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Clerical sexual abuse: exploring deeper issues


Dealing with clergy sexual abuse was not exactly how either of us planned to spend Holy Week. But here it was in front us -- nightly news broadcasts, feature articles in newspapers across the country, and calls from reporters looking for one more lead on how to understand how this could have happened. “Does celibacy cause pedophilia?” No. But mandatory celibacy is undeniably linked to the crisis. “Are Catholic priests more likely than men in general to molest children?” Good question. As anxious as some people are to defend the church, this issue has not been seriously examined using available statistical data. “If homosexuality does not cause child molesting and pedophilia,” asked one reporter, “how does the Catholic church explain the fact that most victims of priests are boys?” Another good question. Complex. But, nonetheless, one that has not been studied.

In fact, one of the most troubling aspects of this scandal -- in addition to the tragedy of leaving so many victims in its wake -- is the reality that the U.S. and Canadian bishops did not commission an in-depth study of clergy sexual abuse as early as 1985 when they were first made aware of the burgeoning problem. Nearly 20 years later, many church leaders are still fumbling for answers without having fully explored the tough questions themselves, much less having enlisted the help of the scientific community to study the situation and release their findings to the public.

So, for almost two decades, a distraught church community continues to be in the dark about the scope and significance of the crisis. Attorneys for victims of clergy abuse try to subpoena secret files, while reporters hunt for answers to questions that should have been clarified by solid research dozens of studies ago. But so far, we are left with only speculative answers often conditioned as much by the agenda of the various responders as by any actual data. How do we explain the sexual abuse of minors by priests?

Common theories

The following are common theories used to account for clerical sexual abuse:

The ancient history theory: Most of these are old cases. They happened 20 or 30 years ago. Implied in this response is the assumption that fewer more recently ordained men have abused minors or are likely to do so.

The rotten fruit theory: Every organization has a few “bad apples” in the bushel. The vast majority of priests (usually cited close to 98 percent) are dedicated individuals who would never abuse a child.

The ontological sameness theory: Priests are only human. They can be expected to have the same weaknesses and dysfunctions that characterize other males in our culture.

The Vatican theory: This is primarily a problem of materialistic, self-indulgent industrialized cultures such as the United States, Canada and Europe.

The “gays did it” theory: Since most victims of clergy sexual abuse are boys, homosexual priests must be responsible.

The lax morals theory: Priests who sexually abuse minors represent a logical outcome of a permissive attitude toward sexual morals fostered by liberal theologians.

The media conspiracy theory: The press is out to get Catholics. When Protestant ministers, teachers, scout leaders, and athletic coaches molest minors, it doesn’t attract the same national attention. (It might, if 2,000 of them were reported for doing it.)

The celibacy theory: Some priests are driven to molest minors because of the frustrations caused by imposing a lifetime of sexual abstinence on them.

While a few of these responses contain some elements of truth, they all have serious limitations when used in isolation to explain (or explain away) the crisis. The first three minimize the gravity of the problem -- and the anguish of victims -- by subtly suggesting that our reaction to clergy sexual abuse ought to be tempered by the fact that it’s either old news, involves only a tiny percentage of otherwise good priests or is just another sad commentary on the human condition. The remaining theories minimize the culpability of the institution by blaming outside forces -- everything from personal selfishness and weakened discipline to liberal theology and anti-Catholic sentiment. Bankrupt of any serious understanding of the clinical factors that actually contribute to sexual abuse, these attempts to explain the current crisis fail to account for the fact that neither a comfortable lifestyle, sexual permissiveness in the surrounding culture, nor absence of an adult sexual partner will cause an otherwise healthy adult, heterosexual or homosexual, to seek sexual gratification from a child.

But the most serious flaw in these popular theories is that they deflect attention away from the deeper issues that underlie the current crisis. Every time a well-meaning prelate emphasizes the goodness of “98 percent of the wonderful and dedicated priests in this diocese,” he skirts the fact that even among these men (if they are in fact 98 percent) there are some who would not be considered emotionally, socially psychologically and spiritually healthy enough to be accepted into the seminary today if there were enough otherwise qualified candidates. And even while sincere diocesan leaders speak enthusiastically of the “new policies now in place” and the “highly gifted lay professionals who are helping us respond to this problem,” they ignore the wider issues facing the institutional church today.

The best sexual abuse policies in the world will not alleviate the growing shortage of ordained personnel. The most sophisticated psychological screening instruments for seminarians will not help a small diocese staff 92 parishes with 57 priests who reflect various stages of wellness, aging and willingness to add yet one more pastoral assignment to their roster of responsibilities. And in spite of the fact that dioceses such as Santa Fe, N.M., confidently proclaim that they are now “debt free” after paying millions to victims of clergy abuse, they must be haunted by the knowledge (unless they are in denial) that many of the victims who got the checks will never be debt free in their souls -- never able to fully erase the images, forget the horror or recover a childhood taken from them by someone who, in their eyes, represented God.

The deeper issues

First, we need to acknowledge that while church leaders scramble to explain the problem of sexual abuse by Catholic priests, give interviews, write pastoral letters and form committees to assure themselves that it will never happen again, literally thousands of people -- from young children to adults and their families -- have had their lives torn apart by clergy abuse. It was abuse that didn’t need to happen -- not this way, not this long, not this many victims. And until recently, survivors of clerical sexual abuse have too often been ignored or at best patronized. Frequently they have been attacked or scorned as enemies of the church for coming forward. Many now find themselves marginalized by facile explanations that minimize their pain and attempt to focus attention on peripheral issues. They know full well that many of the weak apologies they now hear have been inspired as much by the bottom line as by the demands of the gospel. Otherwise, the expressions of remorse would have preceded the lawsuits. At the very least, these victims deserve to know that the deeper issues that contributed to their pain will finally be addressed.

We cannot stop at setting up committees and reviewing policies. We must do more than promote more comprehensive screening and better sexual formation for seminarians. We must change the system that enables the abuse and protects the perpetrators.

What needs changing?

The church’s way of governing, to begin with. It is a system of control and secrecy -- a closed network that has placed more importance on maintaining its authority and guarding its image than protecting the needs of its most vulnerable members. A patronage system traceable to feudal times and even earlier, it has a deeply ingrained need to “look good,” to present a united front, with the result that obedience can have greater value than compassion.

It’s no secret that this papacy has selected leaders (bishops and cardinals) at least in part for their willingness to be good followers -- to agree, conform or keep quiet. Loyalty and a clean dossier can be rewarded with advancement up the hierarchical ladder, while public disagreement with the Vatican can result in retaliation -- being isolated, ignored or frozen in place for the remainder of one’s tenure. As one bishop told us recently, “There’s a lot in this system that I disagree with right now, but I don’t want to end up like Archbishop [Raymond] Hunthausen -- humiliated and immobilized for standing up for those justice issues that threaten the structures of ecclesial power.”

In the present form of governance, the true diversity of people who comprise the body of Christ is not honored. At the highest levels of leadership, where decisions are made that impact their lives, their voice is absent -- long ago replaced by the narrow perspective of older, celibate males meeting behind closed doors. Some might argue that the more responsible bishops and cardinals consult the people they govern. But consultation, as important as it is, remains a poor substitute for full inclusivity.

The governing life of the church needs visible representation from its entire body, from women and men, parents, people of all lifestyles, colors and ages. We are not suggesting a “free-for-all” government devoid of sensible structure, but we are stating that the time has come for greater inclusivity and openness. We can no longer claim that the present structure of the church is exempt from the dynamic process of growth and change that characterizes any healthy system. Nor can we insist that “divine institution” provides an escape clause for participating in the paschal mystery where transformative change -- dying and rising -- is a central part of our faith.

Many parents have told us that the practice of moving known child molesters from one parish to another, not warning the people and ignoring the cries of the abused would not have happened on so large a scale or for so many years if mothers and fathers were involved in the process of governance, including clergy assignments.

“Opening up the system will certainly not solve all the problems,” one parent told us, “but it will make greater accountability more possible. It will make it more difficult to abandon the church’s mission in the name of protecting its image.”

Another member of a large Midwestern parish identified other high costs of maintaining the present system of governance. He lamented the fact that his pastor, a compassionate and holy man in his 70s, would probably never enjoy a healthy retirement. “In this diocese, priests can’t retire until they’re 70 because of the shortage. If they’re still healthy, they’re encouraged to keep working as long as they can. I have a cousin who was pastor for two parishes, driving back and forth between them, until he died at 72.”

There is a quiet groundswell of support for systemic change among contemporary Catholics. They are no longer willing to tolerate the present system, especially when the well-being of their children is at stake. Approximately 75 percent of Catholics already favor a more open style of leadership where celibacy is optional and women can be sacramental leaders. While many have tolerated the current structure even though they weren’t in full agreement with it, the present crisis may well have pushed their tolerance to its limits. Although we sometimes hear that “the church is not a democracy” (usually implying that it’s not subject to politics, which is untrue), common sense reminds us that any system of leadership that lacks resonance with three-fourths of its constituency is an institution in grave crisis. Leaders who no longer have followers are reduced to figureheads.

A more inclusive church

Central to a more inclusive, open system, is, of course, the need to welcome sacramental ministers from all lifestyles and both genders. It cannot be denied that the Vatican effort to maintain maleness and mandatory celibacy among its clergy has profoundly affected both the number and quality of Catholic priests. In practice, if not by intention, this papacy and its leaders have in effect chosen to keep sexually abusive priests as sacramental ministers rather than open up the priesthood to married men or women.

No organization that does not harbor a death wish would continually reassign those who have sexually molested minors to positions of leadership if any other qualified person who had not molested children was available. Fr. Thomas Suriano, a gifted and dedicated priest from the Milwaukee archdiocese, stated in a recent Sunday homily that the Vatican’s insistence on maintaining mandatory celibacy for its clergy has a direct link to clerical abuse: It has “shrunk the pool” from which priests are drawn, Suriano said. By eliminating all females and all married men, the Catholic population from which we draw our priests is drastically reduced. (Ordained Protestant men who convert to Catholicism and are already married are an exception.)

Mandatory clerical celibacy is linked to a longstanding history of ambivalence toward sexuality. Perhaps a “jewel” of the church for some, but more a burden and a barricade for others, mandatory celibacy sends a loud message to those married, sexually expressive people who feel called to priesthood but not to celibacy. The message still reads: Celibacy is a higher way of life even though, in theory, the church no longer officially teaches this. A male-only clergy is closely tied to the same ambivalence, if not hostility, toward women. Both of these issues -- ambivalence toward sexuality and toward women -- beg to be addressed. We will not be able to renew the church without reclaiming the goodness of sexuality and the equality of gender, and embodying both not only in our documents but in our pastoral practice.

More than a decade ago, Fr. Richard McBrien asked an important question: If ministry is as important as we say it is, should we not be giving our best people to it? It was a question we have both remembered over the years. Some of our “best people” may well feel called to live a celibate lifestyle in ministry. Others may not. But if some of “our best people” who claim to hear a call to ministerial priesthood are denied access to have this call tested simply because they are female, or because they choose to live a life of expressive love, a great injustice has been done to the people, and to the God who authored the call in the first place.

The volcano metaphor

The recent movie, “Volcano,” offers an eerie metaphor for what is happening today in the Catholic church. Unaware that their city has been built on top of a previously unidentified volcano, the people go about their daily lives until a sudden earthquake rattles their serenity. Eager to clean up the mess, restore calm to the people and get back to business, city officials minimize the significance of the unusual quake. They quickly assume that isolated steam pockets are responsible for the accompanying underground explosions. There is nothing to worry about. “This is not an emergency.”

The people trust the leaders. They go back to work. They ride the subway. Their children play in the park again. In the meantime, the pressure continues to build deep underground. It causes the temperature of the lake to go up dramatically in the park where children play. Steam vents crack through the subterranean tunnels as unsuspecting people read their newspapers on speeding trains. Storm drains reveal small rodents burnt to a crisp by the mounting heat and gas, while officials scramble to contain the problem and avoid alarm. Only after a major explosion does the head of the Office of Emergency Management scream to his assistant: “Find me a scientist, a geologist -- someone who can tell me what the hell is going on!”

We have suffered a major explosion in the Catholic church. As we survey the damage, some among us might be tempted to return, as quickly as possible, to business as usual. But the volcano we didn’t realize was there has become active. It will continue to erupt until its underground energies have been released, and the terrain above has been reshaped. In the meantime, we all have a right to know “what the hell is going on.”

What still lies hidden? Where are the cracks in the structure? At what point does the desire to avoid alarm endanger us and our children? It is often said that movies, whether poorly made or of Oscar quality, mirror what is going on in the society. This film can serve as mindless entertainment, or as a quiet summons to see in the earth’s upheavals the irrepressible forces of renewal.

Fran Ferder of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration and Fr. John Heagle are the codirectors of Therapy and Renewal Associates, a counseling and consultation center in Seattle. They also serve as adjunct faculty for the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. Their forthcoming book, Tender Fires: The Spiritual Promise of Sexuality, is scheduled for release in July by Crossroad Publications.

National Catholic Reporter, May 10, 2002