On Clergy Child Abuse

Let us clear the air. Let us do so with some accuracy and honesty instead of pithy headlines and hyperactive sensationalism. Let us do so without a vehemently anti-Catholic agenda . . . and without a mindless pro-Catholic agenda either. Let’s speak with facts. Let’s speak the truth.

The first truth is this: there is no excuse for the sexual abuse of children. It’s among the most despicable crimes somebody can commit. This is as true for Catholic priests as it is for non-Catholic religious leaders, public school teachers, family, friends, and acquaintances. This is the only one of these truths I present today that you will hear about in media reports; the other truths that follow seems to get conveniently and consistently swept under the rug.

Here is the second truth: Catholics believe that first truth just as strongly as everybody else. We—laity and religious alike—are heartbroken every time we hear that an adult in a position of trust has abused a child, most especially when it is one of our own trusted religious leaders committing such a horrific act. We are appalled when this happens, and we are even more appalled when we learn that some bishops chose to reassign or privately chastise those who committed these acts instead of dealing with them more harshly and reporting them to the appropriate authorities. We are also appalled to learn that, in her past, the Church did not always provide the loving, rehabilitative support she should have for victims of clergy sexual abuse. These are stains on the Church, and they must be corrected and washed clean.

The third truth is that people who want to sexually abuse children tend to be attracted to positions of authority and trust where they will have regular access to children. This includes the Catholic priesthood, but also includes the Protestant ministry, public school teachers, doctors, dentists, and more. Statistically, the rate of abuse in Catholicism is similar to the rate of abuse in many Protestant denominations, the rate of abuse in our public schools, the rate of abuse among doctors, etc.—a very small, but not-insignificant, percentage of the people in these honorable professions. This is not an excuse, and I say it merely to provide some much-needed perspective. Our fallen human society has a serious problem with the sexual abuse of children. This reprehensible behavior is not particularly endemic to any single group, county, belief, people, or profession. To turn this into an anti-Catholic witch-hunt, or an anti-celibacy campaign, for that matter, would be terribly misguided. Neither the tradition of priestly celibacy nor Catholicism itself caused this problem or made these people pedophiles, nor are these problems in any way unique to the Church.

The fourth truth is that the Catholic Church has not done as good a job of identifying and weeding out abusers as it should have and, in the past, some bishops handled cases of abuse improperly. The same can be said about other denominations, schools, etc., (though they so rarely get the same level of media attention). Once again, this is not an excuse. We can’t just say, ‘Oh, look, we’re no worse than anybody else.’ It may be true, but it’s not enough. The primary responsibility for this is at the diocesan (bishop) level, as it is the bishop of a diocese who has responsibility for the behavior of the priests who answer to him. People who blame Pope Benedict XVI for the Church’s handling of these cases apparently do not understand the structure of the Church (or willfully misrepresent it). The Vatican does not (and, in fact, could not) individually manage over 408,000 priests in over 2,700 dioceses around the world. If an abusing priest was reassigned to another parish after he was found out, the responsibility for that decision falls primarily to the bishop of that diocese. Those bishops should, indeed, be held legally and morally accountable for their decisions, most especially when the reassignment led to further abuse.

The fifth truth is that the Catholic Church has been doing much better in recent years, though she gets no credit for this in the media reporting. It is no coincidence that the vast majority of abuse cases circulating in the media today happened well over twenty years ago. Church policy today is, as it should be, much more strict toward priests found to be acting criminally—especially with regard to abuse of children. Is there more room for improvement? Of course. But it would be a terrible mistake—and a terrible slander to the overwhelming majority of our priests—to assume that clergy sex abuse is going on un-checked in your neighborhood Catholic church. Are there still abusers in the ranks? Sadly, I’m sure that there are . . . but they will be found out, and when that happens they won’t be silently reassigned to other parishes.

The sixth truth is that we cannot blindly apply today’s standards to things that happened in different times. With 20/20 hindsight, we can say without reservation that people who abuse children should be locked up and kept permanently away from children. This isn’t how things used to work. Of course things should have worked that way, but they didn’t. As recently as the early 1990’s, abuse in the home by family members was oft’ treated as a ‘private issue’ to be handled behind closed doors. Abuse in schools might have resulted in a teacher getting fired, but that teacher would then move somewhere else and repeat their crimes. Abuse in the Catholic Church, just like abuse in almost any other religious group, was similarly swept under the rug by the leadership because it was thought to be ‘something best handled internally.’ The norms have changed, thank God, and we recognize now the error in this kind of thinking . . . and I wish the Church had, as it has so many times in its history, stood against the ‘norm’ because the ‘norm’ was morally incorrect. The Church failed in this case.

The seventh and final truth is that, as terrible as this scandal is, it does not discredit the Church as an institution. The Church was established by God, but for nearly 2,000 years it has been run by fallible men. Most of those men, from parish priests all the way up to Popes, have been honorable, righteous men who have tried to lead her correctly and well. A fair number of them, also from parish priests all the way up to Popes, have been something else entirely. Just because the Church has had poor leaders at times in her history, and has had (and still has) a percentage of immoral criminals in her ranks, does not mean the Church itself is invalid or her moral teachings are wrong. It simply means the Church is an organization that, like all others, must constantly struggle against a fallen, sinful human nature. In some ways she does this very well, and in others she needs to make improvements. We must keep the whole thing in a proper perspective.

St. Michael the Archangel, defend us in battle; be our defense against the wickedness and snares of the devil. May God rebuke him, we humbly pray, and do thou, O prince of the heavenly host, by the power of God, cast into hell Satan and all the other evil spirits who prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. Amen.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.