My Take On The Catholic Sex Abuse Scandals
Well, here it is. As the guy who has kind of settled into the occasional role of “Catholic Guy Who Explains Catholic Stuff”, there was no way I was going to be able to hide from this sordid mess that has consumed my Church over the last month or so.
How do I feel? I feel lots of things and have whipsawed between them as the news stories keep coming. So where do I start? Let’s open with anger and move on from there.
Yes, I am angry.
A few weeks ago I was cleaning out a storage area in my basement and came across the certificate I earned when I went through a youth protection program a number of years ago.
This program was mandatory so that I would be allowed to continue as a volunteer with my childrens’ Scout troops, sports teams and other activities at the Catholic parish grade school where my children attended.
I was a little irritated at the time, to tell you the truth. To be told that I, the father of three children, needed to go through some kind of youth protection program because a few wayward priests had been abusing children in places far away from me, well, it struck me as a bit of overkill. But I understood that it was necessary – after all we never know what lurks in the dark spaces of the hearts of some adults.
So I attended the class, paid the annual fees, read the monthly online articles (and took the quizzes that went along with them) secure in the knowledge that the Bishops had rooted an evil out of my Church. With the mess cleaned up we were now back on track so that we could focus on the important things, so the hassle was worth it.
But now we have all found out that the problem was not taken care of fifteen years ago. For those who have been living underground and are not familiar with the name Theodore McCarrick, he was a high-ranking Cardinal Archbishop of the Catholic Church. As the Archbishop of Washington D.C., he was immensely influential in church affairs. He, in fact, chaired the commission on youth protection in the early 2000s and may have been the most prominent spokesman telling us all that everything had been handled.
Except that everything had not been handled. McCarrick, it turns out, had been actively grooming, seducing and forcing himself on young seminarians and priests under his authority for decades. You can read elsewhere what kinds of things “Uncle Ted” did to those young men. It is sickening. Worse, he may not have even been caught if an incident involving a minor had not bubbled to the surface.
Doubly worse, it has not just been about McCarrick. Although it did involve him in three different New York and New Jersey diocese’ over the decades, priestly abuse of young men has also been happening in many other places as diverse as Honduras and Lincoln, Nebraska.
These allegations were all the more of a gut-punch to me as the father of a young man in formation with the Dominican religious order and on the way to ordination as a Catholic priest.
As a Catholic and even more as a father, I am – – well, you pick the word. Outraged? Angered? Pissed? Furious? Livid? Put them all together and boil out most of the liquid and you might get about 50% of the way to how upset I am about all of this.
We Catholics have a tendency to be respectful of and obedient to our priests and bishops. I know I have been – which is why I was so ready to believe them when they told me fifteen years ago that all of this was behind us.
This story continues to develop and every time I have started to write something some new bombshell hits. After McCarrick came the Pennsylvania grand jury report which disclosed decades of abuse by clergy and coverups by bishops.
After that came the explosive eleven page statement by Cardinal Vigano, the former Nuncio (ambassador) to the US from Rome. In it he makes claims that numerous high-ranking churchmen in the U.S. and in Rome (up to and including Pope Francis himself) had known for years about McCarrick’s predatory history but did little or nothing about it (and in some cases cleared the way for his advancement).
Beyond expressing my anger, I feel the need to let readers know what to be watching for as this crisis continues. And it is a crisis. The word “crisis” may be overused today, but this one qualifies. It would not surprise me that we are watching the most serious problems within the Catholic Church since the Reformation of Martin Luther’s era.
First, there will be many, many more reports of sexual abuse coming our way. Most of them will be old (pre-2000) but a few of them will be new. This was the case with the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and it is reasonable to expect that both the scope and the age of the reports will be similar to other places as they are investigated.
There will also be much said about what certain Bishops did or did not know and did or did not do in response. We are going to hear that some Bishops did a reasonable job of dealing with predatory clergy – and that others did not, whether through incompetence or, in a few cases, actively protecting them from the consequences of their evil actions. These things will be difficult to hear and will test the faith of many Catholics.
Also, listen to how individual Bishops and specific news sources deal with the allegations that come along. We Catholics have been enduring the same “conservative v. progressive” civil war that has been playing out in American society at large. Whatever the new allegations, watch: do people ask if they are true? Or will they question the honesty or the motives of the ones making the allegations? Sexual abuse by those in positions of power upon those who are not is not a partisan issue. It is an evil and must be pulled out by the roots no matter where those roots lead.
And it is becoming apparent that this process is going to have to involve some deep, deep housecleaning, both here in the U.S. and in Rome. We are about to experience an ugly process of cleansing and purification. At least we had better.
As an attorney, I deal a lot with the burden of proof. This is the bit of legal procedure which looks at one party and says “you go first – convince me.” Fifteen years ago I was content with the idea that those alleging abusive clergy had the burden of proof. “Father So And So is doing something wrong? What evidence do you have of this?”
But I think we have reached a point where the burden of proof has shifted. My Bishop and all the rest of the Bishops are no longer in a place where they can sit there quietly and wait for others to prove that something bad has happened. We are in a different era now. Now it is the hierarchy that carries that burden to prove to the rest of us that (to use a sports metaphor) they are running a clean program.
Prove to me that members of the clergy are not making or tolerating sexual overtures to seminarians or other young men. Prove to me that someone making such an allegation has a safe place to go where an independent fact finder will investigate and take action if such a thing has happened and where the “whistle-blower’s” confidentiality will be protected where appropriate.
Prove to me that if action has to be taken that it will be real action that will expose and root out the problem. Prove to me that Bishops, priests and other clergy who are not living their vows of celibacy are being dealt with in appropriate ways. At this place in time we are the ones who gets to sit with arms crossed, waiting to be convinced that we are getting the straight story and not some line of ecclesial, clerical bullshit.
Some Bishops will understand this and will take active steps to investigate activities in their own diocese. Some have already begun. Others will not and will dissemble or try to get lost among the other Bishops who are all looking around at each other wondering what to do. Many of them will be clueless “company men” who do not understand the import of the moment we have reached. Some will be shown as men who have either abetted abusers or been abusers themselves. A few will show themselves as genuine, fearless reformers. By their fruits we shall know them.
I want to finish with two final points. First, all of this boils down to a very few of the ordained who have been habitually sexually active in spite of their vows of celibacy, which were freely made. For more than a generation there has been a tendency inside the Church to acknowledge what the Church teaches on sexuality while finding ways to ignore or undermine it. When a Bishop acts this way there tends to be a corrosive effect on how likely priests and parishioners are to follow suit. I believe that there is going to have to be a reckoning here. Nobody has a right to be a priest or a Bishop in the Catholic church. If you do not believe what the Church has taught for two millennia, you don’t have to. But be honest with yourself (and the rest of us) and find something else to do.
Second, most priests (and even most bishops) are men of faith who do their best to live a life worthy of Our Lord. They know that they have given up much but they are willing to stick to the vows they made at their ordinations. It is fair to expect (if not demand) transparency from the hierarchy. It is also fair to understand that every Catholic priest is a human and subject to failures in the ways that we all fail. But it is not fair to assume that every Catholic priest is a molester of youth or a closeted exploiter of attractive young men. The good priests need our prayers and support because their lives are going to be very, very difficult for awhile.
This is all going to get a lot worse before it gets better. And the sooner the Bishops take out the trash (a metaphor I do not use lightly) the sooner the Church can get back to what it is supposed to be doing.
Artwork: Antonio Vassilacchi’s 1592 painting entitled “The Apotheosis of the Benedictine Order”. Original located in the Basilica of St. Peter in Perugia, Italy. An essay that points out the overlay of the face of evil among the clergy in the painting is found here.
The 11 page report you refer to is eye-opening; I read it last night. Just before reading it I watched an extended interview of the bishop in Chicago saying some extraordinarily tacky things (and his body language was highly intriguing and, to me, damning). Then it was found his name is a rash in the 11 page report.
As a semi-recent convert to Catholicism, this has been a struggle and created some doubt. However, I’ve had to remember this is a person caused problem, not a church caused. People did the horrible deeds and others covered for them.
Long ago my wife told me of some prediction about how the church would be tried like never before and how it would shrink to being very small before a process of rebuilding. It sounds like these events could easily into that prediction.
It’s truly scary to watch this unfold. And, with a now former bishop in this diocese who created a controversy of his own soon before retirement, I’m worried about what might be revealed here. The state attorney general is already taking a look at a few of the diocese in the state.
Your point that this is a problem caused by people is a good one. A pie that is no good because rotten apples were used does not mean that there is anything wrong with grandma’s apple pie recipe.
A former archbishop here has also been mentioned as being promoted via McCarrick’s influence, but he was not here for a terribly long time.
Abuse of minors gets all the press. When we start hearing about these issues involving those over 18 we will know we are getting somewhere.
I weep for Christianity. I know it will survive; its very nature is to be a remnant. But how many souls will feel pushed away by this, and will never come to know Christ, as a result?
It is hard not to see the wreckage left behind by the “all sex all the time” ethos that has taken hold of our society. Dr. Larry Nasser and his systematic abuse of young female gymnasts is the most recent example in the secular world. Public schools, sports teams and religious congregations of all kinds are being rocked by peoples’ inability to practice the kinds of chastity that the Catholic Church professes to believe and teach. In my former Lutheran church a married pastor was caught in a long-running affair with a female staffer, and this was over 20 years ago. But for the Church which supposedly stands apart in trying to maintain and enforce old-school chastity to be infested with this kind of behavior is a combination of heartbreaking and infuriating.
And you are entirely correct – many souls will be irretrievably lost because of it.
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It’s hard for me to see this as related to an “all sex all the time” ethos. I d9nt think this is about culture, or values. These are crimes. Are they more prevalent now, or are the victims just braver about coming forward and telling about their experiences? I don’t know, but whether in schools, or in the church, or (as in the news today) on airplanes, it’s tragic and any change that comes about, whether enforcement or behavior, will be overdue. BTW, I’m literally typing this while watching Mark Shields, a practicing Catholic, talking about this on PBS. He too is very angry and saddened.
You raise some good questions. That this has been going on for a long time is proved by the Pennsylvania report and the John Jay report of the early 2000s. Many instances coming to light now happened in the 1940s and 50s. But their frequently seems to have increased since those days. I can only imagine the heroic levels of bravery that someone would have to summon to come forward in a public way. I hope the #metoo encourages others to tell their stories.
Although I am neither Catholic nor Christian I am deeply affected by your post.
This problem and it’s repercussions are applicable not just to the clergy but to everyone in the slightest position of authority over young people.
Thank you. The scandal in the gymnastics world is another example. That one is just one more proof that self-policing fails so often. It was only after one brave now-adult victim got the attention of some investigative reporters from The Indianapolis Star newspaper that a light was put to the program and the cleanup began.
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I’ve taken the safe church courses too, and been slightly annoyed as well until stuff like this comes up.
Your post reminds me of bicycle locks. Most of them are crap, but they discourage the amateur thief. They will not defend against the serious thief. Safe church programs are the bicycle lock defense against these predators. It will work against the amateurish or stupid, but not the serious professional. Which is terribly sad.
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Your bicycle lock analogy is pretty good. That we have to worry about the “serious professional thief” in an environment that should be for worship is truly saddening. And, as you have noticed, angering too.
Good article. I was waiting to hear your thoughts on this. These last few weeks have definitely been tough for the Church. Over the past few weeks, I have ready through about two-dozen or so articles from a variety of view points (everyone from still-devout Catholics to people to who are leaving the Church over this to long-term strident atheists) covering the topic. The only thing everyone seems to agree on is a lack of trust in the current institutional hierarchy and the need to give the lay people in the Church more authority and generally restructure things so as to avoid the conditions that produced these scandals. One of the more balanced and thoughtful articles I’ve read on the subject can be found here: https://www.nationalreview.com/2018/08/catholic-church-governance-clerics/, which notes that some of the structures and policies that ultimately allowed for abuse scandals are still present.
Other pieces have been more extreme. Priestly celibacy has been repeatedly called into question in terms of whether or not it might contribute to the problem, with some arguing that the Church should shift over to a model more like the Eastern Catholics or the Protestant denominations. Obviously scandals like these have happened in other organizations with folks who didn’t make vows of celibacy, but there is some debate about whether or not calls of celibacy ultimately risk a larger number of such scandals and create an enormous temptation for leaders to cover them up when they do. I don’t think we have enough evidence to say for sure, yet, but it’s a question worth asking. There have also been calls to completely abandon the Church hierarchy in favor of a more decentralized and or democratic model, as there is currently no impeachment process or option for lay Catholics to vote everyone involved out of office when things like these happen (while I don’t necessarily agree, one contributor’s contention that change in the Church happens from the bottom up rather than from the top down has some truth to it).
I don’t think anybody (myself included) has figured out the best way to proceed yet. What I do know is that, amongst my generation, which is already relatively content with apostasy and secularism, these sex abuse scandals have for many years been a serious block to even considering Catholicism when they do think about joining a religion (I once had a very heated Facebook conversation in 2013 with someone in which they announced that the Boston abuse cases were their primary reason for not taking Catholicism seriously as a moral institution, and while I didn’t agree, I couldn’t exactly say she was completely baseless in that claim); and this most recent wave will make this a lot harder. If things don’t change then I worry the Catholic Church may, within my life time, become like, to use an analogy you once used, a Detroit neighborhood in which only one or two houses are left standing.
Anyways, my only firm stance on the situation here is that any policies or institutions that even kind of lead to this present state of things have to go. Some already were changed back in the early oughts with the Boston scandal, but it’s clear that much more has to be done, and, though being a Catholic necessitates a respect for Church tradition, I am nevertheless prepared to slay some sacred cows or long-standing status quos if it is necessary for having a Church that is more trustworthy.
Thanks for the thoughtful response. To your first point, I have noticed the beginnings of a troubling trend: the view that the Bishops must be called to account – unless anyone asks if Francis might have had a part in any of this, in which case the questioner is part of an evil right wing cabal trying to take down the most wonderfulest Pope ever.
I think a long view of history convinces me that we will see someone rise up who will clean the stables. Things were really bad on the eve of the Reformation but that upheaval led to the Council of Trent and a long period of reform.
There will be a critical balance here for faithful Catholics: we must be engaged enough to make changes where we can but we must not become so obsessed with things that we are distracted from prayer and service to our own local parishes.
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This. Has. To. Stop. Now.
Those that have committed these acts must be found and brought to justice. Those that are still practicing these acts must be stopped and gotten rid of. Then the church must put in place a program that defines expectations for clergy, and has meaningful outcomes, i.e. you are out if you do this. The standard must be, if you do something that violates a certain code, or you ought to have known it was wrong, you are out.
Listen, the company I worked at for over 38 years had an ethics policy that was broadly communicated, and required annual sign ups to confirm conformance, that had teeth. I would compare the Catholic Church with what’s going on these days at Wells Fargo. WF has created millions of false accounts, is undergoing a DOJ investigation for improper use of information, and is in the midst of an ethics dilemma concerning charging for dinner expenses for after hours work. Probably among other things. At my former company, the people at the root of these types of issues would be dealt with swiftly and ushered out. Sometimes the mere appearance of an impropriety was enough for a deep and thorough investigation by HR. Where does the church have such an independent body? If they did, would it be another group of priests? Kind of like police investigating police when a shooting occurs.
Touchy subject for sure. Not many Catholics I have spoken to want to get into this subject very much. Parish priests just shake their head but don’t dare touch on this in the sermon, they just give the standard provided by the diocese. However, this has been a tipping point for many people to turn away from the church. My sons have been to at least eight weddings in the past two years of their friends, all who went to Catholic school together, but none of them took place in a church of any denomination, let alone Catholic. That includes my eldest’s. For that matter, never mind dwindling numbers of parishoners, how about dwindling number of clergy? We can barely understand the English spoken by our priests as they are all English as a Second Language men from a foreign land. They do their best, no criticism here, but there are not enough priests locally to service all the parishes.
Thanks for your thoughts on this Jim, it is a deep problem that must be addressed. It made me think.
Thank you for this thoughtful response. I agree with you on just about everything you say. The only way this sort of thing goes on is if the organization lets it go on, or at least ignores it.
The other evening my parish church offered what it called a listening session, where anyone who wished to do so was offered a few minutes to speak. More than one of them shared personal stories of abuse of varying degrees, either firsthand or that of close family members. I had not known anyone who actually went through that sort of thing and listening to those stories brought home how important this is. The anguish was evident in their voices even though the events may have happened 20 or 30 or even 60 years in the past.
This story continues to move and develop. It is my belief that my local diocese has experienced less of this sort of behavior than some others, but then again maybe they have just done a better job of covering it up. Isn’t that sad? That I have to suspect that perhaps priests I have known personally may have been engaged in such conduct but do not know because of possible secrecy. Our Bishop has pledged to release the list of names of all clergy who have been the subject of a credible accusation against children. Which is a start. Notably absent is credible allegations against victims who were not children. Every one of these perpetrators is someone who has been violating a vow of celibacy, either actually or in spirit. That has to become a red flag offense within the clergy.
Thanks Jim. It makes me angry that this is even a thing. I recall a priest at our parish when I was a kid, who was the nicest guy. He really connected with our parish. He ended up leaving the priesthood and getting married. At the time it was disappointing to lose him, but upon reflection I say Bravo to him for realizing the direction he wanted to take his life.
How poignant it must have been to hear from actual victims of these crimes from years ago. They are brave and courageous for coming forward.
I will continue to serve in my ministry of lectorship and encourage others to serve the Lord through service at the church.
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I am a lector too. It is funny how applicable some of the recent readings have been, given that they are part of the inflexible 3 year cycle.
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