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Question 175: Should parents report to police a priest who sexually abused their son?

We live in a small city where Catholics are a minority, and our parish has only about a hundred families. We always have had only one priest; now he also must take care of another, smaller parish about twenty-five miles away. About two years ago our old pastor was moved and we were sent a much younger man, Father Jack, who had many new ideas and was enthusiastic. Everyone liked him.

Since we have five daughters, our only son, Frank, has been very close to me, often helping with chores. He has developed into a skillful painter and handyman. In June, Frank graduated from grade school, and being fourteen, big for his age, and ambitious, he wanted to go to work during the summer. We were pleased when Father Jack offered him a job—cutting the grass, gardening, and doing interior painting in the church and rectory.

At first, it seemed to go well. Frank talked a lot about his work and repeated things Father Jack had said. But after a few weeks, Frank became unusually quiet and seemed upset. When this went on for a couple of weeks, I took him fishing one Sunday afternoon and urged him to tell me what was bothering him. He did not want to talk about it, but finally he told me that one day Father Jack had begun by saying masturbation is wrong because it leaves a person lonely and ended by performing oral sex on him, and that they had been engaging in sexual acts together almost every day since.

Father Jack was away that evening, but the next morning I went to the rectory to confront him. At first he denied everything, but then he broke down and admitted that things were just as Frank had said. The priest told me he is a pedophile. Crying, he begged me not to tell anyone, and said he knew he needed help and would get it. I insisted I was going to see the bishop and called his office then and there. When I told the bishop’s priest-secretary why I wanted an appointment, he asked to speak with Father Jack. As I handed him the phone I told him that if he denied what he had been doing I would go to the police, and he admitted everything to the other priest.

That afternoon, my wife and I drove to the city and saw the bishop. He was friendly and sympathetic, and angry with Father Jack. The priest would be removed from our parish at once, the bishop told us, and would be sent away for prolonged treatment. He urged us to look into counseling for Frank, spare no expense, and send along the bills. He also proposed that the diocese’s lawyer meet with us, and we agreed.

When the lawyer came, he frankly told us that Frank and we had the right to sue both Father Jack and the diocese, and we would have a good chance of being awarded substantial damages. To settle the matter, he offered not only reimbursement for any counseling we chose and for Frank’s pay for the rest of the summer, but an additional fifty thousand dollars. My wife and I would have been very reluctant to sue the Church, and so we gladly accepted and, with only some technical changes our own lawyer insisted on, signed a document releasing both the priest and the diocese of all civil liability. The check came a few days ago.

The diocese’s lawyer made it clear that he and the bishop hoped we would not report the matter to the police but be merciful toward Father Jack, so that he would have a chance to be rehabilitated and the Church would be spared the scandal. We certainly do not want to hurt the Church, but Father Jack is not the Church, and my wife and I are troubled at the thought that this priest, who abused Frank, might be pronounced “cured” and assigned to some other parish. Our lawyer tells us we can go to the police without violating anything in the agreement we signed. Should we do it despite the bishop’s wishes?


This question calls for the clarification of considerations bearing on a judgment that only the parents themselves can make. Ordinarily, Catholics should follow their bishops’ policies in dealing with any problem within the Church, but in this case the presumption in favor of doing so is not decisive. In general, citizens should report crimes. But assuming Frank’s parents have no legal duty to report Father Jack’s crimes, they should do so only if they judge it their moral obligation despite its likely burdens and risks for their son. The bishop’s promise to send Father Jack for prolonged treatment with hope for his rehabilitation suggests that he may be overlooking or ignoring the priest’s evasion of responsibility. For several reasons, a priest who has engaged in sexual activity with a minor should not be returned to priestly ministry. In my judgment, apart from possible further harm to Frank, considerations against reporting Father Jack’s crimes are not cogent.

The reply could be along the following lines:

Before addressing your question, let me offer a suggestion about your present care for Frank. Though you probably do not need any advice about how to look after your son, his whole life and salvation could be at stake if you acquiesce in the implausible view that the chief, or even the only, harm to a victim of sexual abuse is likely to be psychological.

Your son was a victim of sexual seduction. He was especially vulnerable inasmuch as he greatly trusted his seducer. Having suffered this betrayal of trust by a priest, Frank might eventually react, if he has not already, with a revulsion against priests in general, the Church, and even God. That could lead to despair and loss of faith. Be alert to signs of such trouble. Explain to Frank that Father Jack’s misbehavior was the priest’s personal fault. Help Frank understand that he still needs to share in the life of the Church by the ministry of priests, most of whom, despite human weaknesses, can be trusted to make Jesus’ loving care available to everyone who has suffered and sinned.

Very likely, at the outset Father Jack’s advances so confused Frank that he was incapable of either consenting to them or rejecting them. Still, he not only was seduced but cooperated for some weeks in sexual acts, even though this troubled him. Only God knows whether the conditions for mortal sin were met when he engaged in at least some of those acts. If you have not already done so, however, you should talk with Frank about his possible guilt. Since he probably feels far guiltier than he is, you will have to clarify for him how and to what extent the sexual activity was not his responsibility. At the same time, you must gently help him consider the possibility that, though being sinned against, he was led into sinning—unless you know that he already has examined his conscience in this matter and gone to confession if he found it necessary.387

If Frank has not obtained the pastoral care he needs, you should encourage him, when the time seems right, to talk with a priest he knows and trusts—perhaps your former pastor—or help him find a suitable adviser and confessor. Unfortunately, confessors’ fidelity to Catholic moral teaching cannot be taken for granted today. If you must seek a suitable confessor for Frank, look for a priest entirely faithful to Catholic teaching as well as endowed with other appropriate traits of personality and character—perhaps a wise and gentle elderly priest who will provide sound guidance without arousing Frank’s anxiety by reminding him of the priest who abused him.

Not many fathers would have been as attentive as you were to the signs of abuse, and too few adolescents would have had enough trust in their parents to confide in them as Frank did in you. Your relationship with him plainly is excellent, and nothing you say suggests that he has serious psychological problems. Of course, he needs to be reassured that what he has suffered has not ruined him as a person, and that he can look forward to being a man like his father. Beyond that, it seems to me, he may well need little psychological help except what you and your wife will continue to provide. Moreover, as you may have known already or have discovered, it sometimes is hard to find a counselor who is entirely faithful to Catholic teaching, technically competent, and effective. My point is that if you have not already obtained psychological counseling for your son, you should be very careful about doing so; and if you have, you should watch for signs of trouble, as I expect you would do in any case.

In some jurisdictions, certain persons would have a legal duty to report Father Jack’s behavior to the police. But the law seldom if ever obliges a minor victim’s parents to take such a step. I shall assume it does not, and answer your question on that assumption.

Ordinarily, Catholics troubled by priests’ activities or any other problem in the Church should deal with the matter in accord with the Church’s own law and their bishops’ policies. Thus, in view of your bishop’s wishes that you not report Father Jack’s behavior with your son to the police, it might seem clear that you should not. However, when a priest commits a serious crime, the problem it poses is not merely within the Church, as most people would acknowledge if the crime were homicide or kidnapping. Moreover, I believe that the real problems presented and revealed by the conduct of priests like Father Jack have hardly been acknowledged by bishops, including yours, and that thus far they have developed no adequate policy or procedure for dealing with those problems.388 Moreover, you are concerned that the bishop’s policy might result in Father Jack’s being pronounced cured and reassigned to another parish, as many priests have been in similar situations. So, the usual presumption against acting contrary to one’s bishop’s policies and going to the public authorities about a problem within the Church cannot reasonably be considered decisive in this case. Therefore, I shall consider both the reasons for taking the unusual step of going to the police about this priest’s misconduct despite your bishop’s wishes, and the objections to and arguments against doing so.

In general, citizens have a moral obligation to report crimes (see LCL, 888–89). Failing to do so allows criminals to evade just punishment, whose infliction benefits society: first, by restoring the balance of justice that crime upsets; second, by restraining and even perhaps reforming the criminal; and third, by deterring the criminal and others from similar acts in the future. Then too, the criminal may well have committed similar crimes previously, and some investigation is warranted to identify other victims, who may need help. Criminal investigations are an appropriate function of the police, but the police generally do not investigate until a crime is reported.

Still, the moral obligation to report crimes is not absolute. Because you bear special responsibility for your son’s well-being, you should not go to the police unless he consents and you are confident it will not risk further, serious injury to him—for example, from embarrassing publicity or from the stress of giving evidence, especially if he were compelled to testify in open court and undergo hostile examination by Father Jack’s defense counsel. Perhaps, however, the media and authorities in your city protect the privacy of juvenile victims of sex crimes, or perhaps you have good reason to believe Father Jack would plead guilty or that, for other reasons, reporting the crime will not result in undue stress for Frank. Your son may be willing to press the matter for the good of other young men; in that case, doing so might well help him come to terms with what he has suffered, rise above the injury, and, acting out of concern for others rather than personal animosity, help bring his abuser to justice.

You mention that the bishop hopes you will not report the matter but be merciful toward Father Jack so that he will have a chance to be “rehabilitated,” which you take to mean pronounced cured and assigned to some other parish—an outcome whose desirability you and your wife question. The bishop certainly is right in encouraging mercy and he seems to be trying hard to handle properly the problem of clerical sexual abuse. Assuming your understanding of “rehabilitated” to be correct, however, I agree with you in questioning the value of such rehabilitation for both Father Jack and the Church.

With respect to Father Jack, while psychological compulsion may limit his moral responsibility and only God knows whether he sinned mortally, he told you he knew he needed help. Yet he hardly seems to have considered the possibility that he was at least gravely responsible for failing to get the help he needed to forestall not only violating chastity and his own priestly consecration but betraying Frank’s trust and abusing his body. Moreover, by classifying himself as a pedophile and saying that he needs treatment, Father Jack suggested that he suffers from an unusual sexual psychopathology. Your son, however, is not a prepubescent child; he is a clean, fresh, young man, who would appeal to an unchaste, homosexual man, and Father Jack may well be nothing but that.389 Whether he failed to seek the help he needs to deal with a compulsion or alleged the compulsion to hide the fact that he is simply an abusive homosexual, Father Jack was at best unconsciously evading the responsibility he ought to accept. Facing criminal charges might well lead this man to put aside his self-deception or dishonesty, examine himself, repent, and cooperate with whatever psychological or other help he needs.

With respect to the Church, the bishop’s promise to send Father Jack away for prolonged treatment and his hope for his rehabilitation suggest that the bishop himself may be overlooking or ignoring the priest’s evasion of responsibility. For treatment and rehabilitation suggest sickness rather than wrongdoing, and in this way make the sexual seducer as much a helpless victim as the person he seduces. Now, a bishop’s failure to attend to evasion of responsibility by clerical sexual abusers is likely to harm the Church. It is likely to reassure abusers and potential abusers who are failing to get whatever help they might need to deal with their perverse inclination. It also is likely to elicit inappropriate sympathy for those abusers, forestall the severe measures against them required for the Church’s good, and distract attention from the urgent question of who shares responsibility for abusers’ wrongful behavior. Did fellow seminarians or priests know about Jack but ignore his “problem” or even cover up for him? Did Father Jack misbehave before, and did the bishop know it when he reassigned him to your small parish? Did Father Jack accept opinions dissenting from relevant Church teaching, apply them to others in pastoral practice, and, finally, apply them to himself?

The bishop plainly should ask and answer these and other relevant questions for himself, and should make or promote any reforms inquiry shows to be appropriate. Only accepting the humiliation of facing such questions and making whatever reforms are needed to go to the roots of clerical sexual abuse offer a prospect of freeing the Church from this burden. Moreover, your bishop and other bishops will never effectively deal with this problem unless they begin to work with equal vigor against the more widespread and more devastating spiritual corruption of the faithful and priests themselves by those working under the Church’s authority who bring dissenting theological opinions into play in their professional activities.

Moreover, if criminal prosecution would prevent Father Jack from ever again functioning as a priest, that, in my view, not only does not argue against going to the police but even argues strongly for it. Beyond what I already have pointed out—that going to the police would press the issue of responsibility, with benefits for both Father Jack and the Church—it seems to me that neither this man nor any priest should again be allowed to function as a priest once he admits or it is solidly proved that he has engaged in sexual activity with a minor.390 If or insofar as such misbehavior is the result of a psychological compulsion, it is doubtful that so serious a personality defect will be cured. If or insofar as the activity is sinful betrayal of the priestly office, it is neither loving toward the Church nor fair to potential victims once again to trust a man who did not shrink from betraying the trust the Church bestowed upon him and doing such great injuries both to her and to the person he victimized and/or led into sin.

But is the position I have outlined merciful? It may seem not, for God forgives any sin of anyone who repents, and Jesus enjoins us to be merciful as the Father is. So, if Father Jack and others like him repent and reform, should they not be restored to some sort of pastoral ministry under conditions that will minimize the likelihood of a recurrence? No. Repentant clerical sexual offenders certainly should be forgiven. But only their victims and God can forgive them, and it does not follow that they should be allowed to function again as priests. Given all that is at stake, even a small risk of recurrence is too great. If Jack were a layman teaching in a high school, few parents of boys attending the school would doubt that his behavior warranted his permanent exclusion from teaching. The dignity of the priesthood demands that priests be held to at least as high a standard. For if a priest’s consecration to act in the person of Christ makes it appropriate that he forgo even holy marriage and chaste marital intercourse, so that men unable or unwilling to promise this are not ordained in the Latin Church, that consecration makes it all the more appropriate that men unable or unwilling entirely to avoid sexual abuse of children not be permitted ever again to stand before the Church, acting in the person of Christ. Besides, just as very firm discipline is necessary to enforce the seal of confession (see CIC, c. 1388, §1), lest the faithful fear to entrust their most intimate secrets to priests, so very firm discipline is necessary to enforce the chastity of priests with minors, lest parents fear to entrust their children to priests in the privacy required for spiritual friendship and direction. Therefore, I repeat, the chance that criminal prosecution will prevent Father Jack from ever returning to pastoral ministry is no reason to forgo it.

Someone might say you implicitly promised Father Jack not to go to the police in warning him you would have him arrested if he did not admit his wrongdoing to the bishop’s priest-secretary. But your threat did not logically imply a promise not to go to the police if he did admit it. Your threat simply was to report the wrong Father Jack already had done if he compounded that wrongdoing by trying to deceive the other priest about it, and that could not reasonably be taken to imply any assurance that, if he admitted what he had done, you would never go to the police about it.

Moreover, even if you did mean your threat to include such an assurance, the duty to keep promises is a matter of fairness, and sometimes a promise can be broken without any unfairness (LCL, 412–14). You made your threat in the heat of the moment as one private individual confronting another; citizens usually should report crimes and you have various good reasons, already explained, for reporting this one. Therefore, even if you meant to promise that you would not report Father Jack’s behavior to the police, I think it would be fair for you to break that promise.

You mention possible “scandal” for the “Church.” In a loose sense, scandal refers to bad publicity; in the strict sense, it refers to leading others into sin (see CCC, 2284–87; LCL, 232–39). Jesus warns: “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea” (Mk 9.42; cf. Mt 18.6, Lk 17.1–2). Since clerical sexual abuse not only injures its victims as sexual abuse always does but poses a threat and obstacle to their and others’ faith, the Church is injured far more by its scandalousness in this strict sense than she is by bad publicity about it.

Reporting Father Jack’s behavior to the police probably will cause bad publicity. But since so many similar cases already have been reported, I do not think publicity about this particular case would cause much harm, though I am sure it would be embarrassing for the bishop and many priests of the diocese. Moreover, the bad publicity not only harms but benefits the Church. It motivates the bishops to try harder to prevent and limit the real scandal: priests leading children into sin. It also leads potential victims and/or their parents not to be overly trusting, in circumstances conducive to such abuse, and warns potential abusers to restrain themselves or, if they are suffering from a psychological compulsion, to tell their bishop as soon as they become aware of it, and in any case before they commit crimes.

Someone might argue that in accepting the settlement the diocese’s lawyer offered, you undertook to refrain from going to the police about Father Jack. Insofar as the settlement covered not only the diocese’s but Father Jack’s liability, it may have been an inappropriate use of the Church’s money. Even if that was a proper use of Church funds, however, it would have been improper for the diocese’s lawyer to offer the settlement with the intention of dissuading you from reporting what Father Jack did, since that could well be your moral duty, both as a citizen and as a member of the Church. Rather, the offer of a settlement was appropriate only to compensate Frank and you for the damage that has resulted or might still result from Father Jack’s misbehavior—damage for which he and the diocese were or might have been legally responsible. You, no doubt, were aware of and took into account the possibility that the damage included the transmission to Frank of HIV, which might eventually require health care costing far more than fifty thousand dollars.

Even if the settlement covered all the damage that monetary compensation can cover, it was, as the diocese’s lawyer himself suggested, not more (and perhaps much less) than you might have been awarded had you sued. My point is not that you should have sued, for it would have been wrong for you to impose costs on your fellow Catholic laity, who ultimately bear the Church’s financial burdens, beyond the amount you actually need or are likely eventually to need to deal with the consequences of what Father Jack did to your son. Unfortunately, however, no amount of money can make up for the intangible harm. Still, as I have argued, reporting to the police, though burdensome to Frank and you, is likely to counteract some of the evils involved in Father Jack’s misbehavior and the conditions within the Church that contributed to it.

If you and Frank judge that you ought to report the matter to the police, I think you ought first to tell the bishop what you are planning to do and why. That not only will allow him to benefit from your thinking and do what he can to mitigate bad publicity but will manifest the respect and loyalty you should have toward him as your father in Christ. What if the bishop makes it clear he does not wish you to go to the police? If he gives you persuasive reasons for not doing so, then, of course, you will not. But in the absence of such reasons, his episcopal authority does not extend to forbidding you to report Father Jack’s crimes, if you judge that to be your civic duty. So, you should not abide by his wishes in this matter against your son’s and your own conscientious judgment.

387. Frank probably did not confess those sins to Father Jack and is hardly likely to do so now. But if he did, the absolution, being of a person not in danger of death by a partner in sin against the sixth commandment, was or would be invalid (see CIC, c. 977).

388. Norbert J. Rigali, S.J., “Church Responses to Pedophilia,” Theological Studies, 55 (1994): 124–39, reviews various episcopal policy statements and finds them wanting in two respects: (1) they assume that abusers are psychologically ill rather than morally at fault, thus oversimplifying the question of responsibility; (2) they confuse pedophilia (adults’ or adolescents’ sexual urges, arousal through fantasies, and sexual activity involving prepubescent children) with adults’ sexual activity involving young people who have passed puberty.

389. Philip Jenkins, Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), shows that the sad facts about the misbehavior of some priests have served as material for diverse constructions of the problem or crisis. Still, not all constructions are equally valid, and one suspects that some sexual abusers who are not pedophiles are so categorized by those who want to reproach the Church for clerics’ misbehavior without condemning sodomy and other sexual activities outside chaste marriage.

390. I am not dealing here with other cases of clerical sexual activity, which present somewhat different problems.