Defending the Church in a Time of Scandals

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Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear.
—1 Timothy 5:20 (KJV)

We talk about the clergy abuse scandals

It seems lately that the topic of discussion with Catholic and non-Catholic friends gets around to the clergy abuse scandal.  In turn, in my RCIA classes that I teach it can be the “elephant in the room” in discussions on the nature of the Church. I find myself increasingly being challenged to explain what has happened and exactly what is the nature and extent of the abuse. I feel the need to defend the Church but to only defend what is true. It comes down to finding a way to present the true nature of the abuse in a way that does not defend the crimes and sins committed by clergy. As an old basketball coach told me when I tried to justify shooting and missing an impossible shot – “never defend a stupid shot”. 

My background in dealing with an earlier scandal

In 2002, when first accounts of clergy abuse were coming out, some local priests, who knew me and my professional background in physical fitness, asked me to do a daylong seminar for diocesan priests on exercise for stress management. The priests were demoralized and stressed out by the scandal, felt betrayed and “tainted” by the abusers, and needed positive tools to deal with it. I had discussed  the crisis with participating priests and with our auxiliary Bishop.  He was the spokesman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) on the abuse scandal.  We gained considerable insight into the real issues and what the probable consequences of the scandal would be then.  

I  now monitor closely what has happened and try to keep an informed mind as to the nature and severity of the abuse scandal.  More specifically, I try to discern the truth in the media hype and all the allegations.  Many studies have been made of which  the most noteworthy are

These provide the most accurate and truthful presentation of the facts related to the severity and nature of the clergy abuse, and what the Church has and has not done.  

These  studies and reports uncovered  allegations (proven and unproven) that some clergy had committed sexual abuse against minors and certain Bishops were involved in covering up such sins and crimes.  The practice of accepting the then current psychological theories that abusers were treatable did not work out. Some  institutional reactions to cover up a serious problem were altogether inappropriate. The bottom line: the Church did not put the victims first and did not pursue the needed process of canonical and criminal investigation and punishment. 

Defending against misinterpretations and misperceptions

Since the early 2000’s, media reports of the abuse scandal have served to bring a serious problem to light. However, some of the mainline media in their reporting of the scandal have been sloppy, inaccurate and biased in their presentations. Consequently, the nature and extent of clergy abuse has been misunderstood and not perceived correctly. Therefore it is important that the key misperceptions be identified in order to ferret out the truth.

The abuse was done by pedophile priests: Many of the media stories implied that clergy abuse was about pedophile priests preying on young children. The John Jay studies report that less than 5% of abuse was with pre-pubescent children (definition of pedophilia). Most of the abuse (approximately 80%) was committed on post-pubescent boys. That defines homosexual predation as the problem. Yet, that fact has not been widely reported in the media. 

Accusations are the same as convictions: In light of past allegations, current media reports about Catholic clergy abuse suggest that ongoing accusations as are good as convictions.  Here’s an example:  media headlines “over 300 predator priests,”  reporting on the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report on Clergy Abuse. The Catholic League prepared a commentary, analyzing that report, which noted that most of the reported abuse were accusations, not convictions, and that most were decades old involving clergy who were dead or no longer in active ministry. That is not say that the accused were necessarily innocent, but it is important to acknowledge that for these long gone events, we don’t know and may never know the truth of what happened.

The conclusions from past studies of clergy abuse allegations (such as the John Jay College Reports on clergy abuse) would suggest that approximately 50% of such accusations do not have credible evidence to move toward prosecution. My training on the “rules of evidence” during my past law enforcement experience,  helps me to recognize the problems in establishing credible evidence of wrongdoing. Since many of the accusations are about past events occurring many years ago, and since many of the accused perpetrators are dead, the issue of accurate recall and due process justice pose significant hindrances to finding the truth. 

Large scale abuse is currently rampant and the Church has done nothing to correct it: The public perception is that the clergy abuse is still a problem which has not been dealt with, but the data supports another conclusion. Most of the reported abuse occurred during the time period 1950-1980s. The Dallas Charter adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops defined a zero tolerance policy in 2002 with background checks and procedures for reporting abuse accusations and the like.  Based on the John Jay College Reports, the Catholic League notes that approximately 4% of Catholic priests from 1950-2002 had been accused with approximately half of them (2%) having credible allegations. Of note is that the Catholic League recently reported that during the last two years (2016-2017) less than .005% of United States Catholic priests had credible accusations for abuse.  I would call that progress. Yet a recent survey indicated that 64% thought the Catholic Church is an unsafe place for kids.

At the Vatican level. Pope John Paul II asked the then Cardinal Ratzinger (eventually Pope Benedict XVI) to assume investigatory power over abuse cases under a different Congregation for speedier resolutions of abuse cases. A number of guidelines were established and communicated throughout the Church in the 2000s that provided guidance:

  1. reporting all accusations to civil authorities;
  2. immediate suspension of priestly duties if a priest is accused;
  3. speedier Canon trials etc.
  4. In light of the recognition that homosexual predation is a major factor in clergy abuse, guidelines for selection of seminarians were established which demanded increased scrutiny if an individual had a gay predisposition. Since then, Pope Francis has recommended that those with a homosexual disposition not be allowed into seminaries.

The child sexual abuse problem is a uniquely a Catholic problem because of celibacy

The data provided by  Shaksaft and Cohen and data reviewed by the Catholic League would suggest that the incidence of abuse among Catholic priests is relatively the same as that for Protestant denominations with married clergy and other professions dealing with youth, such as teachers and YMCA youth directors.

Even though the data suggests that the prevalence of abuse among Catholic clergy is in the range of other institutions serving youth it still doesn’t excuse it or a system which has allowed it. We should expect more of Catholic clergy. Clergy should have a higher standard in following their sacred vows.

Extended accusations against the Church hierarchy

While much of the past efforts instituted by the Church responded to the problem of  priest abuse, little has been done to hold the hierarchy accountable. The hierarchy. up to the highest level, is losing its credibility and moral authority in the eyes of both Catholic and non-Catholics, according to recent surveys.

During this last summer there have been  many coverup accusations made by  Catholic clergy and lay persons, and by others outside the Church. Most notable were those by Archbishop Vigano:  he accused Church leaders (including Pope Francis) of hiding the known homosexual predations by Cardinal McCarrick, not acting on these stories,  and enabling him to retain power and influence in the Church in spite of sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict XVI.  Also, many stories  have circulated about a “Gay Mafia” within the Church hierarchy; this group enabled Bishops to shelter homosexual predator priests.

Here’s the bottom line:  we don’t have all the data to determine who might have been involved in coverups, why they were done, and how extensive they were.  Steps are now being taken, however, both within the Church and by civil authorities to get the facts.  Attorney Generals in several states are investigating diocesan records.  Pope Francis has authorized a meeting next year among Bishops worldwide to address the abuse crisis, and the USCCB has now initiated an investigation. Nevertheless, no formal investigation has yet been ordered by the Vatican to date. 

Since these efforts are under the umbrella of the hierarchy, I believe the Vatican needs to authorize an investigation led by lay persons, which Bishops should respect.  In 2002. the USSCB established a  lay instigative commission  to carry out the initial investigation into clergy abuse. The same is needed now to investigate the hierarchy.

A Holy Catholic Church?

Given all the allegations of abuse (proven or disproven) and especially the failure of the hierarchy to be accountable, the question can be raised -Can the Church be holy? The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifies what is considered moral and immoral behavior and what the Church teaches and believes. Our human nature and free will, whether we are simple parishioners, priests, Bishops or Popes, gives us the potential to act in three ways: 1) to follow what our faith teaches, 2) to deny and ignore it or 3) to corrupt it. Some clergy have corrupted what the faith teaches and some have ignored Catholic teaching, and have thereby dishonored their sacred trust. 

 The Church is a holy creation of Jesus Christ, but because it is also a human institution,  its members still need to acquire holiness. Pope Benedict  XVI in his book, Introduction to Christianity, provides a unique perspective. He notes that the Church demonstrates the ongoing struggle we all have as individuals of going from unholy to holy. This struggle acknowledges the continuation of God’s plunge into humanity (with all our sin). The Church is called holy because it has the power to sanctify, in spite of the sinfulness of its members. Holiness is giving that power (through the sacraments) to sanctify – to create holiness in spite of sinfulness. Simply put – the faith is pure but we, its members, are not.

Throughout the history of the Church there have been numerous “reforms” to correct the negative actions of some Popes and Church authorities. In short, the Church constantly renews itself to become holy, just as sinners we continually strive individually to be holy. That same human conflict is acted out in the Church.  As an institution of both saints and sinners it is always in need of purification. Hopefully, this crisis will lead to that needed renewal.

Restore us to You, O LORD, that we may be restored; Renew our
days as of old.
—Lamentations 5:21

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