What do the bishops plan to do with priests who are removed from ministry and who cannot function as priests because their history of sex abuse of minors? One solution, offered by several bishops, both in news conferences prior to Dallas and in comments from the floor during their discussion of their proposed charter, was to send the offending priests to a monastery.
If anything reinforced a growing conviction that the bishops just weren't thinking, that comment did it. Not only did the bishops apparently not run their suggestion by any actual communities of monastic men before they made it, but, some suggest, they also reveal their ignorance about religious life in general and monastic life in particular.
NCR spoke with top leadership of more than a half dozen men's monastic communities around the country. All of those interviewed voiced understanding for the bishops' difficult situation. But they were also clear that that the prospect of making their monasteries the dumping ground for problem priests just wouldn't fly. And several said the idea itself was downright offensive.
`They're just clueless'
"It certainly makes me wonder what kind of theology of religious life the bishops are operating out of," said one Trappist abbot who asked not to have his name or his community identified. "It seems, that like many people, they're just clueless about what monastic life is."
By suggesting that sex abusers be sent to monasteries, the abbot continued, the bishops are "buying into the old stereotypes ...that we live this medieval, idyllic and isolated life, and that a person's problems disappear when he comes here."
But, say the bishop calls and asks you to consider it. Would you bring his request to the community? The abbot laughed. "Not on your life! They'd shoot me!"
"I'd find a respectful and diplomatic way to decline," he said, "but I would say very clearly, `Bishop, that's a very, very bad idea.' ''
Another Trappist abbot concurred. Abbot Damian Carr heads one of the order's largest U.S. houses, St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Mass., home to 65 monks. "I'd be mighty surprised that you'd pick up from [any monastic community] that this is a viable solution," he told NCR.
There is, of course some historical precedent for the bishops' suggestion. Carr noted that for centuries, monasteries were known as refugium peccatorum -- a place of refuge for sinners, where people often came to live among the monastic community in repentance and penance for sinful deeds.
That concept continued through the middle of the 20th century, when bishops and religious superiors would send known alcoholics or sexual offenders for lengthy retreats at monasteries. As recently as the 1960s, before sexual and chemical addictions were understood to have medical and psychological causes, the church often viewed these as solely moral lapses, as sin rather than sickness. Understandably, priests and religious would often return from such retreats penitent and well-intentioned, but with no tools to accomplish the essential behavioral changes. Relapse was almost inevitable.
`Out of the question'
Benedictine Abbot Hugh Anderson, who heads the 50-member St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Ill., said it would be "out of the question" for his community to accept a priest who was a sex abuser. In the first place, the Lisle monks combine apostolic ministries with their monastic tradition. They sponsor and staff Benedictine University and Benet Academy, large and bustling institutions both just across the road from the abbey in the large Chicago suburb.
Because about half of the men's monasteries in the United States are apostolic-contemplative houses that have ministries and constant contact with the public, Anderson said he thought the bishops were referring more to contemplative houses, such as the Trappists. Still, he didn't think the idea of housing sex offenders in monasteries was one that any community would accept. "I think it would be highly imprudent to even consider it."
"I suspect it was a hyperbolic statement," Anderson said. He agreed with a Southern Trappist, who told NCR, "The bishops know they're in the hot seat and they were under pressure to do something. In the heat of the moment, suggesting these guys be sent to us probably seemed at least like some kind of a solution. But it sounds like they really hadn't thought it out at all. And certainly no one asked us."
Anderson said that in the past some monasteries have accepted people on a "permanent guest" status. The person is not a member of the community and lives in separate quarters, usually the guesthouse, but has his or her own work and is free to join the community for prayer. In some cases, with proper monitoring, that might be a possibility, he suggested. But none of the monasteries NCR spoke with had any program of this type.
And in the case of a known sex offender, the communities were unanimous that they wouldn't even consider the risk. "This would bring huge problems," said another Trappist abbot. "Supervision and liability would be a giant issue, just for starters."
"We're certainly not isolated," he said. "People come to visit, come for retreats. And on Sundays we have up to 150 people here for liturgy. The monks visit with them, there's a lot of interaction." In that kind of setting, he said, no one could ensure that a former sex offender wouldn't have access to children or teens.
"Monasteries aren't on another planet," said a Benedictine who is also a psychologist. "People can `meet' and entice children through something as impersonal as the Internet. No matter how controlled the environment, they could still be predatory -- in a monastery, wherever. And no community in its right mind would want to take that risk."
A few bishops are members of religious communities, but most are diocesan priests. And while many diocesan clergy do understand and appreciate religious life, it's not a lived experience. Often problematic for diocesan priests and bishops is the understanding of community, several monks said.
"It's extremely hard to achieve community, for a man to enter fully into that dynamic of monastic life," Anderson said. "That's why we're hesitant to take anyone over 40. The change and adaptation to this way of life is very difficult for anyone entering -- for the person who genuinely wants to do it." He speculated that it would be "difficult if not impossible" for a person to live in a healthy fashion in a community setting that was forced upon him.
That difficulty is compounded when it comes to a contemplative community. A priest sex offender "would simply not be called to our vocation, despite his experience of priesthood, " said another Trappist abbot.
Carr agreed. "I think there are two dimensions at work [in the bishops' suggestion]," he said. "One is to put the person in a controlled environment, and the second is to offer him a life of prayer and penance. A monastery might seem to fit the bill on both scores." But the bishops seem to be forgetting a crucial element, and that's the matter of "call."
"A vocation [to monastic life] is not just a matter of will power, but a response to the call of God," Carr said. Just putting a former sex abuser into the environment is no solution, he said.
The head of another Trappist community worried, too, about the impact on potential vocations if monasteries took the bishops up on their suggestion. "What would people's image become of monasteries" if they were suddenly populated by clerical sex offenders, he asked. "And what would that do to vocations? Who'd want to join" if they thought the place were filled with pedophiles?
Despite their shared and sometimes blunt opposition to the bishops' ill-conceived proposal, the monks said they understood its genesis.
"I want to think [the bishops'] motivation is genuine care and concern. They are asking, `How can we positively respond to the spiritual, physical and psychological needs' " of priests who are sex abusers, Carr said.
He said he thought the bishops were trying to articulate, however awkwardly, "their understanding of the need for well-thought-out care . for some kind of place where these men could receive the ongoing help they need to live holy, healthy lives" in the face of the reality that they can no longer serve as priests. But, Carr repeated, placing them in a monastery would create more problems than it could solve.
Crisis presents new opportunity
For Anderson, the current crisis presents an opportunity for the church. Reflecting on the history of religious life, he noted that religious communities usually came into existence in response to a specific need of the time, in the church and in society at large. "Orders were founded to educate women when it was not the custom, or to ransom slaves," he said, "because those were clearly needs of the era. . That may be what the church needs to do today, again," he suggested. It may be time, he said, for a religious community or other group to consider operating centers -- not just for clergy but for laity as well -- providing the "controlled environment" that is most conducive to long-term health, where a number of former offenders could live together.
"Clearly the bishops are thinking of some kind of a healthy, controlled `holding place,' where men who can no longer minister" can both be monitored and also receive ongoing treatment, " Anderson said. "Maybe, as difficult as this moment is, it offers the church a graced opportunity to respond to a clear need."
Still, the monks were clear that's not their calling.
"As far as I'm concerned," said one of the Trappists, placing sex offenders in monasteries was "an idea the bishops dreamed up out of the blue."
"And we hope it goes right back up into the blue very soon!"