly, how did they manage to remain in the priesthood, even after allegations and evidence of abuse became known to bishops and to church leaders.

Let’s address the first question. Why did so many priests sexually abuse minors? There are two overwhelming factors. The first is that diocese and orders did not screen candidates for priesthood properly. Many sexually dysfunctional and immature men were admitted into the seminaries. Part of this was the pressure to be able to fill the need out there. To be able to get additional priests put in place. Part of it was the fact that young, sometimes too young individuals that were totally immature would go into the seminary having absolutely no experience with life outside of the seminary. There was little time to truly mature and understand those issues. Fr. John Gegan, who molested scores of boys in Boston and who, as some of you know, was murdered in prison. By all accounts that we’ve looked at he was labeled early on as insecure, immature and psychologically disturbed. This was from the outset. The rector of the seminary that he was at described him, and I quote, “as having a very pronounced immaturity” and yet he was admitted, ordained and he served as a priest for more than 30 years and he began abusing boys in his first assignment to a parish and continued to do that afterwards. So again, the failure to properly screen those kinds of individuals contributed to this problem.

Secondly, seminaries did not form candidates for priesthood adequately. They were not prepared for the challenges that face priests. Challenge of living a chaste and celibate life, which is not easy to do. They did focus on the intellectual preparation of the individual, but they neglected to focus on the human formation of the individual. And so, they did not talk about sexuality. They did not ask questions about it. If you talked to the priests from the seminaries in that period of time they basically said, “these were not discussions that we had. They were never discussed.” So they really never had the ability to have that important discussion that they had to have in order to ultimately be able to deal with the temptations that they would face. Some bishops have said that……one bishop I remember I think in one interview said, “Look” because we asked him, you know, “What really is behind this?” He said, “Well, if you’re conservative, the problem is homosexuality and if you’re liberal, the problem is celibacy.” What we found very frankly is that neither homosexuality or the importance of celibacy were the cause of this crisis. You need to understand those factors. You need to understand what’s at play here, but neither as far as we could determine was at the heart of causing this crisis. There are many outstanding priests who may be gay, but live chaste and celibate lives and serve well in their ministry. And there are obviously many straight priests who live celibate lives as well. The church did an inadequate job both of trying to screen out those destined to fail and they failed to form and prepare priests to really meet the demands of a celibate live. We talk with priests who said that once they’d come out they went into a parish. They were isolated in their parish. They had no companionship, no support, no system of dealing with the problems and ultimately they just were not prepared to deal with what they had to face. Why did church leaders respond to the problem of sexual abuse so poorly for so many years? We looked at a period obviously from 1950 through the early 2000’s and it was clear that there were bishops who simply failed to address this issue. Sexual abuse of minors is an evil, but as one priest told us “Knowingly allowing evil conduct to continue is cooperation with evil.”

What were the causes of this? Why did this happen? First, bishops and church leaders did not understand or refused to understand the broad nature of the problem they were dealing with. They treated allegations as sporadic and isolated and not as part of a broader problem that they were confronting, so they lacked the understanding of the larger problem.

Secondly, bishops put the institutional concerns of their local church over the universal church. The fear of scandal caused them to practice secrecy and concealment. The last thing they wanted was scandal. The last thing they wanted was a bad headline and so they did everything possible to try to conceal the issue rather than trying to be transparent and open about the problems they were confronting.

Thirdly, the threat of litigation caused them to basically disregard their pastoral role and adopt and adversarial role instead. Lawyers took over the issue. They basically handed the issue over to the lawyers and as a result of that rather than dealing with the victims on a compassionate basis, rather than dealing with the issue on a compassionate basis, it suddenly became adversarial in nature.

Fourthly, they failed to comprehend the extent and the magnitude of the harm suffered by the victims. We have the opportunity to – and as a matter of fact, we had a victim who is a member of our board – meet with a number of victims. You cannot begin to comprehend the destruction that takes place in a young child when that kind of abuse occurs. It is overwhelming and it is something that that individual feels a sense of guilt, a sense of frustration, a sense of anger, a sense of hatred and these emotions just tear people apart. There was no effort to try to reach out and understand how devastating this kind of behavior would be on individuals who are victims. They relied heavily on psychiatrists and psychologists and lawyers and while there’s no question that there are psychological and legal implications to this whole issue, they forgot that they were primarily involved with issues involving faith and morality and that that was their first obligation.

Fifth, they did not do enough in the way of fraternal correction to assist their brethren in dealing with this problem. They allowed it to be shifted from diocese to diocese rather than trying to provide correction, rather than bishops working with other bishops to deal with this issue, they simply passed the ball and the sooner they could move the problem to another diocese, they kind of then cut it off and said “It’s up to the other bishop to worry about this priest to deal with it.” They lost all sense of responsibility for that. All sense of fraternal correction that should have been present between the bishops and between the diocese.

Sixth, too often they declined to hear the victims directly. They placed the interests of the priests above the victims. And why it’s understandable that they’re working with these priests on often times a day to day basis, that their first loyalty is to the priest, that he’s a part of their team, that on the other hand they still owed it to the victims to hear their side of the story and too often, that never happened.

Seventh, canon law is difficult to enforce. I mean I’m a lawyer and I don’t understand what the hell canon law is. We had a canon law expert on our review committee and he would describe how difficult it was to implement it. The fact was canon law itself is much, much too difficult to enforce in order to remove a priest from ministry. I mean you literally have to go to the Supreme Court. The intricacies of canon law are extremely difficult and extremely complicated. As a result of that bishops just found it easier to shift priests from one diocese to another rather than act to remove that priest from ministry and try to protect children in the future.

So, in the end, when you talk to some bishops, part of their rational was that priests were misguided. That you know for whatever reason they made a mistake and they wanted to deal with it out of an act of forgiveness. We understand that as Catholics, but the problem is forgiveness is fine, but it also has to be accompanied by actions to protect the children and that’s what was forgotten.

What can the church do then to ensure that this never happens again? This crisis is not a legal crisis. It is not a media crisis. It is not a personnel crisis. It is truly a crisis of trust and faith. If it persists and if bishops persist to basically try to push this aside and hope that somehow the problem will go away by itself, then ultimately trust in our faith will continue to be eroded. They must enforce the charter and they must enforce the norms that were adopted in Dallas. They must be first and foremost shepherds of their flock and protect children from abuse and there must be transparency and participation by the laity.

Specifically, these were the recommendations: Number one, that there be enhanced screening, formation and oversight of the process of selecting candidates for the priesthood. That these individuals must be mature, they must be well adjusted and they must have a clear understanding of the challenges of priesthood. The Pope began this process with an Apostolic decree that was issued in 1992 to try and assist seminaries informing priests, but much more needs to be done to insure that there is appropriate screening. We’ve got to bring people into the priesthood who have some degree of maturity, who understand life and not just bring these young kids in who then become isolated from what real society is all about.

Two, there must be an increased sensitivity in responding to allegations of abuse. They must not let the threat of scandal, they must not let the consequences of litigation keep them from pursuing their duty of caring for the welfare of victims and protecting children.

Three, there must be greater accountability of bishops and church leaders. This is for all intents and purposes a feudal system that we deal with. These are all fiefdoms that bishops operate and they operate pretty much on their own and they do not want to be accountable to anyone except the Pope and what he doesn’t know is just as well. They really do operate on the basis that this is their area of control and so that’s the attitude that is brought to bear and there isn’t that kind of willingness to be transparent and to discuss these problems even between themselves. If they’re going to deal with it they out to use diocese and councils to provide advice and oversight.

One of the things we recommended is that there be an accreditation process for each diocese. At least a process of looking at how that bishop and that diocese is responding. Not just to this, but how they operate financially. I mean there are very few people that check the books on some of these places and there are horrendous financial problems that are not reviewed on a regular basis and so there ought to be at least some process it seems to me on a regular basis to try to insure again for the sake of the parishioners, for the sake of the faithful that that diocese is being operated credibly. In addition, we recommended that the bishops themselves have to engage in greater oversight. They have to be involved. They can’t just simply pass this on to others. They’ve got to be willing to engage.

Fourthly, we have to improve the interaction between the bishops and the priests with civil authorities. We are talking about crimes here and if there isn’t allegation of crime, it ought to be reported to civil authorities.

And fifthly, there has to be meaningful participation by the faithful in the operation of our church. There must be less secrecy, more transparency and greater openness to the gifts that all of us can bring to this church.

I’ve often said in our democracy that we govern either by crisis or leadership. If leadership is not there, make no mistake about it, crisis drives policy in this country too often today. My view is that we deal with issues more by crisis than by leadership, whether it’s issues related to war or our economy or our budget or healthcare, Social Security, Medicare, all of these issues we deal more through crisis than through leadership. The same can be said for the church. We can deal with these issues through crisis or leadership.

One of my concerns today is that we are living at a time when trust is being eroded in a number of our key institutions in our society. I mean government which you know was always subject to question, but the reality is in these last few months, there is more and more that has come out whether it’s the failure of our intelligence, whether its what’s happened with the abuse of prisoners, whether its other issues that we see happening that undermine our trust. We don’t trust anybody in what they say anymore and that’s understandable and it’s happened in corporate America. Corporate America is the symbol of what private enterprise and entrepreneurship is all about. It’s one of our great strengths and yet because of the Enrons, because of the Martha Stewarts, because of those who basically abuse their trust, it is undermined faith of investors in corporations in this country. It’s true in healthcare when hospitals sell body parts or when 100,000 people go into a hospital and die, not from the illness that they go into the hospital for, but through the mistakes that are made. All of this undermines faith. I mean newspaper reporters who don’t report the news, but copy the news or make it up undermines trust in what is a very important part of our democracy. The same thing is happening with regards to our faith and to the church. If the church fails to respond. If bishops hope that this crisis will simply pass on and that life can go on as it was, they are wrong. They are wrong, because what will happen is we will have greater crisis and there will be a price to be paid for that in the lost faith of those they serve.

If there is leadership dedicated to the goal that this must never happen again, then I think ultimately trust can be restored and our faith and the church will be stronger.

Two thousand years ago, Jesus instructed his disciples. For human beings, this is impossible, but for God all things are possible.

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