The Abuse Crisis

Tuesday, May 13, 2003



The issue of sexual abuse by clergy hits home personally for me on so many levels. People who are close to me have known sexual abuse by an adult while they were minors. My heart goes out to the victims of abuse.

At the same time, I am a Catholic, a former seminarian, and a member of a parish where a beloved pastor has been accused of sexual misconduct that occurred more than 20 years ago, and where both parties deny that whatever happened involved sexual intercourse.

I have never been abused by a priest, so I can only imagine what a horrendous experience this would be. The closest expereince I have is with a priest who confided he was gay to me while I was a senior in high school. I told him in a one-on-one session that among my hobbies was that I was captain of the wrestling team. He grabbed my arm and said, "Oooo. I'd like to wrestle with you." I asked him forcefully to let go of my arm, and that was the end of the conflict.

I remember just over a year ago, I read the articles regarding Cardinal Law, and I was enraged. I think this was the reaction of many Catholics when we heard of the cases of John Geoghen and Paul Shanley, and the Boston Archdioceses attempts to cover up their abuse.

While I was in the seminary in the 1990's, we were required to attend workshops by experts who explained what is known of pedophilia and what the appropriate actions are. I fault Cardinal Law for not heeding the advice of the experts who have advised, among other things, that a priest known to abuse minors needs to be permanently removed from a position where he has contact with children. This appears to have been known since at least the 1980's. It just boggles my mind that he ignored this advice in Boston.

It also boggles my mind that so many Bishops seem to have operated as though the Church is somehow above the law when it comes to mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse in many states.

When will the Bishops "get it"?

Compassion and forgiveness of priests never justifies risking harm to innocent children. If a Bishop hears any allegations made against a priest, the charge should be treated with the utmost seriousness. If the charges are substantiated, immediate action should be taken to prevent all future abuse. Furthermore, the Church also owes it to the victims to provide the highest standards of pastoral care to bring healing. The conduct of Cardinal Law just baffles me.

In Holy Week of 2002, the allegations of sexual misconduct hit even closer to home than Boston.

My pastor, who married my wife and I, was accused of sexual misconduct that had occurred more than 20 years ago. He had been a wonderful pastor who preached a gospel of inclusion and reached out to people of different races, sexual orientations, and even other religions.

I think anyone who has heard our Monsignor preach can attest to the feeling of welcome he expressed to any human person who set foot in the doors of our parish. His concern for the poor and for social justice was an example to us all - and he had never been afraid to challenge us on the level of personal morality, but always in a way that was both honest and compassionate. Regardless of what actually happened with the women bringing forth allegations, I cannot ignore the tremendous good that Christ has done in and through this man.

My former pastor characterized the nature of his relationship with the woman bringing forth the allegation as a "father-daughter" type of relationship, and admits to kissing her. I have experienced the affection of this priest myself, as a male, in the way he describes. Yes, he sometimes greeted me with a hug, and I never felt it inappropriate. Knowing nothing at all of the accuser, I am inclined to want to believe him.

Yet, I also know that victims of abuse are often unjustly characterized as emotionally unbalanced liars - which is a worse injustice than the abuse itself. There is another side of me inclined to give any accuser of sexual misconduct the benefit of the doubt.

Married clergy is not the answer to pedophilia. I favor married clergy for theological reasons, but it would be ineffective as a preventative measure against pedophilia. My attraction to adult females was present before, during, and after the six years I spent in priestly formation trying to live celibately.

Likewise, I knew many men who were homosexual before, during, and after priestly formation. These are often good men committed to a Christian life. There is absolutely no evidence that homosexual men are any more prone to child abuse than heterosexual men. The answer does not lie in barring gays from ministry.

The structured life of religious life can be an attractive option for those who struggle with uncomfortable sexual desire, and even if clergy were permitted to marry, religious life would still attract a certain number of pedophiles for that reason.

This issue is bigger than the Catholic Church, though it is most shocking when it occurs in the Church. As Theodore Cardinal McCerrick, the leader of the archdiocese of Washington, DC had said, even one abusive priest is too many.

The Church has made big mistakes regarding the issue of sexual misconduct. Secrecy, doubting or accusing victims, reassigning priests who are known abusers to pastoral ministry, or withholding pastoral care for financial reasons: these are all unjust actions which the Bishops must address nationwide and globally.

Yet, there is one aspect of this whole issue that the Church had right, even before the scandal became public. We need to find a way to bring healing to perpetrators as well as victims. Maybe the Church has information in their files that can help the world to understand this disorder, and throwing every known perpetrator in jail will not solve the bigger problem any more than short term counseling has worked in the past. Christ loves even the pedophile!

It's been over a year since the scandals in the Archdiocese of Boston erupted. Cardinal Law has resigned, and other Bishops have resigned in disgrace. For progressive Catholics, perhaps the biggest blow was the revelation of misconduct by Rembrant Weakland.

Yet, while donations are down, there has been no mass exodus from the Catholic Church. Most of us remain supportive of our priests, and we realize that the majority of priests are not predators, but good men doing the best they can to make Christ's presence known in our lives.

Furthermore, even the idea that we can treat persons known as perpetrators of sexual misconduct with compassion has started to trickle down to the laity. Some parishes have asked for the return of pastors who are known to have committed illegal acts years ago! I see this as a positive development, so long as we are taking proper steps to ensure that victims receive the care they need, and to ensure that abuse is not repeated.

What about the Bishops? Do they "get it" yet?

I get the impression that some of them don't.

Groups of laity have formed such as Voice of the Faithful (VOTF), and a lay board has been placed in charge of monitoring adherence to the USCCB resolutions of last June. Yet, these groups have met resistance from some Bishops, who seem to want to continue business as usual. The secrecy needs to end.

While I respect the difference between "internal" and "external" forum in priestly and religious life (internal forum is the seal of confession, or the confidentiality of spiritual direction), Bishops must not hide external forum matters where children can be harmed. Protecting the faithful from scandal cannot be accomplished by hiding scandalous facts. I am not arguing that the laity have a prurient "right to know". I am arguing that some of the laity need to know in order for the problem to be solved.

Though none of these lay groups claim a theological agenda, the Bishops have questioned the orthodoxy of VOTF and barred them from meeting in certain dioceses. The lay board appointed by the USCCB has met resistant to handing over important internal files that will help them do their job. The general feeling among many people involved is the Bishops are hoping the issue will just fade away - that the short attention span of the American public will turn to other issues and forget what ever happened in Boston. There seems to be an attitude that someday, the Bishops can return to business as usual.

We cannot let this happen.

I am not necessarily a proponent of the "one strike and your out" point of view. Such policies can have a tendency to be used in witch-hunts, and priests have a right to due process before allegations are permitted to destroy their lives. Though disappointingly rare, there have been cases of false allegations, and justice is not served by rash judgment. One need only be reminded of the false allegations against the late Cardinal Bernadine.

Furthermore, even if allegations are true, most of the faithful would be more accepting of forgiving a discovery, 20 years after the fact, that a 25 year old newly ordained priest kissed a 17 year old girl during a vocation crisis, then we would tolerate a fresh case of a 50 year old priest molesting a 10 year old boy. Both incidences are sinful, perhaps even illegal, but a "one strike and your out" policy does not do justice to two very different circumstances.

Yet, I am not a proponent of the "do nothing and it will go away" approach either. I believe that the Bishops need to turn to laity for help, and groups like VOTF are on the right track to assert that the laity has a canonical right to offer assistance. It is right to press the Bishops to be forthcoming with files documenting abuse, and demanding structural change - including lay assistance - to deal with the problem in the future.

The Bishops are experts on theology and church administration. They are not necessarily experts on dealing with sexual abuse. Many lay people are experts in this field. Lay psychologist, counselors, law enforcement officials, lawyers, lay ministers, victims and parents can all make a contribution to assisting the Church in solving this crisis in a manner that increases leadership accountability, decreases incidences of repeat offenses, and ensures proper care for both perpetrator and victim of sexual abuse.

The step the Bishops need to take, that many Bishops seem to be still resisting, is to allow the laity to form such organizational support. Groups such as VOTF should not only be accepted, but also encouraged! Bishops should WANT the help of such groups, and seek to consult them. Full and accurate information should be provided to the lay groups already empowered by the Bishop's conference with the task of helping solve this problem. We need accurate and timely information to even begin to assess the long-term solutions, and Bishops who are currently stonewalling need to be reprimanded by their brother Bishops as well as by the laity, itself!

We are years away from a good long-term solution. What the Bishops need to face is that the problem is not simply going to fade away by ignoring it. Nor will solutions come solely from the episcopacy itself. They need the help of the laity, and until this reality is fully accepted, embraced, and even championed, we will continue to have a sexual abuse crisis every decade.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at


posted by Jcecil3 9:26 AM

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