Dr. Kathleen McChesney is a central figure in the Catholic Church’s efforts to address sexual abuse by clergy and religious leaders. She began her career as a police detective in King County, Washington, ultimately serving as an executive assistant director for the FBI. In 2002, she was recruited by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to establish and lead the Office of Child Protection, where she guided U.S. dioceses in their efforts to implement the Dallas Charter.
She also helped the John Jay College of Criminal Justice conduct its 2011 study of sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church and coedited the book “Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis (2002-2012).” McChesney founded Kinsale Management Consulting, through which she continues to serve dioceses, religious orders, and other organizations around the world in reviewing cases and recommending policies and procedures to prevent ministerial misconduct and abuse.
McChesney recently spoke with Awake in a phone interview, discussing the issues of transparency and accountability in the Church’s sexual abuse crisis. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed.
Awake: Can you tell us about your role at the USCCB in the early 2000s?
Dr. Kathleen McChesney: Before I arrived at the Bishops’ Conference there was no office that was specifically responsible for issues regarding sex abuse. In the 1980s some of the bishops developed the “Restoring Trust” program and provided guidelines for dioceses to prevent and address incidents of abuse, but it wasn’t until the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People was adopted by the bishops in Dallas that there were definitive standards. The conference had also established an ad hoc Committee for Child Protection, which is now a permanent committee. I established and implemented the Office for Child and Youth Protection, and I was the executive director.
Q. You have long called for dioceses and religious orders to publish the names of credibly accused clergy. Why?
A. I’ve always believed that this is an important thing to do. The first reason is for healing. Many of the men and women who’ve been abused want their abuser to be held accountable. And sometimes that accountability is really hard to attain, because of the statute of limitations, late reporting, and lack of evidence or witnesses. Where you can establish with some degree of certainty that a particular person was an abuser, publishing their name is helpful to the survivor that you know of, but also for those who have not or will not come forward.
Publishing a name or posting a name on a website encourages people to come forward. Persons who have been abused can provide support for one another. It’s a great relief, I’ve found, for many survivors just to see the name of their abuser on a disclosure list. It vindicates these men and women and reinforces that they have been or would be believed.
Nearly every day at the USCCB I talked with persons who had been abused, or read their letters or statements. I recognized how important transparency was for them. Survivors often said, “No one was going to believe me if I had reported my abuse. I was a child accusing a powerful adult man with a magnetic personality who was beloved by his parish. Who would support me?”
Even more significantly, so many of these men and women now say, “My parents wouldn’t believe me,” or, “My mother would’ve been so mad at me,” or, “My father would have killed him,” or, “The Church was the most important thing in our lives, and I wasn’t going to be the one to mess it up.” So many sad stories. You can have #MeToo movements, you can have lots of public investigations, but these people still are alone at the end of the day with their thoughts and emotions, and it can be very hard for them.
Q. What do you see as the best source of information about credibly accused Church leaders?
A. The go-to list has always been BishopAccountability.org. I think that they’re very good. They just recently updated their website, so you can now find a lot more information that was previously there but you had to search around for it. You can now sort by religious order, which you couldn’t do before. You get real-time information because they update their site every day. I had thought that the Bishops’ Conference might do something like this, but they didn’t, and I understand some of the myriad legal reasons that they wouldn’t have. But Bishop Accountability, as a nonprofit, is very careful about things and professionally staffed and managed. If someone reports an error on their site, they will fix it. All of their information is sourced.
Q. Can you comment on the efforts that religious orders have made to release the names of credibly accused clergy in their ranks?
A. To my knowledge, within the last year or so members of the Conference of Major Superiors of Men (CMSM), which incorporates men’s religious communities, have indicated that they’re all going to release names of offending priests and brothers, I think, [in] a two-year period. CMSM has not released names as a group. Some individual religious orders have released, although not to the degree that dioceses have.
This is another area in which Bishop Accountability does very well, because they gather all the names, from whatever source. So if you want to see a list of known offenders from a particular order, you can choose that option on the site to find the information.
Q. Is it useful for dioceses to include on their disclosure lists the names of any credibly accused people from religious orders who served in their area?
A. It is very useful. Many Catholics do not understand the distinction between diocesan and religious order priests and brothers. But if [a member of a religious order] is a known offender, it is important for transparency that the faithful know that the man once ministered in their community or parish. There may be abused persons who have not come forward.
Q. Given that many dioceses and religious orders have already published their lists of the credibly accused, or plan to do so soon, what next steps might dioceses and religious orders take to promote transparency and accountability?
A. Sadly, there are still cases of clerical sexual abuse occurring, although not in the large numbers of the past. So it is important that dioceses and religious orders regularly update their lists as needed and include a press statement indicating that the list has been updated. Dioceses and religious communities need to be cognizant of how difficult it is for survivors to heal when they see their abusers honored and memorialized.
Q. Last spring Wisconsin’s Attorney General and Department of Justice launched a review of all sexual abuse cases by clergy and religious leaders in our state. Do you have any thoughts on the value of these types of investigations?
A. In those states where it is within the mandate of a law enforcement agency, attorney general’s office, or district attorney to address a crime problem by doing some sort of inquiry, such a review can be a good process, especially if you can use the system to prosecute offenders. It’s also important because communities deserve to know if there is an endemic crime problem. Let me emphasize: The best method for reporting allegations of sexual abuse is to go directly to law enforcement if the person who has been abused is ready to report.
Also, based on my work and experience as both a detective and consultant with religious organizations, schools, and youth-serving organizations, no organization is totally immune from having sexual offenders. General inquiries can be very good, but they should be broader in scope. Sexual abuse is a terrible scourge on society and all victims should receive the same care and attention from legal authorities, regardless of who their abusers are.
When Australia conducted its Royal Commission several years ago, it focused on abuse in any and all institutions. It also resulted in some prosecutions and that’s a good thing. Again, these inquiries need to look at all types of abuse regardless of where it might occur.
If you are serious about protecting children, you can’t just isolate a certain number of children. You have to look at the entire population, because anytime you have children who are not with their trusted caregivers and parents, there’s an opportunity for something to go awry.
Q. What else do you think the Church can do to promote healing around the abuse issue?
A. It’s a day-by-day endeavor for the Church to convince people that they are serious about preventing abuse. Even with everything that was implemented in the 2000s—and frankly, no other institution had done as much—there have been some cases that have occurred since 2002. So, the Church needs to really conduct more research into, “What was the selection process that allowed these individuals to be ordained or to take vows?” And the Church also has to take a broader look at those persons who represent the Church in lay ministries, and in education, and make sure those people are appropriately selected and trained, and that there’s good oversight, and opportunities and methods for people to report abuse.
Q. You have spoken in the past about issue fatigue and complacency among Catholics around sexual abuse. What would you like to say to lay Catholics about the risks of this complacency? What can we do to fight it?
A. It’s very natural for people to tire of issues and to become complacent in the absence of a crisis. Many people can look away, but the men and women and boys and girls who have been abused will carry that experience throughout their lives. There is no magic bullet here; one can’t just tell people not to be complacent. But complacency creates risk, and where risk exists, bad acts can occur. The faithful need to learn about abuse, observe, and not be afraid to report behavior that might be grooming, or worse.
Q. Do you have any final thoughts that you would want Catholics to carry away about transparency and the clergy abuse crisis?
A. If the documents or witnesses exist and you can establish that an act of abuse occurred, release the offenders’ names. Transparency is incredibly important for survivors who have reported—and for those who have not. If Church leaders are sincere when they say, “We want to heal and we want to move forward,” publishing names is a very important way of proving that. That’s why, hopefully, most of the dioceses and religious communities that have made disclosures have done so in a well-meaning way, and not just because they were forced to do it by a judge.
Transparency is important for the credibility of Church leadership. If leaders are willing to publish the names of offenders, that says a lot about their concern about the issues and the people impacted. It’s not an easy thing to do, I understand that, because some of these offenders had good relationships with their bishops and superior and community. But transparency is absolutely essential.
—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog