"To be angry is easy, but to be angry at the right men, at the right time, for the right reason is difficult." So Odysseus teaches his son, Telemachus, as they reclaim Odysseus’s home from the male parasites that have abused his wife and dishonored his memory during his long absence. Our home and family has been abused and those responsible for keeping the wolves away from the sheep, for some reason, failed for a period of over a decade. Why? I await an anwer even as my stomach churns with disdain for those who couldn't see the child-abuser in their midst. But this is merely my outrage talking. On to better things.
Many non Catholics fail to bring it up out of respect for the many good works of the Catholic Church. Gilbert Meilander, the Lutheran philosopher, for instance, first mentioned to me the problems that his own tradition has in shifting divorced pastors from parish to parish. Evangelical leader, Chuck Colson gracefully acknowledged his lack of jurisdiction. “Failure to respond to this information has many Catholics, like my friend, Bill Bennett, calling for Cardinal Law’s resignation. As I’ve previously stated, as a Baptist, I leave that to my Roman Catholic friends to decide.”
They also know that men and women in their own tradition are vulnerable to the charge of sexual misconduct. The memory of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert hasn’t faded. And there are plenty of local examples. In Detroit, for instance, we had a Christian and Missionary Alliance pastor convicted of a few bank robberies that he carried out to fuel his pornography habit. The Candyman internet child porn sting included 8 clergymen only two of which were Catholic priests. What were the ecclesiastical affiliations of the others?
Our evangelical friends know the reality of human sin and the redemption that is available in Christ. Their leaders, generally, don’t take any delight in lampooning the leadership of the Catholic Church. They know that Jesus had his Judas and that you don’t judge a community by those who don’t live out the faith but by those who do.
SO LET ME CLEAR:
- This is not a problem of non-Catholic misunderstanding.
- Nor is it first of all a problem of media misperception.
- Nor is it a problem of lay leadership.
“We have to be aware of the horror of the betrayal of trust by some priests and bishops. That awareness of the crime and sin has to be burned into the minds of the leadership of the Church…I have been extremely personally disappointed in the great failure of the leadership of the Church…I am saddened and stressed by the immense harm this evil has done to young people and their families. There’s no excuse for the craziness that went on in Boston in the last five years.”
I have no interest in muting the moral outrage, but there are some important qualifying issues that will impact our discussion with non-Catholics.
The best study we have is of 2,200 Chicago priests. Approximately 1.8% had been involved with sexual misconduct with minors. Pedophiles, i.e., those who engaged in sex with pre-pubescent children, were a tiny fraction of 1%. This deviant percentage of priests has brought discredit on the vast number of faithful clergy who have made sacrificial commitments to follow Christ and serve others.
2. Between about 1950 and 1977, mainstream professional opinion did not regard child sexual molestation as especially damaging over the long haul. Concern over child sexual abuse becomes a preoccupation of feminist concern over “father-rape” and grows as an issue from the mid 1970s. Jenkins reports that between 1976 and 1986, the number of reports of child abuse and neglect in the United States rose from 669,000 to more than 2,000,000. Our views on the criminality and treatability of these problems have changed over the years. This needs to be considered when indicting Church leadership for what often seems a too forgiving approach to the problem of erring clergy.
3. This is rarely about pedophilia, i.e., sex with pre-pubescent children. It is mostly about homosexual desire towards young men. The vast majority of recorded instances of clergy sexual misconduct involve an interest in teenagers of either gender, often boys of fifteen or sixteen. Just carefully read the reports, do the math on the ages and ask, “Why isn’t the press reporting this as a homosexual issue?” This is especially galling because homosexual novels, documentaries, first person testimonies are rife with rites of initiation and passage in which an older man seduces a younger man helping him to realize his true sexual self and homosexual inclination.
4. Just as God used the Assyrians and the Babylonians to judge Israel so too the media has been used to force the Catholic faithful to deal with this problem. We might want to commend the Boston Globe for their intrepid reporting but we must also remember that the secular press is no more a friend of God’s covenant people than were the Assyrians and the Babylonians.
The Catholic Church because of its institutional unity, its role as the largest non-governmental organization in America and the “mystique” of clerical celibacy is most commonly referenced in press accounts of clergy sexual misconducts and that lends a prominence to Catholic clergy dalliances that other Christian traditions escape. For instance, CBS News.com reported on March 19, 2002. “The FBI says it expects to arrest at least 50 more people by week’s end as it busts up an Internet child-pornography ring that allegedly included two Catholic priests, six other member of the clergy, a school bus driver and at least one police officer.” I am not interested in bringing discredit upon Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans or Episcopalians but why was it that among the eight clergy only Catholic priests were referenced? It was because the media is treating this as an institutional rather than an individual problem.
5. Among some non-Catholics I’ve talked to I’ve noticed a suspicion that celibacy is unnatural. It is not natural or unnatural. It is supernatural. It is a distinct gift given by God to certain individuals so they may more ardently serve the Kingdom of God. Both Jesus and St. Paul considered it a benefit not a liability (1 Cor 7:7-8, 28, 32-35). It is true that some priests of the last generation entered the seminary thinking that the discipline of celibacy would be changed. Others had a distorted understanding of their vow. I know of one priest who said: “I took a vow not to marry. I didn’t vow not to have sex.” It is difficult to understand how such a man could be ordained. But the issue of celibacy is ultimately a red herring. Who wants to abolish the vow of marital fidelity because some husbands and wives commit adultery? Does anybody really think that by allowing priests to marry women that we will keep them from seducing 14-year-old boys? Check out your own fantasies and temptations during times of chastity and I think you’ll see “this dog don’t hunt.”
There are simply some places where Caesar is not Lord even if we believe in a highly centralized state. A priest may ask the penitent to confess to the civil authorities as a condition of receiving absolution. But I leave that to the pastoral discretion of the clergy. Information about criminal activity gained outside the confessional is a different story and the laws governing these kind of clergy conversations vary from state to state. The antidote to this objection is probably best found in watching Alfred Hitchcock’s, I Confess starring Montgomery Clift as the embattled priest in a murder trial.
7. The Catholic Church thinks in terms of centuries and it has centuries of experience behind it. We’ve been through this before. Perhaps the most scandalous pope in history, Alexander VI had nine children from six different concubines. Thankfully, he was so busy sinning that he never got around to doing much teaching. When Francis of Assisi was asked what he would do if he knew that a priest celebrating mass had concubines, he said: “When it came time for holy Communion, I would go to receive the sacred body of my Lord from the priest’s anointed hands.” The sacraments are not the work of man but God and so whether St. Augustine or a priest on death row for rape and murder consecrates the bread and wine, it is Christ himself who acts to give us his own body and blood. If the gates of hell won’t prevail against the Church a few perverse priests and negligent bishops certainly won’t (Mt 16:17-19).
"Christ and the good news of salvation in the squares of cities, towns, and villages. This is no time to be ashamed of the Gospel. It is the time to preach it from the rooftops. Do not be afraid to break out of comfortable and routine modes of living in order to take up the challenge of making Christ known in the modern metropolis. It is you who must go out into the byroads (Mt 22:0) and invite everyone you meet to the banquet which God has prepared for his people. The Gospel must not be kept hidden because of fear or indifference" JPII, World Youth Day homily, Denver , CO August 15th 1993.Whatever these forthcoming revelations contain, our calling to fidelity, fidelity, fidelity to our Lord and Redeemer Jesus Christ. "Though the earth be removed and the mountains fall away, yet I will trust you, for you are Savior a very present help in time of trouble."