Now it’s the readers’ turn…

Our Special Report on clergy sexual abuse in the July/August issue is generating a lot of mail. Here’s what readers are saying.

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By Dan Connors


“Do we really want to do this?” That question kept rolling in my mind as the Catholic Digest editorial team prepared the Special Report on the sex abuse scandal for the July-August issue.

 

And I had lots of reasons to be nervous. It’s a complicated story that often gets painted in the starkest good vs. evil terms. How do we do justice to all its nuances and be fair and just to all the people involved?  How do we stand clearly on the side of victims without looking like we just want to flog the Church? And we all reach a point on some horrible stories where we just don’t want to — in fact, can’t — hear it anymore. Have Catholics reached that point with the sex abuse scandal? Do they wish it would all just go away?

 

Despite my nervousness, we moved on. At the time, the sex abuse reports were spreading strongly into Europe: Ireland, Germany, Italy, Belgium. Suddenly a story that many Europeans had dismissed as an “American” problem was knocking on their own doors, even threatening to involve Pope Benedict for actions he took, or didn’t take, both before and after his election.

 

Since the American Church has been dealing with this longer than anybody, we thought it would be both valuable to our readers, and a service to the Church worldwide, to show how the Church in the U.S. is coping with the crisis, and working to keep it from happening again, and in several places throughout the report, we invited readers to join in the discussion.

 

I’m happy to say that readers are accepting that invitation. Every day I am getting letters from readers, some thanking us, some angry at things we said, some raising good questions, and some offering their own theories about why these priest abusers committed crimes against children in the first place. Here are some of the things they’ve said, and a few of my responses.

 

Why did I start off with a victim’s story?

Hilda wrote to say she was very angry with me for starting off the issue with my Editor Notebook on my friend Patty, a victim of both sexual abuse by a priest and later of the Church cover up. Hilda thought I should have started off with a positive story about good priests such as the letter we published on page 10.

 

Hilda, there are two groups in the sexual abuse scandal reports that often seem to be forgotten. One is the victims, and the other is the huge, huge majority of priests who never have and never will abuse children. Both deserve our full support. But one of the major causes of the whole crisis was that some Church leaders pushed victims aside in order to protect the institution. That has to stop. As much as non-abusing priests need our support and trust, victims must come first. I can’t imagine any good priest I know disagreeing. So I put Patty’s story up front because I felt the story of a victim needed to be there.

 

Who’s this “we”?

A few readers expressed anger with me for saying that “we…are all part of the system that led to the cover-ups.” Peggy, in Minnesota, said “I’m sorry, but at no time have I felt responsible or (part of the system) for sexual abuse by priests.” Janet went even further and said she was “appalled” by my wording and told me, “I hope and pray you will not spend your future insulting lifetime cradle Catholics again. May the God in heaven forgive your rash statement with the word ‘we’ in this matter.”

 

Sorry Janet and Peggy, I didn’t mean to upset you, nor was I trying to blame you for the sex abuse crisis. When I said “we” are part of the system and share some of the responsibility for the sexual abuse crisis, I did not mean to imply in any way that “we” are guilty in the same way or degree as the priests who committed these crimes or the bishops who moved and protected them. Not at all! And I hoped that my comment in my Editor Notebook would be taken in context with the other things I said in that issue.

 

What I meant was that most of us, as loyal sons and daughters of the Church, lived happily in a Church system where priests were generally put on pedestals, and criticism of the Church was seen as an attack on the faith itself. We were content to leave all this in the hands of Church officials, because we believed “they know best; they know how to handle it.” And it also seems that when someone among us discovered evidence that a priest was abusing children, the crime was generally reported not to the police, but to the diocese — as if the diocese and not the police was the proper authority to report a crime to. And while I can’t prove it with any long-range historical study, anecdotal evidence and experiences in my own life convince me that back in the ’40s, ’50s ’60s, and even the ’70s, when many of these crimes occurred, law enforcement often would be squeamish about investigating a priest. So both people and law enforcement usually trusted the bishops, almost always acting in secret, to do the right thing.

 

But, in my opinion, that was the perfect setup for bishops to choose to do the wrong thing — to protect the Church and its reputation by hiding the truth and moving these abusers around. No one would have wanted to see the Church tarnished and stained by these horrible crimes.

 

That's how I see the “we” being involved here. We are not responsible for the horrendous, even criminal decisions some bishops and chancery officials made, and in no way am I trying to say we are. I do believe, however, that “we” generally were happy with a system that operated in secrecy with virtually no accountability of our leaders — we just trusted them and let it go at that. We don’t give any other leader in our life that kind of total trust. That’s because we expected the Church to be better and to always do the right thing, without any supervision, any accountability. That’s the system we willingly participated in, that’s the system I’m talking about in my editor letter, and that’s the system that, in this case, let us all down, severely wounded our Church, and did so much damage to the lives of many children.

 

Furthermore, if bishops and chancery officials have shown that they often did not do the right thing, and we continue to leave it entirely up to them because they’re in charge—and we do nothing to speak up for justice and the protection of children—don’t we, at some point, at least run the risk of becoming complicit in what was done to these child victims?  

 

  

Don’t excuse this behavior!

John sent me an angry letter about my April e-newsletter piece about clergy sexual abuse and the pope, in which I said that the Catholic Church is not the only institution dealing with this crisis, nor is there any evidence that priests abuse at a higher rate than men in the general American population

 

“You state that other institutions have behaved just as badly in covering up sexual abuse,” John said.  “How many times have we all heard from the pulpit in Catholic Churches that the rationalization ‘everyone is doing it’ is absolutely no excuse for our own sinful behavior?  It is disturbing that any spokesperson for Catholic institutions, whether a cardinal in the Vatican or yourself, could make such a statement … Such over-simplifications merely lull your readership into a false sense that all is well.  In my view this just stifles the impulse for needed reform. If very profound reform does not result from this scandal, we will have weakened the Church that we say we love.”

 

John, I am dismayed that you read my words as somehow excusing the behavior of priest abusers. Not at all! I think Catholic priest predators should be in jail, as should any Church official who moved them — giving them the opportunity to abuse again — and obstructed lawful investigations into the whole mess. I wasn’t trying to say, in your words, that “everybody is doing it so the Church gets a pass”; in fact, I was trying to say almost the opposite: a lot of people — teachers, boy scout leaders, psychologists, doctors, parents, other family members and friends — are also guilty of such abuse, so don’t get lulled into thinking it is only a church problem. Child sexual abuse appears to be fairly common in our society, but it is easy for some people to get the idea from press reports and comics’ jokes that it is only a Catholic clergy problem. Facing it in the Church — which we must do with a lot more honesty and effectiveness than many of our leaders have done up to now — does not mean we don’t have to face it in other areas.

 

And, John, if you read our Special Report in July-August issue, I hope you’ll see that we absolutely agree with your statement that “If very profound reform does not result from this scandal, we will have weakened the Church that we say we love.”

 

Who commits abuse?

John wasn’t the only one who questioned me on who commits abuse in our society. Randy sent a very thoughtful letter questioning, in part, how we know that there aren’t more priest abusers than in other walks of life and especially among Protestant clergy.

 

I wrote back to Randy to say that I don’t have an authoritative answer to his question, but that both the Boy Scouts and Protestant churches have generated news reports about problems (but the oft-forwarded piece by Sam Miller claiming “10% of Protestant ministers have been found guilty of pedophilia” is wrong [the person Miller was citing had been misquoted; the number is probably around 1%, comparable to the figure for Catholic clergy]; and I wish well-meaning readers would stop sending it to me). The challenge of tracking the problem among Protestant churches is that they tend to be organized much more on the local level without a central authority to transfer abusers from one congregation to another, and localization also means any lawsuits are filed against much smaller targets, thus attracting only local media attention, if any at all. (I’m not slamming either lawsuits or media attention here — without them we’d have had no idea how bad our problem was). So reliable numbers are hard to come by.

 

Furthermore, both law enforcement sources and other studies seem to show a strong consensus that fathers and stepfathers, brothers, sisters, mothers, baby-sitters, and uncles, are among the most common abusers. This doesn’t excuse priest sexual predators, but it does mean that we do a grave injustice to our children when we act like priests represent the only, or even a majority of the problem.

 

Married? Women?

Randy also asked about how things might be different if priests were allowed to marry, and if women were allowed to be priests. 

 

“If ministers in other denominations who are not expected to be celibate commit these offenses at a lower rate,” he said, wouldn’t we want to re-examine the celibacy requirement?  Any serious inquiry into the causes of the crisis should examine these questions.”

 

I agree, Randy. A serious inquiry should consider this. When priests are found abusing children, the first thought seems to be that it has something to do with celibacy. But I don’t find the evidence that it is a primary cause all that compelling. I can’t get beyond the scientific consensus that the majority of child sexual abusers are married.

 

Randy went on to ask how things might be different if women were also priests. “Imagine,” he suggested, “that 200 years ago women were allowed to be ordained in the Church, and that for the last 100 years, half the clergy and several popes were women.  Under these conditions, can we imagine that many cases of abuse would have been covered up by bishops and abusive priests shuffled around to offend again?  I’m not suggesting that the ordination of women is essential to ensuring such a situation never happens again, but it certainly seems to me that the scandal would never have reached the current degree of severity if women were equally represented at all levels of the Church hierarchy.  Comparative data may shed light on this as well, if the Church is serious about investigating the causes of the crisis.”

 

It’s an interesting thought, Randy, and I don’t know the answer. Statistically, if all priests were women we’d probably have fewer abusers in the system, simply because while women do commit child sexual abuse, the numbers appear to be lower than among men. But would women in the priesthood be more likely to report abusing colleagues? Would women in the episcopacy be more willing to deal with law enforcement and less likely to cover up? Again, I don’t know, but I am not convinced that women in positions of power act all that differently from men in power — at least they haven’t in my experience. Of course, we haven’t had a lot of experience with women in positions of power — either in business, government, or religious institutions, such as Protestant churches that ordain women. As we get that experience we’ll get a better sense of how they might act differently from men.

 

Speaking of women, Matt wrote to say that our feel-good, nurturing, discuss-your-feelings culture is to blame for the sex abuse problem, because our culture “has feminized the masculine persona” while exalting strong women who “have morphed into aggressive decision makers…climbing the ladder while their submissive wimpy men complacently obey orders.…This denigration of normal men into sissified and prissy female camp followers is universal,” Matt said, and “has led to the sexual perversions we see occurring in our culture.” [update to original:] It’s an interesting thought, Matt, but let’s not forget that men have been committing sexual abuse against minors since time immemorial, long before you allege that our culture has “feminized the masculine persona.” Sexual abuse of minors by clergy is reflected even in the early records of the Church, as Teresa Kettelkamp points out in our Q&A with her at catholicdigest.com/abuse-crisis. "In the canons of the Latin Church for a Synod at Elvira in Spain in year 309, for instance, presbyters and bishops who commit sexual sins (#18) and those who abuse boys are mentioned.”

 

Although Matt’s perspective was unique among the letter writers and he applied it equally to both heterosexual and homosexual males, many readers did raise questions about homosexuality as a cause of abuse and whether political correctness is keeping us from saying so.

 

Is it a “gay” problem?

 “Why is [sex researcher Alfred Kinsey] being given a free pass?” Lawrence asked. “Why has no one taken on his book about homosexuals? His group is still active … doing damage to young men.”

 

Several other writers focused on the question we asked Teresa Kettelkamp: “If 81% of the victims were male, why do we not see a connection to gay priests?”

 

Randy, quoted above, spoke well for several writers when he said: “One of the articles in the magazine says that 81 percent of the victims were male.  I find it very difficult to believe that this is not due, at least in part, to some over-representation of homosexuals among the priesthood.  At the very least, the reasons I have seen offered so far for asserting that this is not possible seem very weak.  I know that studies of the causes of the scandal are still ongoing, and I hope serious and open-minded inquiry is underway. I do NOT intend to suggest homosexuals are more likely to abuse kids than heterosexuals. It seems possible, however, that the Church’s teachings on the sinfulness of homosexuality, combined with the celibacy requirement, may have contributed in some fashion to the prevalence of abuse of boys.  That too must be openly and seriously investigated.”

 

I am glad that Randy acknowledged that there is no real evidence that homosexuals are more likely to abuse children than heterosexuals, and again, I agree with him that this too must be part of an open and serious investigation. I hope the Causes and Context study that Teresa Kettelkamp mentions in our Special Report will indeed shed significant light on why the abuse seems to be primarily same-sex.

 

I also like to add that studies I’ve seen show how very complicated this question is, with pedophiles being sexually attracted to prepubescent children, and hebephiles being sexually attracted to children who have reached puberty, and ephebophiles, being sexual attracted to adolescents (and not all pedophiles or hebephiles or ephebophiles actually abuse children). But these are clinical terms that don’t apply to many child molesters. And research shows that many persons who have molested children really don’t have a discernible adult sexual orientation at all and can’t be labeled homosexual or heterosexual. In lay terms, they’re sick and twisted — and many were abused themselves as children (but being abused does not automatically make one sick or twisted or an abuser, as many survivors of child sexual abuse can testify).

 

Complicated. Like I said way back at the beginning, it’s a hugely complicated problem that takes us from the clear canons of civil and Church law to the mysterious depths of the human psyche. As in most complicated things simplistic answers are available, but not very helpful. As the Catholic Digest editors said at the end of the Special Report “it’s a long difficult path that all of us who love the Church must walk. But as with all true paths of discipleship, we must live in hope that it leads to healing, and to life.”

 

And please keep the letters coming!

 

Dan

 

Editorial Director Dan Connors

Dan is currently Editorial Director at Bayard, Inc. He served as Editor-in-Chief of Catholic Digest from 2005 to 2011. He was previously editor-in-chief of Today's Parish. Prior to that, he was managing editor of Pastoral Music magazine (the National Association of Pastoral Musicians, NPM), and managing editor of Emmanuel magazine. He has worked with parish leaders for 26 years and has been an active parish volunteer. His wife, Deborah, is pastoral associate at St. Mary Star of the Sea Parish in New London, Connecticut.