Sexual Abuse: Confusing Circumstances, Same Conclusion
That I believe Catholic bishops have no justification for recycling priests guilty of sexual abuse is clear from yesterday’s essay, Cardinal Mahony’s Therapeutic Excuses. But this does not mean there is nothing to be said on the other side. Let me list some of the ancillary concerns. They are not necessarily related to each other, and I do not intend to treat them in detail.
- Priests as people: I once knew a priest who was an abuser. He felt as if he were caught in a net he could not escape. It constantly weighed him down. Bishops have (or certainly ought to have) a fatherly and/or brotherly concern for their priests. The desire to “redeem” the priest must be very strong, along with the natural hope for rehabilitation.
- First-time mistakes: Without prior experience, it may be difficult not to be swayed by expert opinion or common practice the first time a bishop must deal with the problem. In reality, the recidivism of abusers should have been well-known in many Catholic dioceses by, say, 1950 (if not earlier). But so should it have been known to the experts, except the whole problem was hushed up and glossed over everywhere, before the sexual revolution. Bishops who were badly burned for their handling of sexual abuse should have had experience and documentation to rely on from their predecessors.
- Problematic evidence: Realistically, sex abuse is difficult to substantiate, and abusers are often effective dissemblers. A certain reticence in believing unsubstantiated claims is understandable; a lack of such reticence can destroy a good priest. Handling the complaint, rumor and report pipeline is not necessarily simple.
- A natural desire to preserve the Church’s image: In a certain culture, and given certain assumptions, it is too easy to believe that the Church’s interest will be better served by treating and recycling an abusive priest than by laicizing him, with the risk of conflict and publicity that entails. In the same way, families often hide the fact of abuse in their midst. Moreover, the virtue of prudence is very frequently confused with timidity and the desire not to make waves.
- Culturally rampant abuse: Sexual abuse is widespread. While it has always existed, it may be more widespread in a culture which emphasizes sexual liberation and individual self-fulfillment. It occurs most often at the hands of family members or close friends. Institutionally, it is documented to be substantially more frequent in public schools than in the Church. Yet for both good and bad reasons, the Church is the primary target for recrimination and financial punishment.
- Loving the sin while hating the sinner: Let’s face it. Many of those who scream most loudly about clerical sexual abuse utterly repudiate Catholic teaching on human sexuality. They may not have come to the point of defending pedophilia and ephebophilia yet, but they have rejected responsible use of the sexual faculties in accordance with God’s plan. It is grossly unfair and inconsistent to condemn the Church’s teachings while also condemning those who fail to live up to them.
I have listed some of the related issues which make episcopal misconduct either more understandable or the predicament of the Church more sympathetic. Fair enough. But at the same time, there are related issues which have exactly the opposite impact:
- Fool me twice…: Priestly abuse would not be a scandal if there were a consistent pattern of bishops acting decisively against abusers after mishandling their first case, or even their first couple of cases.Unfortunately, what I have called the therapeutic argument often appears to be a smokescreen because bishops were in fact very slow to change their approach even after recidivism became obvious.
- Bad reasons for recycling: The desire to take a chance on “recycling” a given offender may be understandable (if inadvisable). But what if that desire comes from a bishop who shares the same temptations, either to homosexuality or pedophilia (as is demonstrably the case in at least a few instances)? Or what if that desire comes from the sin (and it is a sin) of clericalism—the sense that the clergy are a kind of elite club, whose internal concerns always trump the rights of the faithful?
- Deflection to families: It may be a good thing to make families, and to some extent children, more aware of the problem of sexual abuse. But the way in which the Church imposed such programs on families as a result of the sins of the clergy looks suspiciously like an unwarranted transfer of responsibility. A psychologist might diagnose this as projection. Cynical commentators might speak of passing the buck, or self-serving spin.
- Clerical homosexuality: While the Vatican has made it clear that those who are known to suffer from same-sex attraction are to be excluded from ordination, there are still some sectors in the Church that are strongly resisting both the Church’s teaching on homosexuality and the Church’s discipline in this particular matter, including (for example) some vocal portions of the Society of Jesus. This raises grave questions, because the abuse scandal is overwhelmingly same-sex.
- Top-down management: There is no evidence that any pope or the Vatican in general has deliberately tolerated or encouraged sexual abuse, but there is plenty of evidence that the lack of vigorous disciplinary activity on the part of bishops around the world is related to the non-disciplinary style of popes from John XXIII through John Paul II. A culture of discipline is returning to the Church, but there is no question that—for whatever combination of good and bad reasons—that culture was seldom fostered at the highest levels in the Church between 1958 and, say, sometime in the 1990s.
- The iceberg’s tip: We might argue that it is grossly unfair that a few bishops have paid various penalties (usually loss of office) for their deliberate or inadvertent complicity in sexual abuse, while many others have not. But turn that around. Almost always, a discovered crime is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It is not wrong to feel sorry for those who have been apparently guilty only of a poor judgment which was widely viewed as sound at the time. But neither is it wrong to feel generally angry at the bishops of the 1960s through the early 1990s for tolerating or even encouraging frequent abuse of the rights of the faithful across the board—liturgical, doctrinal and moral.
If we want to expend sufficient time and ink, almost anything we write about sexual abuse could be modified by any of these considerations, and probably others as well. Shift the context a bit, and most of these issues merit full-fledged treatment in their own right. (See, for example, the list of other commentaries appended below.) But this simply alerts us to how hard it is for people to see the forest for the trees, especially when certain failures of perception are dominant within a culture. So let us focus once again: It is the nature of holiness and virtue to help us grasp our particular responsibilities without getting lost in the many possible extraneous considerations, which are so often mere distractions.
This is true especially for bishops, who are not only expected to have, but also obligated in a special way by their office to cultivate, the holiness and virtue which sharpens their perception of moral and pastoral reality. And when the problem of clerical sexual abuse is properly perceived, there are no excuses for either the abuse itself or its perpetuation within a system which ought never to be impervious to grace.
Related Commentaries by Jeff Mirus
- The New Despoilation (January 12, 2007)
- Five Years after the Scandal, I (April 18, 2007)
- Five Years after the Scandal, II (April 18, 2007)
- Scandalizing the Faithful? (March 10, 2008)
- The Abuse Is Homosexuality (September 30, 2009)
- The Lessons of the Scandal: Hypocrisy and Discipline (April 12, 2010)
- The Mindset of Priestly Sexual Abuse (May 12, 2010)
- From Scandal to Catholicism (December 21, 2010)
- The Evolution of the Sex Abuse Scandal: A Multiplication of Wrongs (January 5, 2011)
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Posted by: fredsfo21015 -
Feb. 06, 2013 4:31 PM ET USA
Jeff, an excellent response! Same conclusion is right! Especially because the offenders are so hidden away in the system, let all those involved come clear, to save their own souls. If they do not, they are throwing away their own souls. Church has to become proactive to rid system of those who consistently work against Grace and Peace!
Posted by: bnewman -
Feb. 06, 2013 2:15 PM ET USA
Dr. Mirus notes, “neither is it wrong to feel generally angry at the bishops.” It is of course a basic duty of all ordinary mothers and fathers to protect their children. They rightly feel deep anger and betrayal at any act of child abuse by a priest no matter how ‘minor’. Even now they still wonder; “Do the priests and bishops really ‘get it’? Are they living in some alternate reality?” Bishops do seem to live largely in isolation from the concerns of ordinary parents.
Posted by: Dan -
Feb. 05, 2013 8:05 PM ET USA
Thanks, Dr. Mirus, for this; much to ponder, lament, and deeply regret.