End silence, then take action
By MARGARET A. FARLEY
This is a difficult story to publish and to read. There will be objections to it from all sides. Cultural differences, scandal for the whole church, the unknown full magnitude of the problem, dangers of racist Africa-bashing -- these and many other concerns will be expressed.
They are legitimate concerns. But they do not override, in this case, the need to take action. Public knowledge may help to make direct and aggressive action more likely. It is, in my view, worth the risks it entails.
Why action? Because in the face of sexual abuse of any kind, the perpetrators must be stopped. Future perpetrators, moreover, must be put on stark notice that this kind of behavior will not be tolerated. The safety of potential victims must be secured; the care of present victims must be attended to; the pastoral mission of the church must not be compromised further than it has already been by the contradictions between its words and what it allows in the behavior of its clergy.
This is hardly a puritanical response to the problem. It does not deny the importance of cultural difference. It does not offer simply another judgmental word like abstinence for all people at risk of HIV infections, or chastity in contexts where the meaning of this is ambiguous, or silence in the face of terrible suffering marked by unearned shame. It is true that cultures differ vastly, perhaps especially on issues of sexuality. But no culture, and certainly no religious tradition, ought any longer either to bless or ignore sex that is coercive, exploitive, manipulative and destructive to unwilling victims. And no culture or religion should foster the degradation and subservience of some for the sake of the gratification of others. Whatever our diversity, one from another, we all know what it is to be protected or violated, respected or shamed, cared for or tragically injured.
The problems here run deep. They are not primarily problems of the meaning or appropriateness of celibacy in some cultures. They are not limited to accommodations of a universal church in the face of local and regional diversity. They include not only sexual harassment and abuse, but disrespect for women, a fatally flawed clerical culture, inadequate and empty sexual ethics and misplaced shame that literally allows individuals and whole peoples to die.
Traditional solutions will not work, whether they are cloistering women as the preferred means to control the power of men, hiding the failures of church leaders, accepting sexual coercion as a means to whatever other goal, or doing all but what is really necessary to stop the spread of plagues. We need to consider larger issues of injustices to women and their children, clerical or military strategies of sexual abuse, and a misguided ban on condom use for the prevention of AIDS. But within the context of such issues, there can be no doubt that in the cases described in this article individuals are being unjustly harmed, whole societies are being ill-served, and the church is being seriously damaged in its life and its mission. At least the silence must end. Perhaps then some no-nonsense action can be taken.
Mercy Sr. Margaret A. Farley is professor of Christian ethics at Yale University Divinity School.
National Catholic Reporter, April 6, 2001