As a Catholic priest and a news analyst, I cannot ignore this week’s public announcement that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and lawyers for 508 alleged victims of sexual abuse by clergy have agreed on a $660 million legal settlement. Some cases date back to the 1940s.
Nobody likes talking about sexual abuse of minors. Since 2002, Catholics are especially sensitive to, and rightly scandalized and embarrassed, by the topic. And I am sure you can imagine how the tragedy weighs on the hearts of young priests like me as we come face-to-face with the reality that many men who were thought to be dedicating themselves exclusively to the service of God were, in fact, serving instead their own base passions. They abandoned their call to holiness. They relinquished their role of spiritual leadership.
The consequences of such sin and selfishness are incalculable, but the first of these is clear: the loss of innocence and inner freedom of the youth these men were harmed.
Over the last few days, in television and radio interviews, I have tried to make sense of this news with all of you. I don’t presume to have all the answers to a problem that saw its heyday in the 1960s and early 70s, before I was even born. But for what it’s worth, I want to let you into the present movements of my heart and the mind and share with you my reflections about the painful past, and why I have great confidence in a brighter future first of all for our youth, and secondly, for Christians of all denominations, and the Catholic Church in particular.
• Child abuse is the consequence of a deep-seated psychological disorder that has occurred in every culture for as long as back as we have record. Normal, healthy people don’t abuse kids. In fact, they don’t even experience the temptation.
• Based on the numbers now at hand, the phenomenon of sexual abuse of minors is probably more widespread today — in every sector of society — than ever before. I believe this is the consequence of a society that has rejected all moral boundaries, especially in the area of sexuality, and whose family structures have disintegrated, producing large numbers of disjointed and unstable people (medical professionals tell us sexual disorders are often linked to poor relationships with parents).
• The percentage of Catholic priests in America who have been “credibly accused” (not convicted) of sexual abuse of minors over the last 60 years stands at 4.5 percent (see the comprehensive John Jay study), a number about equal (given the margin of error) to similar studies of other homogenous groups.
• Many of these accusations (though certainly not all) are probably well-founded. This means many Catholic priests (though still a small minority) were psychologically sick.
• This psychological disorder does not abolish their moral responsibility. They may have been sick, but to the degree they still had use of reason, they were also wrong.
• Catholic priests don’t fall from the heavens. They are born into ordinary families. As children and young adults, their surroundings and personal choices combine to form their character and psychology. Given what we now know about abuse by priests, this means that some very sick or weak men (prone to psychological disorders), who never should have been priests, were admitted to seminaries and eventually to pastoral ministry.
• This fact represents a failure of the individual priest to recognize his weakness and flee from temptation. (They should never have pursued a life where they had responsibility for children or young adults.) But it is primarily a failure of those who were responsible (bishops and seminary educators) to select worthy candidates for the priesthood.
• Almost without exception, credible accusations against a given priest came in bunches. Sadly, and inexcusably, some bishops ignored or underestimated the first accusations and permitted the sick priest to have continued access to young people. Anyone who knowingly transferred a dangerous priest from one parish to another is, of course, guilty of participation in great evil.
• The spending of millions of dollars of Church funds on legal battles (including this most recent $660 million settlement) may, in fact, be the best option available, but I think we should equally recognize that such payments are an objective injustice to the members of the local Church. After all, these funds are, in some way, coming from the pews. In the corporate and legal society in which we Americans live, we can almost understand the logic of paying out big bucks as compensation for a corporation’s wrongdoing, but, as a Church, we should never think it is the ideal way of righting a wrong. Instead, we should double our efforts to make sure no abuse ever occurs again, and therefore avoid the perhaps necessary evil of using Church funds to try to reestablish the scales of justice.
• The vow of celibacy which Catholic priests take is not the cause of pedophilia or homosexual acts with minors (the vast majority of abuse has involved post-pubescent young men.) That’s ridiculous! As I mentioned above, healthy people don’t experience the slightest bit of temptation to abuse kids, and even less so, kids of one’s own gender.
• People with sexual disorder who have already committed abuse, can be treated, but we now know from relatively new psychiatric research they almost never experience complete healing. This scientific research should regulate the way we relate to offenders. No offender should ever have special access to kids again. Period.
I am happy to say that in the midst of all this pain — first of all, the pain experienced by the victims, and much more remotely, the pain of those of us who must look on from within — I see God bringing out great good out of great evil. The Catholic Church, the Christian community and society at large are better off today than they were before the scandal broke. We now know the horror, and in many places and ways, we have responded well.
Under the leadership of Pope Benedict XVI, a thorough review of all seminaries in the United States was undertaken. This included a thorough study and report on the selection process of candidates to the priesthood. Every diocese and religious order in the United States is now using professional help to review the psychological stability of its applicants. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has established new procedures for dealing with accusations against priests and other employees. This includes immediate removal from pastoral ministry of any priest or employee who is credibly accused of sexual abuse until the case is properly investigated by the diocese AND the proper legal authorities. It also suggests the permanent removal from ministry of any cleric who is found guilty of a single act. Finally, there is now a new consciousness among bishops, priests and diocesan services to reach out to victims and get them the help they need. But, more still needs to be done.
I wish these reforms would assure the absolute protection of our youth. They won’t. Because sexual abuse of children is a societal problem, our kids will only be safe when our very sick and immoral society confronts and overcomes the root causes of its perversity.
In the meantime, I think the spotlight on the secret archives of sinfulness within the ranks of the Catholic priesthood has turned out to be a great blessing in disguise. Things were bad, and now we know it … all of us.
But things are getting better — just ask any priest of the new generation. For the most part, they stand out for being very normal, very healthy and endowed with a good dose of Godly courage.
God bless, Father Jonathan
P.S. Don’t be surprised if Catholic diocese continue to dish out big settlements. It is rather politically incorrect for me to say this, but I would be spineless not to mention that lawyers are getting 30 to 40 percent of the legal judgments. Where there is money, lawyers will flock. Both the Church and victims of abuse would be greatly served if a team of well-respected lawyers in every diocese would agree to donate some of their time to represent, free of charge, plaintiffs who have legitimate cases against the Church. It would eliminate the impression of gold mining and encourage honesty and transparency by all.
Interesting Selection of Articles:
Values and Politics
•‘In Gods We Trust’ In U.S. Senate?: Hindu Prayer Makes History
•Romney’s Faith Faces Skepticism
• Religion and Politics Don’t Mix: Author Contends ‘Becoming a Political Power Broker Not in Jesus’ Plan’
• A Blogger’s Blend of Prayer and Politics Gain Influence
• Study Shows Traditional Catholic Characteristics Fading
• Cellular Firms Cashing in on Christian Ringtones
• Medical Tourism Trend Expected to Grow for Uninsured in U.S.
• Are Religious Films Crossing the Line?
• Top British Doctor Says Everyone Should be Treated As Potential Organ Donor, Unless They ‘Opt-Out’
• Seeking Less-Bitter Ways to End Conflict on Kids’ Medical Care
• Advocates Say Wisconsin State Law Too Restrictive on Families
• The Face I Lost, The Face I Borrowed: First Person to Undergo Partial Face Transplant Reflects on Her Ordeal
•In Europe, God is (Not) Dead
• The Secret World of the Russian Icon
•A Camp They Can Believe In: A Look at an Ohio Summer Camp for Atheist Children
• N.Y. Gathering to Examine the Role of African-American Catholics
• After Nationwide Search, Influential Baptist Church Set to Call Pastor, Author to Their Pulpit
Not All News is Bad News
• Dream Comes True for Cancer Patient
• Religious Leaders One of Top 12 ‘Indestructible Careers’
• From Muslim Youth, a Push for Change: Participants at Unprecedented Summit with U.S. Officials Confront Extremist Images
• Uniting to Save A Tiny Church with a Rich Past
News Which Never Made the News
•New Louisiana Laws Ban Late-Term Abortion
• British Teen Loses ‘Chastity Ring’ Battle
• Pope Hopes to Visit New York Next Year
• Pa. Superior Court Rules a Child Can Have Three Legal Parents
• Click over to visit Father Jonathan's Column Archive