Clergy sexual abuse and the pope

Some 35 years ago, on a Sunday evening, my friend Rob called to tell me about his wild weekend. After his last class on Friday at the seminary college he attended, he’d driven to a beach community in a neighboring state, spent most of the evening drinking, and then got involved in — perhaps started — a bar fight that ended with broken bottles, broken chairs, and the police arriving in force and hauling away everybody involved.


“So why aren’t you in jail?” I asked.


Rob laughed. “The police captain saw my student ID and said, ‘I can’t arrest a seminarian,’ so they let me go.”


It was not the first time Rob had used his seminary ID as a proverbial “get-out-of-jail-free” card, nor would it be the last. And it worked every time, because nobody wanted to bring scandal to the Church, no matter how badly Rob might misbehave.


Rob (obviously not his real name) eventually settled down, got ordained, and has served the people of God very well for many years. But the remark of that police captain — “I can’t arrest a seminarian” — has provided part of the perspective for the way I’ve come to view the clergy sex abuse situation in the Church.


Yes, the clergy sex abuse situation. Like recurrent waves of the Black Death, the sex abuse crisis just keeps rolling on, now devastating Ireland, shaking Germany, and, as of this writing, threatening to touch the former Cardinal Ratzinger himself.


Before I get to that, however, there are a few things that I think need to be repeated over and over, because growing evidence shows they are true:


1. Child sexual abuse is a horrible crime in which the powerful prey on the weak, doing terrible psychic damage to its victims, who will struggle with the consequences for much of their lives.


2. Child sexual abuse is not limited to the Catholic Church, not by a long shot. Child molestation and incest are huge problems in our society, and allowing ourselves to think it is just a Catholic Church institutional problem would be a huge mistake. If you are a child, you are much more likely to be abused by a family member than by your parish priest.


3. There are not more abusers among priests than among men in general.


4. Other organizations have acted just as shamefully in hiding this problem.


5.  Sex abuse in the Catholic Church cannot be credibly blamed on celibacy, an exclusively male priesthood, or whatever percentage of gay priests actually exists.


None of this, of course, justifies what certain priests did to children. I know a few victims of priest sexual abuse, and I have listened with tears in my eyes and knots in my stomach as they told me their stories of what was done to them, and how they were rebuffed when they reached out to the Church for help to heal the spiritual damage.


These actions of Church leaders, of course, are what mystify many of us. It’s painful, but possible to understand how a priest could be so damaged and sick that he could hurt children in this way. But the bishops, the chancery officials, why were they so slow to learn? How could they cover up such heinous crimes and put the abuser back into a situation where he could abuse again?


Like all who love the Church, I try to understand, and part of that, for me, means wondering how differently I might have acted in their place. Would I have understood how powerful the compulsion was in the abuser? Would I, like many spouses of alcoholics, have begun by believing that repentance, a good confession, and a promise to not do it again were really going to work this time? … this time? … this time? It makes me wonder.


But what about the law? What about protecting the children? Here, my mind jumps back to that police captain’s remark: “I can’t arrest a seminarian.” The unspoken meaning: I can’t let this guy bring shame on the Church. The reputation of the Church is more important than he is, or the guy he punched. And I find myself wondering if the bishops followed the same reasoning: He [the priest abuser] has repented; he’s made a confession; he’s promised not to do it any more. We’ve got to think of the Church: the scandal, how this would hurt the Church. The Church is the most important thing; it must be protected at all costs.


It’s horrible, twisted reasoning, of course, and by putting the Church above the civil law, they helped cover up major crimes and inflicted suffering on many innocent children.


Even so, I find it hard to be self-righteous about it. Bishops and Church officials were not the only ones who wanted it this way. Like Rob’s police captain, who, by refusing to arrest a seminarian, put the Church above the law, many of us shared much the same attitude. Thirty, forty, fifty years ago, I wonder how many police officers and prosecutors would have wanted to arrest and prosecute a priest? And how many laypeople would have wanted them to?


Many of us have long exalted our clergy. The institutional Church told us priests are “special” and we took it to heart. We were told they followed Christ in stronger ways than we did, and we said “Amen.” Following the lead of many in the hierarchy, we exalted their kind of priesthood and ignored our own. It may have had benefits for some of us. In a way it served our needs: The pressure was off; they could lead the sacrificial lives; we just wanted to know the minimum we needed to do to get to heaven. And in a Protestant society suspicious and scornful of Catholics to begin with, we could take pride in our exalted, well educated, and saintly clergy.


I’m being much too broad and superficial here, of course, but in general, with multiple exceptions all over the place, the Church gave us a steady diet of clericalism, and we gobbled it up. Seeing priests as weak or sick or perpetrators of crime had ramifications way beyond the individual in question. It touched the life of the Church and the trust we placed in it; it would give aid and comfort to people who scorned the Church we love. Better to hide it, like a spouse of an alcoholic, hiding and covering and doing everything possible to avoid the satisfied clucking of those who gloried in his or her shame.


By putting priests and the Church high on a pedestal, we all cooperated in a system that nurtured cover-ups and excuses. So I wonder: Do we have the right to feel smug and self-righteous when the system that encouraged bishops to make all those horrendous mistakes was one that we not only failed to protest, but eagerly participated in? While we demand to see what the bishops have learned, and how they are making sure this will never happen again, maybe we should also be asking what we have learned in all this. How are we addressing the root causes of the cover-ups and our complicity in the system that facilitated them?


In the past few days, the abuse scandal has been sniffing at Pope Benedict’s heels. Many who are unhappy with the stances he’s taken or with the institutional Church in general have seen this as an opportunity for gloating and for saying all sorts of nasty things about the pope and the Church. On the opposite side, many within the Church have leaped to the pope’s defense, speaking of conspiracies and questioning the motives of anyone who seeks to know how the pope handled the crisis both as an archbishop and as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.


No one who loves the Church can take any satisfaction in any part of this apparently never-ending priest sexual abuse crisis, but it seems to me that we would do well to keep several things in mind.


First, news media search for stories. They can, in some instances, be biased against their target, but the Church today is fair game, and as we have learned painfully over and over, in society and in the Church, it is always better in the end to be forthcoming than to try to cover up.


Second, during the most recent World Youth Day I saw a TV interview with a teen who said the pope “was the most important thing in our religion.” Surely Pope Benedict would be even more appalled by that remark than I was. But it does seem — to use a crass marketing term — that the pope these days has become the “brand” of our faith in our cultural imagination — the central icon, the always visible presence, as if he is the Church. This over-identification of the faith with the pope strikes me as a bit untraditional, but may explain why the pope’s defenders seem to feel there is so much at stake, and why the image of a perfect, mistake-free pope is so important. But since when has a pope needed to be perfect? And even in times when our popes have been saintly and wise, we might still borrow a thought from Saint Paul: Has Christ been divided? Was the pope crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of the pope? (See 1 Corinthians 1:12-13.) It seems to me that our faith must be in the Lord Jesus, and should not rise or fall with any pope.


Third, is it possible that Pope Benedict, as a bishop and cardinal, made mistakes in dealing with priest sex abusers, or was focused on other things, or gave too little credence to victims? I don’t know. But even if the search for the truth reveals that he acted like so many other bishops, would it be so terrible to learn that Pope Benedict — who, according to credible testimony, has done more to address the scandal than any other church official — has had a change of heart on this crucial issue? Would it be so horrible to find out that he has grown in his understanding of the problem and its causes? That he has come to see it differently? And perhaps regrets that he didn’t know then what he knows now?


Finally, as loyal Catholics muster to the barricades, shouldn’t we be careful about putting anyone above criticism, challenging the motives of everyone who seeks information, and rushing to defend the Church at all costs, no matter what? Again, it just makes me wonder: Isn’t that the kind of thinking that got us into this trouble in the first place?


This is a very complex subject. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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