"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The sex-abuse scandal in the Church: five years on

Over the past two days, NPR aired a five-part report on the sex-abuse scandal to mark the five-year anniversary of its explosion from the epicenter as reported by the Boston Globe. Neither as a Catholic who followed the stories as they unfolded, nor as an abuse victim myself, did I hear any new revelations or ideas. What was new for me this weekend was a thought that emerged from my reflection on the NPR treatment.

The fundamental issue raised for people by the scandal is whether the sexual deviance and lack of accountability it betrayed is endemic to how the Church is run or is a passing, if intensely painful, phenomenon attributable to failures of faith, self-discipline, and moral fiber. I believe both are partly true, but neither gets at the whole truth.

I was once tempted to embrace the former answer in toto, as some victims and other Catholics have actually done, with the result that they are ex-Catholics. The most passionate spokesman for that answer is Richard Sipe, the ex-priest, researcher, and victims' advocate whose animus against the Church seems only to grow with time. Not that I find Sipe a particularly credible character: his research methodology is pretty shaky, and he clearly has reasons other than concern for the victims for hating the Church, which he equally clearly does. But his central thesis is worth considering. The Catholic Church is hierarchically organized; the seal of confession has often been operative in cases of clerical as well as lay miscreancy, and is reinforced by professional clubbiness; and among those who commit themselves to lifelong celibacy, a certain amount of severe psychosexual immaturity is only to be expected. Indeed, it should come as no surprise that a thousand years ago, when the most serious and successful attempt to date was being made to impose celibacy on the entire Roman Catholic priesthood, a later-canonized saint was openly railing against clerical "sodomites" preying on boys! Given the realities of both fallen nature and the Church hierarchy, I think we have to expect a certain amount of such abuse to recur from time to time, as painful as that thought is. Sometimes it will wax; at other times, when the general revulsion has had its effect, it will wane.

But it hardly follows that the problem is the nature of the Church herself. Every citation I've seen from neutral sources indicates that the incidence of such abuse is similar in other churches and arguably higher in the public schools. That does not of course excuse the unconscionably high incidence in the Catholic Church; in fact, I accept the double standard that is often applied to find the Catholic priesthood wanting. Sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests is more newsworthy, and less excusable in the aggregate, than abuse committed by relatives, clergy of other religious bodies, or teachers in public schools, because Catholic priests have been ontically configured by ordination to be "other Christs" in a way in which the Catholic laity, Protestant clergy, and of course non-Christians are not. Accordingly, priests have an even greater responsibility to be Christ for others than other Christians do, and their failures to be that are all the less excusable. Be that as it may, however, the incidence of the relevant sorts of abuse in other sectors indicates that the problem cannot be explained primarily by the nature of the Catholic Church. There are times when human beings abuse the Church's hierarchical structure to foster and/or hide the problem; but of course that very structure is part of a broader constitution that helps to equip the Church's members to overcome the flesh. Corruptio optimi pessima. That is exactly why the double standard is justified. So the critics can't have it both ways: what justifies the double standard, and condemns the sin all the more, is the very same set of realities that make the Catholic Church, as constituted, the Church of Christ. Anybody who can understand Judas can understand that, and anybody who understands humanity can understand Judas.

Nevertheless, to say that the problem is a passing one would be a wretched copout. As I've implied, it's always been with us and probably always will be. But its waxing during the decades just before and after the Second Vatican Council indicated extremely serious, underlying problems among Catholic clergy at the time. Another symptom of such problems was the massive exodus from priesthood and vowed religious life in the five to ten years following the Council; still another is the persistent connection even today between theological heterodoxy and homosexuality among priests. In ways I haven't shrunk from pointing out before on this blog, that and related problems are still with us. In the long run, all Catholics must acknowledge that the hierarchy of the Church, as much as the laity, is semper reformanda. The hierarchs themselves must be the first and most zealous in acting accordingly. So far, I haven't seen enough of that at the episcopal level.
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