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A Catholic Shift on Sexual Abuse?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 29, 2011

Saturday’s address by Pope Benedict XVI to the U. S. Bishops of Region II may mark a turning point in the Catholic response to sexual abuse. I’ve been saying for years that the Church has been unfairly singled out and rapaciously prosecuted for what is an extremely widespread social and moral problem. We may be getting close to the time when we can talk about the wider problem without first emphasizing Catholic guilt.

The Pope has not done that yet, but he has initiated an important shift:

It is my hope that the Church’s conscientious efforts to confront this reality will help the broader community to recognize the causes, true extent and devastating consequences of sexual abuse, and to respond effectively to this scourge which affects every level of society. By the same token, just as the Church is rightly held to exacting standards in this regard, all other institutions, without exception, should be held to the same standards.

This is a remarkable change in direction, and I hope all Catholic commentators will follow it. I will illustrate why with just one example from the United States.

As poorly and as culpably as the Catholic bishops handled the abuse problem, priestly abuse had already dwindled dramatically by the time the media finally picked up on it in 2002, and since then the number of credible complaints has subsided almost to the vanishing point. At the same time, a 2004 study of physical sexual abuse in the American public schools concluded that nearly 10% of all students experience sexual harassment or more serious abuse in the course of their school years, and that for every minor abused by a priest, there are over 100 minors abused by public school personnel.

Many public schools have been made more sensitive to the problem of sexual abuse in recent years, but you would never know the extent of the problem from the media coverage. There is, of course, no corresponding hatred of the public schools which causes people to react gleefully to these statistics. Moreover, American public schools are protected by severe limitations on the damages that can be won from them in law suits. It is not possible for lawyers or victims to get rich suing the public schools. In contrast, the Catholic Church can be fleeced of the charitable donations of her innocent members, creating huge, multi-million dollar settlements, from which the chief beneficiaries are attorneys.

But the lack of hatred and the lack of money ought not to mitigate the need for the public schools, and all other public and private institutions, to foster both the attitudes and the accountability which will cause abusers to be punished and abuse itself to become extremely rare. We must acknowledge that this will be very difficult. The Catholic Church has the immense advantage of teaching that the sex drive is to be strictly controlled, and that the sexual act itself is to be used only within marriage, and even then in a manner which is both procreative and unitive. Most other formative institutions send a very different message. In one way or another, they invariably provide ideological support for the kind of sexual selfishness and irresponsibility which creates the very climate within which abuse thrives.

So the next time we encounter a discussion of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, I suggest we stop apologizing and start preaching. Let us join the Pope in expressing the hope that the Church’s efforts to properly define sexual morality and to confront and correct the climate of abuse will set an example for all other institutions.

Too often we forget that Christ’s warning about specks, logs and eyes has a double edge: “You hypocrite,” he said, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take out the speck that is in your brother’s eye” (Mt 7:5; Lk 6:42). What we need now, in the matter of sexual abuse, is clear-sighted honesty—a frank and open examination wholly divorced from prejudice and financial gain.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 29, 2011 7:02 PM ET USA

    The sex abuse crisis destroyed credibility. But the burden of guilt is not ours to bear. What is ours to bear is the preponderance of snide remarks and grins that will inevitably greet those of us who "start preaching" about the evils and prevalence of sexual abuse in society. Yes, in the eyes of many, the Church's credibility and consequently our own as her ambassadors has been compromised. Unfortunately, our human nature is inescapable, men tend not to treat clerical hypocrisy with fairness.

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