Crisis in the Priesthood? Part II
By Father Allan J. McDonald
(Originally appeared in the Diocese of Savannah's newspaper "Southern Cross" in April of 2002)
Prior to the late 1970’s, most public institutions including the Catholic Church tried to keep serious scandal quiet for the good of the institution, the accused and the victims. You simply did not air your dirty laundry in public. Even the media helped to protect the lay person and institutions themselves from pubic reports of scandals that befell doctors, lawyers, teachers, scoutmasters, and member of the clergy, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. While this secrecy was well intentioned, serious pathology was kept in the dark. This often exacerbated the problem and perpetuated dysfunctional and sometimes criminal situations.
With the advent of talk shows on Television in the late 1970’s and the subsequent development of the information age, including the Internet, a dramatic cultural shift has taken place in our society. Things that people would have only mentioned in secret in days gone by, they are now willing to broadcast to the world. This is not entirely a negative thing. It has emboldened people who had been victimized to come forward with their stories. It has brought light to dark, secret areas. If properly expressed, openness can lead to healing, understanding and reconciliation.
The reports from the media concerning the sexual abuse of minors by priests should not be viewed entirely as an “anti-Catholic” conspiracy by the media. While there is certainly a “slant” in much of the reporting, overall it has done a service to the Church. Those who were victimized are experiencing some long awaited justice. The priesthood is being purged. Bishops are taking a more common sense approach in developing stricter diocesan policies. Seminaries will be more effective in screening candidates for the priesthood and more aware of the necessity for healthy sexual maturity if one is to embrace the celibate commitment.
To understand what is happening in the reporting of clergy sexual abuse of minors, we need to be very clear on terminology.
An adult male (women are very rarely afflicted with this disease) who has sexual attractions for pre-pubescent children is usually diagnosed as a Pedophile. This is a serious mental illness that has no cure short of castration. True pedophiles can have hundreds of victims before they are stopped.
Most true pedophiles are heterosexual in their adult sexual relationships. The sexual abuse of children has little to do with the gender of the child. It has more to do with the smallness, smoothness and vulnerability of the child. It has to do with power and control over a child for self-gratification.
True pedophilia in the priesthood is extremely rare. Celibacy is not its cause. There have been notorious criminal cases involving priests pedophiles but these are the exception rather than the rule.
The greater problem in the priesthood is sexual abuse of teenagers, those between the ages of 13 to 17. This is not true pedophilia, but rather a condition known as “Ephebophilia.” This is more a case of arrested development. The perpetrator prefers to socialize with teenagers and in fact is emotionally a teenager himself or herself (women can be perpetrators also). This can sometimes lead to inappropriate sexual contact. Oftentimes the perpetrator deludes himself into thinking this contact is consensual. He is emotionally and morally immature. Psychological treatment can help this person to grow out of his or her immaturity or arrested development.
Those who are attracted to teenagers are so out of a heterosexual or homosexual orientation. All of us know of instances of adult heterosexual men who take advantage of teenage girls. There is less of a stigma concerning this type of abuse as when a homosexual man takes advantage of a teenage boy. But make no mistake, in either case, the adult bears the responsibility for the action even if the teenager is experienced beyond their age in sexual matters.
Unfortunately, the majority of cases concerning priests are of a homosexual nature involving teenage boys. In most cases, bishops have sent offending priests to in-patient facilities for therapy. Many have responded well to treatment and were returned to active ministry without ever having another incident. With new “zero-tolerance” policies in most dioceses, we are seeing that even these rehabilitated priests are being removed from active ministry. The laity can now rest assured that no known sex offender will be returned to active ministry. However, it must be emphasized that out of the nearly 47,000 priests in this country, the vast majority of priests do not participate in this type of deviant behavior.
One thing must be made clear. Not all homosexuals are attracted to teenage boys, just as not all heterosexual men are attracted to teenage girls. Those who are attracted and act upon their attraction usually exhibit traits of arrested development and immaturity in the area of human relationships and sexuality whether they are homosexual or heterosexual.
The challenge for all of us, clergy and laity is to better understand human sexuality and the church’s moral teachings in this area. We must be educated and we must at an age appropriate time educate our children.
How do you talk with your children about the sexual abuse of minors by people in positions of authority whether that person be a relative, teacher, scout master, coach, clergy or stranger? Parents themselves must be educated and wise about the interest that any adult pays to their child. Children need to be wise as well and know the difference between good touch and bad touch. They need to feel free and comfortable to talk to a responsible adult when inappropriate advances are made toward them. This type of education must begin in the home. Parents should never be naïve or silent with their children about this subject.