Crisis in the priesthood?
By Father Allan J. McDonald
(Originally printed in the Diocese of Savannah's newspaper, Southern Cross, February 2002)
When I was growing up, my father, who was born in 1910, was of the school of thought that keeping scandal quiet was beneficial for families and society. You simply did not air your dirty laundry in public. This mentality was a part of Church and society well into the 1970’s. The lay person was to be protected from hearing about scandals that befell doctors, lawyers, teachers and members of the clergy, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. While this secrecy was well intentioned, serious pathology was kept in the dark. Sometimes this exacerbated the problem and perpetuated dysfunctional situations.
Fortunately or unfortunately, we live in the information age. We live in the culture of Oprah and Jerry Springer. The most sordid of details about people’s lives are available to us over the Internet and on television. Court TV gives us an unedited view of the crimes people commit with all the uncensored salacious details. Our society has become couch-potato voyeurs interested in the most lurid details of scandal. Scandal sells!
And now the dirty little secret of child sexual abuse by members of our society and by some in the priesthood is being aired for all to see and hear. The secret and unsuccessful way the church has handled this scandal in the priesthood in the past has fueled a controversy that threatens to undermine the credibility and teaching authority of the Church. What is the person in the pew to make of all the bad news concerning some of their clergy? Did bishops act in bad faith in the manner in which they handled this crisis in their own dioceses?
In retrospect, we can recognize the fact that many bishops have handled these cases extremely poorly. However, we must recognize that many bishops in fact were given bad advice from those in psychiatry concerning the treatment of pedophiles and the possibility of reintegrating them back into church ministry. Loving the sinner, but hating the sin also compounded the problem along with the Church’s emphasis on healing and forgiveness. Concern for the priest and his ministry seemed to take precedence over protecting children and healing the victimized. What was often lost was the great damage that was done to children who were abused. They seemed to be only an after thought. The career of the troubled priest had to be safeguarded.
Another complicating aspect to this whole problem is the Church’s belief that when a man is ordained his commitment to the Church and the Church’s commitment to him are like wedding vows, until death do us part, in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. In other words, it is extremely difficult following church law for a bishop to fire a priest for bad behavior. The bishop must do all he can to rehabilitate and reintegrate the wayward priest. Treatment facilities for therapy for sick priests are scattered throughout our country. To a certain extent this has led to a form a “clericalism” that sees the role of the priest and the protection of his privileged place in the Church as the most important thing to be maintained.
Many in the media and even in the Church charge that mandatory celibacy required by Church legislation is the culprit. Some actually believe that celibacy causes pedophilia. Such a belief betrays the evidence of the total numbers of child molesters in our society. The vast majority of them are heterosexual and married. It is a pathology that afflicts a certain percentage of people in our society in general. Its causes are not fully understood. Some say it is genetic, others say it is learned while others say it is the result of the person having been abused himself as a child. There is no real consensus. From a Catholic point of view, all of us inherit original sin and thus our spiritual genetics make us susceptible to sickness of mind, body and spirit.
We can no more say that marriage is the cause of incest as to say that celibacy is the cause of pedophilia. There are a certain percentage of people in the general population of heterosexuals and homosexuals who have sexual feelings for children and teenagers. Most of us would prefer not to think about this issue. However, do not be deluded into thinking that there is no sexual abuse of children by a similar percentage of married clergy of the Protestant churches. Also, be aware that there is an inherent anti-Catholic bias in our society and media.
The dilemma for the Catholic Church is that priests are wedded to dioceses or religious orders. Protestant and Jewish clergy are normally hired and fired by their congregations. Usually no bishop intervenes to make right or wrong decisions concerning the errant minister as in the Catholic Church. Catholic dioceses keep records on offending priests with a trail of evidence that most Protestant denominations do not maintain on their clergy.
Child sexual abuse is an emotional issue and many Catholics are rightly angry at the manner in which cases in the Church have been handled. As well, many Catholics are confused by the whole issue of child sexual abuse by anyone let alone a member of the clergy. How is the Holy Spirit redeeming the horrible situation of clergy sexual abuse of children? First of all, justice for those who have been victimized is taking place. Secondly, a purification of the priesthood is taking place as painful as it is. Thirdly, the clergy and laity are being made aware of the greater problem of child sexual abuse that is present in our society. This awareness may lead all to be more vigilant in protecting our children from those who prey upon them. Pedophiles are to be found in every profession and vocation including marriage. Bringing this dirty little secret to the light while painful is healthy for all of society and especially for our children. However, we want to be careful not to overreact or to become paranoid about those who relate to our children. Common sense must prevail.
Bernard Cardinal Law, the Archbishop of Boston, has stated that the Archdiocese of Boston will have a zero-tolerance for clergy who sexually abuse children. This is a dramatic new policy and many rightfully say that it is about time. His initiative and leadership in this regard will embolden other bishops throughout the country to do the same. The Vatican is also making new and more stringent laws concerning this issue. Our own Diocese of Savannah has had long standing policies concerning child sexual abuse and the reporting of Church workers, including priests, to the proper authorities. God willing, the Catholic Church and the priesthood will come out of this dark night of the soul stronger, more vibrant and accountable to God, civil authority and those we serve especially the most innocent.
While some bishops have made bad choices in dealing with the issue of the shameful activity of a minority of priests who have tainted the reputation of all, there is reason to have hope and be proud of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is on the forefront of dealing with the issue of child sexual abuse head-on and has much to share with society in general. I do not despair for the priesthood or for the Church. The gates of hell, our human weakness and sinfulness will not destroy the Church. She cannot be destroyed. The clergy and laity will come out of this much stronger, wiser and more holy!