In the old moral manuals, theologians discussed (discreetly in Latin) a continuum of sexual sins, presumably to avoid provoking impure interests. But with a culture that now demonizes chastity, we need those discomforting terms to return the fire with moral clarity. Hence, the transgressions range from impure thoughts, sexual fantasies, pornography, masturbation, mutual masturbation, fornication, adultery, homosexual acts, various forms of sodomy, oral sex, anal sex, sado-masochism, sexual relations with children, bestiality, and so on.
Gay-pride parades typically celebrate all of these sins. (The displays usually include NAMBLA activists, short for the North American Man-Boy Love Association.) Many of these sins—as the catechisms taught before the days of LGBTQ ministries—cry out to God for His vengeance. Some people (including, one safely guesses, some members of chancery clergy conduct review boards) habitually commit these sins under the seductive influence of a sex-saturated culture. At the moment, the culture only requires mutual consent for sexual acts, expecting young males with raging hormones to know (as the old ribald joke has it) the grammatical difference between: “Don’t! Stop!” and “Don’t stop.”
The gravity of these (usually mortal) sins varies, from garden-variety sins of weakness (in various gradations) to monstrous criminal acts. Regardless, with repentance, God forgives all of these sins in Confession. But the demands of justice remain, and reparations are necessary, as far as possible.
Sexual sins have been with us since the fall of Adam. But the “child abuse problem” in the Church (and in greater society) is, at root, an Eighth Commandment problem, in addition to its Sixth Commandment component. The faithful have lost confidence in Church authorities because of the patterns of lies and cover-ups that followed the loathsome crimes of the clergy.
The presumed remedies we’ve seen in recent years, unfortunately, involve another violation of the Eighth Commandment. Detraction—revealing the shortcomings and sins of others without sufficient reasons—can quickly rise to the status of a mortal sin.
Every person, including priests, has a right to a good reputation. The Church’s inviolable Seal of Confession in the internal forum protects this right. Although the Seal of Confession binds a priest absolutely, the right to a good reputation is not absolute. When lawful authorities learn of certain grave sins outside the confessional, they sometimes should act on the information for the safety and protection of others. Their due diligence may include the public revelation of the sin as a matter of justice.
But the moral failings of priests also range from sins of weakness to those that are vicious and monstrous. Bishops must decide whether the priest deserves a safe haven of confidentiality to protect him as a weak sinner, or to open the floodgates of media scrutiny for the protection of others. These decisions can be difficult because the unfolding of the entire story may take time, with the gradual emergence of relevant information. A bishop needs a Catholic mind and the virtue of prudence, prudence that a good bishop should not delegate.
The secular culture has taken advantage of the widespread loss of confidence in the bishops. So opinion leaders demand “transparency” as an absolute moral norm to cover every clerical infraction. The bishops, for the most part, have complied. Consequently, what began as episcopal mendacity and patterns of cover-up, has led to a transparency that we should more accurately describe as “systemic detraction.”
Priests now have fewer rights to their dignity than employees of secular firms. How many employees would consent to the ignominy of turning their personnel files over to the state’s attorney general for detailed review?
The result is the nearly complete breakdown of the bishop/priest father/son relationship. The bishops have effectively washed their hands of their responsibilities as fathers and brothers to their priests. Bishops remove priests for “credible” accusations (often the wise course of action) but publicize many of the details before a priest has a chance to defend himself. Further, chanceries often treat sins of weakness in the same way as vicious sins of sexual exploitation and debauchery.
It can be a terrible injustice to reveal every violation of the clergy code of conduct. Sometimes a priest needs a public chastisement, especially when his sin is vicious, and he is a threat to others. But a weak priest may not be dangerous, needing a wise bishop to correct and guide him and bring him conversion and spiritual health. These priests need help, not the shame (to him, his family, and his brother priests) that comes with the all-too-common hair-trigger public disclosures of failure.
Far more dangerous to the life of the Church are those priests and prelates who advance, for example, the clerical gay network that fueled most of the child abuse for years. They walk among us without ecclesiastical censure. But the studied ambiguity of homosexual advocacy by prominent priests and bishops does far more harm to the Church than a sin of weakness by a priest, removed from ministry in the name of “transparency.”
The hierarchy’s historical and habitual violation of the Eighth Commandment has changed, not ended. There is a time and place for transparency, especially when the details are necessary to disentangle the gay network among the clergy. The latest delay in the release of the McCarrick report suggests a lack of sincerity in tackling the mendacity crisis in the Church.
Over the years, the style of hierarchical prevarication has mutated into the detraction of reckless “transparency” that includes a callous disregard of the reputation of weak priests who fail. Just as bishops were afraid of disciplining criminally abusive priests in the past, today, they fear the perception of a cover-up. The disease is the same: a cowardly avoidance of responsibility. For the foreseeable future, we’ll likely see more weak priests sacrificed on the altar of diocesan media relations to “prove” how serious bishops are in demonstrating their integrity.
Regent Law Professor James Duane gives alarming reasons why citizens should always exercise their 5th Amendment rights when questioned by government officials. Similarly, with a growing pattern of indiscriminate public disclosures of priestly failings, why would any priest suffering from depression, alcoholism, or even pornographic addiction approach his bishop for help?
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