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Pittsburgh Diocese May Have Improved Sex Abuse Prevention Efforts, More Work Needs To Be Done

Julio Cortez

Bishop David Zubik said over the course of 30 years, the Pittsburgh Diocese has made changes in how it prevents and responds to accusations of clergy abuse, including psychological screenings of seminarians so as to identify potential issues in men before they enter the priesthood.

For each seminarian, psychologist Anthony Isacco performs a half-day of testing and submits a report. This occurs twice before a man takes his vows.

While you can’t identify a sexual predator before he commits an offense, Issaco said the screening can spot issues like addiction, social isolation, or narcissism.

“I have raised red flags in the reports where the admission board and the bishop said, ‘Ok, these are big enough concerns that we won’t let someone in,’” he said.

Isacco said the church still needs to do more to prevent sex abuse. Victim advocates and experts agree.

“The strategy that we use now is to wait for kids to get hurt and then intervene, and that’s ridiculous,” said Elizabeth Letourneau, director of the Moore Center for the Prevention of Child Sexual Abuse at Johns Hopkins University. “To the extent that we do any prevention around child sexual abuse, we try to make the kids harder targets… Adults are responsible for abuse. It’s with adults that we need to intervene.”

Efforts might include prohibiting priests and kids sleeping in the same space, and not allowing clergy to have private text message conversations with minors. These behaviors are already not allowed under the Pittsburgh Diocese’s Code of Pastoral Conduct.

And Letourneau said someone who develops inappropriate feelings should be able to seek professional help before they act on their desires. Most sex offenders, she said, aren't psychopaths or exclusively attracted to children. 

"We don't do anything to give people the skills to avoid acting on sexual interest that they may not even expect they could ever have," she said. "These behaviors are preventable."

Prevention strategies include mindfulness techniques, psychotherapy, and encouraging people who develop an inappropriate attraction to remove themselves from the situation before they cause harm. 

2011 report from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that about four percent of priests have been accused of sex abuse, which is roughly the same rate as the general population.

But Jodi O'Brien, a sociologist who specializes in religion and sexuality, said because society looks at religious leaders as moral beacons the trauma caused by clergy abuse might be more profound. 

"Are [Catholic priests] more or less egregious than any other group? Perhaps no," she said. "The silence and the failure of Catholic leaders to respond in swift and effective ways feels like the biggest betrayal to many people."