Sex Abuse and the Catholic Church


Recently the news has been filled with the findings of a Pennsylvania grand jury’s report on systemic sexual abuse within the Pittsburgh Diocese of the Catholic Church. It follows similar reports, suits, settlements and jury verdicts across the nation involving sexual abuse by Catholic priests and cover-ups by the senior clergy of the Church. In a word it is unacceptable. In several words it is immoral, duplicitous, criminal and outrageous.

For over fifty years we have known that sexual predators gravitate towards places and positions where children are gathered and where they can assume positions of authority – authority second only to a child’s parents. Thus you routinely see stories of child abuse involving coaches (Jerry Sandusky at Penn State), trainers (Larry Nassar at Michigan State and Karolyi Ranch), team doctors (Dr. Richard Strauss at Ohio State), scout leaders, camp councilors, teachers, foster parents, ministers –including Catholic priests – and even family members.

These predators have a recurring program of “grooming” their victims through gaining their trust, exploring their vulnerabilities and breaking down their defenses. They have a remarkable ability to spot the vulnerable child and, like other predators, cull them from the pack where they are isolated and most vulnerable and susceptible. Child molesters are usually recidivists – that means for those arrested and convicted for child sex abuse that it is likely that it was not their first occurrence nor will it be their last. A study by The Center for Sex Offender Management concluded that the recidivism rate, based on subsequent arrests, is slightly over fifty percent. However, this same study indicates that because many sex crimes are not reported, the real number could be as high as 2.4 times those recorded. (Yes, I realize that that can result in a number in excess of 100% and mean that every child molesters is a recidivist. But because so many crimes involving sex go unreported most of these statistics are instructional rather than absolute.) Other studies have pegged the number at over eighty percent. These are among the worst criminals in the world, not just because of the nature of the crime, but also the guilt they impose upon their victims.

So, you might conclude that there is nothing unique about the sex abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church. You would be wrong.

I am a practicing Catholic. I use that term advisedly to separate myself from the ‘convenient Catholics” that litter the liberal/progressive arm of the Democrat Party (e.g. Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Ed Markey, all of the Kennedys and a host of others). What makes this continuing sex abuse scandal heinous is the long and seemingly endless cover-up by the senior clergy of the Church – pastors, monsignors, bishops, archbishops, cardinals and the pope.

The report from the Pittsburgh grand jury covers these abuses and the lack of accountability back into the 1940’s – over seventy years ago. That is outrageous. For the longest time the Church’s governing laity treated instances of sexual abuses as an ecclesiastical anomaly where if the errant priest would just pray harder all would be made right. (Seemingly the Church has treated most problems as an ecclesiastical anomaly right down to the brutal nuns forcing a child to his/her knees to pray until they could find the right answer to an equation, a proper spelling of a word or the diagramming of a sentence.) They ignored the fact that a person exists as a spiritual AND a temporal being – while prayer may address the spiritual being, it seldom effects the temporal being. (If you have malaria, praying that your soul will be healed will comfort your soul, but you will still need quinine to heal the temporal body.)

Add to that the fact that the clergy existed in a closed society where friendships, shared experiences and an institutional isolation from the general public created a situation not unlike the street gangs of today. A situation where the gang substitutes as the family, and right and wrong are judged not by societal standards but by the experiences and tolerances of others in “the gang.” And just like a family or a gang, they covered for each other.

Reports of abuse were buried and the errant priests were simply moved from one parish to the next – and then the next – and then the next – when the recidivist repeated his abuse. As time progressed, the cover up spread to virtually all levels of the clergy and the stain of that abuse of our children spread likewise. There are victims of the abuse who later became priests and second generation abusers themselves. And as the abuse became more known, more widespread, the very tolerance of it by the Church’s hierarchy attracted other deviants to the priesthood as a “safe” place to practice their villainy. (Pardon me, this makes me so angry and so sick that I have to pause and so should us all.)

You cannot distinguish between those who committed the sexual abuse and those who covered it up. Culpability is equal. It is hard to know if the internal silence of the hierarchy is due to long standing friendships, to guilt for having committed similar acts, to fear for the assets of the Church, or out of concern that aggressive action would deplete the number of clergy to serve the congregation. None of these are reasons for the cover up; they are simply excuses – self-serving excuses.

There have been apologies at various levels of the Church, at various dioceses and at various parishes. That’s not enough. There have been settlements with the victims of the sexual abuse. That’s not enough. There have been programs announced to deal with accused priests. That’s not enough. And there have been “reforms” announced but the lackluster implementation is not enough. (Days after the announcement of the Pittsburgh grand jury findings a priest in the Allentown diocese – near the Pittsburgh diocese – was arrested and charged with indecent assault on a minor girl.)

Like most practicing Catholics the accusations of sexual assault by priests has done nothing to effect my beliefs in the tenets of the Church nor in the Church as institution. But it has strained my beliefs in the clergy. Jesus charged St. Peter and the other apostles to spread his teaching as later set down in the gospels. He did not charge them with accumulating wealth, nor temporal power, nor most certainly the subjugation of children for their carnal purposes. And that reality should form the cornerstone of reform. A reform that begins with the Pope and continues uniformly throughout the clergy of the Church.

There are several steps that need to be taken to introduce real reforms and restore the faith of the faithful:

  1. These reforms must emanate from the pope and be uniformly managed all the way down to the individual priests. The reforms must be verifiable by the committee referenced below.
  2. A committee (“Committee”) of lay Catholics should be appointed by the Pope to manage implementation of reforms. The membership of the Committee should be limited to those who are not currently in the employ of the Church nor dependent directly or indirectly on the Church for their livelihood.
  3. The Church must open its books to identify each and every priest, monsignor, bishop, archbishop and cardinal accused of sexual assault on any male or female from and after 1940. (The reason for that date is that any accused assault that predates 1940 would necessarily involve a priest that is now at least ninety-eight and probably deceased.) The information released should include the name of the priest, the date(s) of the assault(s), the disposition of the complaint, and subsequent complaints involving the same priest and the names of those who were responsible for supervising that priest. The information should also include any instances where the Church recompensed any victims.
  4. If there was no disposition of a complaint, the complaint should be referred to the Committee for investigation and recommended action.
  5. Allowing for due process, upon recommendation by the Committee the priest, monsignor, bishop, archbishop and/or cardinal should be immediately removed from the clergy and forfeit future authority, compensation and benefits. (Given the likelihood of recidivism vs. the danger to our children, attempts at rehabilitation should be left to the civil courts after employment is terminated.) The findings of the Committee should be forwarded to the appropriate law enforcement agency for further consideration for criminal prosecution. If the accusations are found insubstantial, the findings and rationale should be made public and the unjustly accused should receive an apology.
  6. Psychological profiles should be done on each and every priest, monsignor, bishop, archbishop and cardinal to determine whether a member of the clergy is likely to engage in sexual assault of a minor and remedial action taken as a result of the profile. The remedial action can be anything from counseling to dismissal.
  7. A similar psychological profile should be taken for any person seeking to enter the clergy and remedial action, including rejection, taken.
  8. An international fund should be created from the assets of the Church to ensure compensation to current and future victims.

It is virtually impossible to ensure that sexual assaults will not occur in the future. However, immediate and substantial remedial action sends a message to current and future predators that the Church will not provide a sanctuary from which they endanger our children – more over, that the Church will provide a constant and active oversight solely for the purposes of exposing and disposing of such predators. Like the “broken windows” policy implemented in New York City by former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, this active and transparent oversight can mitigate but not absolutely guarantee the safety of our children – but it can end the spectacle of the Church as a negligent enabler of such abuse. The Church should become a hostile environment for those who abuse our children.

But there is another side of this story – the innocents who have been painted with guilt. Last Sunday we attended mass at which the pastor spoke about the sexual abuse with a broad condemnation of both the perpetrators and those who covered up their actions. It struck me as to how difficult it would be to stand on the altar in front of three hundred pair of skeptical eyes – knowing that many were asking themselves quietly whether this priest was one of them. And knowing that no matter what you may say about your own innocence, it is likely that many have judged you simply because you wear a collar. The sexual abuse by a minority of priests and the subsequent cover up by other priests has unfairly claimed additional victims – those who did not participate in these heinous crimes. Our thoughts should also be with them.

Regardless of the future actions of the Church’s hierarchy I will remain a practicing Catholic. I may, however, become more outspoken publicly and less participative financially. And so may tens of thousand other practicing Catholics.