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Sexual abuse is society's problem, too

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 25, 2010

Catholic bishops were not the only people who covered up evidence of sexual abuse. Public schools, police departments, families, media outlets, non-profit associations--not to mention other religious denominations--all were guilty of their own cover-ups.

(Note: The fact that other institutions were guilty does not absolve Catholic bishops of their guilt. The Church should be held to a higher standard, and pastors should devote special care to the most vulnerable members of their flocks. I am not suggesting that criticism of the Catholic bishops is unfair. On the contrary, I am anxious to extirpate the corruption that has been exposed. And I shall repeat this paragraph to ensure that no honest reader can possibly draw the wrong conclusion from this essay.)

There's plenty of blame: enough to spread around. While righteously condemning Church officials, the critics should ask themselves whether they are equally demanding in their insistence that other institutions examine their past, apologize, and take steps to guarantee that similar offenses will bring prompt redress in the future.

It's not just the Catholic Church. This problem extends--has extended--all across society.

(Note: The fact that other institutions were guilty does not absolve Catholic bishops of their guilt. The Church should be held to a higher standard, and pastors should devote special care to the most vulnerable members of their flocks. I am not suggesting that criticism of the Catholic bishops is unfair. On the contrary, I am anxious to extirpate the corruption that has been exposed. And I shall repeat this paragraph to ensure that no honest reader can possibly draw the wrong conclusion from this essay.)

It was nearly 40 years ago, back in the 1970s, when I first began hearing whispers about priests who molested children. Those whispers came from police detectives, who said they could not or would not prosecute. They handled the matters quietly--just as the bishops did.

Later, in the 1990s, as the extent of the clerical abuse problem became to emerge, I began to hear how some police departments would routinely escort drunken priests home from gay bars, or make a call to the chancery asking for an official to come bail out an errant cleric. I learned about the bishop (now retired) whose name and face were painfully familiar to the state troopers who repeatedly encountered him as they rousted loiterers out of roadside rest areas. Again these unhappy matters were handled quietly.

Should the police have handled these matters differently? Should they have prosecuted aggressively? I think so. Their primary duty was to uphold the law, not to spare certain favored people from embarrassment. But it's very easy to make that judgment today. In times past, many police officials, with the best of intentions, judged otherwise.

Or take the public schools. When an accusation was lodged against the history teacher, a generation ago, was he prosecuted? Not likely. Far more often he was quietly let go, and eventually found a job teaching in another school--just as priests were allowed to work in another parish.

(Note: The fact that other institutions were guilty does not absolve Catholic bishops of their guilt. The Church should be held to a higher standard, and pastors should devote special care to the most vulnerable members of their flocks. I am not suggesting that criticism of the Catholic bishops is unfair. On the contrary, I am anxious to extirpate the corruption that has been exposed. And I shall repeat this paragraph to ensure that no honest reader can possibly draw the wrong conclusion from this essay.)

It wasn't just the Church. Society as a whole chose to avert its eyes and cover up the evidence of scandalous conduct. Now that the Church has been under fire for a decade or more, it's time to broaden the inquiry. What other institutions were guilty, and why? What other institutions need reform?

Among the hundreds of headline stories about the sex-abuse crisis now tearing through the Catholic Church in Europe, one in particular caught my eye, as a vivid example of how the media have focused exclusively on the Church, while ignoring the problem elsewhere in society. The AP story began

A news magazine says the head of the German Bishops Conference admits the Roman Catholic church consciously covered up cases of sexual abuse by priests.

That lead paragraph is not inaccurate. But notice how it contrasts with the paragraph that follows:

Weekly magazine Focus reported on Sunday that Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, who also heads the Bishops Conference, said "sexual abuse was covered up for decades by society."

Did you notice? According to the lede, the archbishop admitted that the Church covered up sexual abuse. What he actually said is that society covered up sexual abuse. I suspect that the journalist who wrote the article honestly missed the distinction. For years now we have been talking about sexual abuse as a problem for the Catholic Church, and that it certainly is. But it's a problem outside the Church as well, and that problem should now be addressed.

To his credit Archbishop Zollitsch did not try to deflect attention from the errors of Church leaders in handling abuse cases. "Every single case darkens the face of the entire church," he said. The fact that other institutions were guilty does not absolve Catholic bishops of their guilt. The Church should be held to a higher standard, and pastors should devote special care to the most vulnerable members of their flocks.

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: annemarie - Mar. 27, 2010 3:36 PM ET USA

    The behavior of bishops and priests, whether abusers or complicit in cover-up, has been unconscionable. Yet, there is another grave injustice receiving scant attention – innocent priests falsely accused of sexual abuse - forgotten men who, without due process, have been cast aside by their bishops and had their good names publicly maligned by diocesan spokesman. Innocent priests should not have to pay for the moral failure of bishops. Who with a public forum will help end this travesty?

  • Posted by: Criffton - Mar. 27, 2010 2:01 AM ET USA

    The intent differs, for marriage the spouses are the ministers of the sacrament. The bishop would need the proper intent to ordain them. Their intent is to become a priest; if they don't intend this, then it is invalid. And it would be worse if they were invalid. How many false Masses? How many fruitless Confessions? The priest, at his worse, is still needed for sacramental graces.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Mar. 26, 2010 2:22 PM ET USA

    The problem is systemic. One of several problems with the intemperate rush to canonize Pope John Paul II is the enormity of this crisis. The hubris of so many prelates is shocking. Furthermore a disturbing percentage are themselves abusers. The issue is taking on a life of its own, and the stories (and enormous fines) speak for themselves. And again it is the faithful who have suffered the most from this endemic scandal. In plain language, this is a very bad problem that stands to get worse.

  • Posted by: mjarman7759049 - Mar. 26, 2010 8:54 AM ET USA

    I have advocated for years that the conferring of the sacrament of Holy Orders on an individual whose intent (whether in whole or in part) is to use the Roman Collar to gain others' trust while pursuing an agenda of sexual predation in invalid ab initio, just as the conferring of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony on an individual who lacks proper intent is subject to annulment. These cases are not difficult. These folks are not and never were priests.

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