DR Bill Marshall, as an atheist, was pleasantly surprised when invited into the Vatican to offer advice on what the Church should do about child sex abuse.
Dr Marshall, 68, an Australian-born Canadian, was hand-picked by Vatican officials to be part of a group of scientific experts to visit Rome in April last year for a symposium to advise them on addressing child sex abuse among priests and religious.
He warned them he was a non-believer before he accepted the invitation, thinking that may make a difference.
‘But they said ‘No, you’re just what we want. We want objective presentations of evidence’.’
Dr Marshall was in Australia in recent weeks to talk to corrections staff and therapists in some states about developments in the treatment of sex offenders.
While he was here he has shared his insights with Church groups and some leaders, meeting with Archbishop Philip Wilson of Adelaide and Archbishop Adrian Doyle of Hobart and giving public talks for Church groups in those cities. He also gave a presentation in Sydney.
Dr Marshall said that, following the symposium in Rome, the Vatican had asked him for further submissions.
He had used that material as the basis for his presentations to Church groups in Australia.
The professor emeritus of psychology and psychiatry at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, was invited to Rome because of his expertise in treating child sex offenders and how to reduce the chances of them re-offending.
He said he and the other experts were asked to give evidence collected over more than 30 years on child sexual abuse and how it related to priests and brothers who had abused children.
‘I had reservations about getting involved – I thought it may have been a public relations exercise but that wasn’t the case,’ Dr Marshall said.
‘I was very impressed – their concern was the protection of children, not the protection of the Church, not saving the Church money by avoiding litigation. Their concern was to protect the children.’
The three main points Dr Marshall suggested the Church focus on were the screening of those seeking to become priests and brothers, education of candidates, and appropriate monitoring after ordination or profession.
He said screening could help identify traits that indicate a candidate may be a risk of abusing children.
These include narcissism, which studies have shown ‘is astonishingly higher among those priests (who have offended) than the population at large and much higher than among priests who have not offended’.
For some the risk traits may be too pronounced for them to be accepted after screening, but Dr Marshall says proper counselling could open the way for others to proceed to priesthood without being a risk.
He admitted it was not easy to identify people with traits that would lead to them being a risk ‘but some things jump out and we know about some of these that make some people more a risk’.
‘The Church needs to fund research so we can get a better handle so that we can distinguish these guys from those that don’t offend,’ he said.
Dr Marshall drew criticism from victims support groups in Australia for his comments against the United States Church’s zero tolerance policy on priest child sex offenders.
He has spoken against offenders being banished from the priesthood, describing that approach as ‘a recipe for disaster’. His position is not, however, one of leniency.
His view was that, once a convicted priest has served his sentence, they should return to some role within the Church, but not to a ministry where they would be a danger to children.
‘What I’m saying is if they’re kept in the fold and given a job that keeps them away from children and where they can be monitored there is less chance of them re-offending,’ he said.
The aim should be to ensure proper monitoring and access to treatment, Dr Marshall said.
‘I understand the victims and the need for vengeance, because (the abusers) have hurt innocent people, and children especially.
‘We’ve just got to put that aside. If we wreak vengeance on these guys we’re only increasing the risk of them re-offending (and) the price is another child being a victim.’
The bottom line is to prevent other children being abused.
Dr Marshall said there was evidence around the world to indicate that psychological treatment of offenders can be successful.
An assessment of 43 programs indicated a 50 per cent drop in the rate of re-offending was achieved with treatment.