The sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the church has left Catholics with questions of faith, morals and accountability.
By John C. Cavadini
“Scandals are bound to arise, but woe to him by whom they do arise! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17.1-2). Thus read the sobering words of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke_, and they have certainly proved to be true, at least if applied to scandals arising in the Roman Catholic Church, for scandals have_ arisen, from the accusations made against Pope Callistus in the early 3rd century, to the conduct of such figures as Alexander VI among the Renaissance popes, to the current scandal that has emerged over sexual misconduct with minors by members of the priesthood.
Sometimes the question of whether scandal has arisen is difficult to answer: for instance, were the Crusades a scandal? Saint Francis may have thought so, but not many of his contemporaries did, while 21st century Christians are more inclined to regard them as scandalous even if in retrospect. In the case of Alexander VI, who had nine children with a variety of concubines while he was pope, or Leo X, who was forced to pawn his personal effects as well as to create and sell church offices in order to pay his debts, the scandal seemed to reside not only in the individual conduct of the pope but also in the toleration of these irregularities by the Roman curia and others, as though they were simply to be expected. At least, that is what scandalized the young Martin Luther when he visited Rome.
In the case of the current crisis, there is no doubt that a scandal has arisen. As in the case of the Renaissance papacy, it is not limited to the sins of individuals, but rather the way in which the church as an institution handled these individuals, their victims and potential victims, as well as those who lodged complaints against them. The issues are therefore complex, and I would like to take this space simply to set out these issues as I see them for the purposes of clarification of thought. My purpose is mainly to engender clarity on what the issues are, in the hopes of providing a forum for discussion in the church that will be genuinely helpful in working toward a resolution of the crisis.
In the first place, then, there are the priests themselves who have been accused of sexual misconduct with minors, those in the diocese of Boston and those from other dioceses such as New York; Chicago, Los Angeles and Bridgeport, Connecticut; Chicago and Los Angeles. Oddly enough, the deeds of these priests provide the least controversial aspect of this crisis, for it is indisputable that their behavior was an “appalling sin,” to use the pope’s words. Everyone, from the pope himself to the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, to — in some cases — the priests themselves, has denounced the revolting and scandalous and criminal character of these actions. For most people, however and unfortunately, this is only where the scandal begins.
Most of the outrage expressed by Catholics in this country concerns the way in which those in authority over the offending priests, mainly the bishops of the dioceses in which they served, reacted, reassigning them, in some cases repeatedly, from parish to parish. This gave such notorious offenders as Father John Geoghan in Boston the opportunity to abuse what has been reported as more than 100 children. Parents who complained about such priests were in many cases ignored. Where settlements occurred they were often sealed in secrecy, permitting reassignments to occur and also permitting secrecy about the damages paid out in settlement.
For many, it adds to the outrage that the bishops responsible do not seem themselves to have expressed outrage and sorrow commensurate with the scandal they and their priests have caused. If they had actually acted as though it were better that a millstone had been hung around their necks and they had been cast into the sea, there might have been less controversy. Saint Augustine, Garry Wills has pointed out, faced with a scandal of smaller magnitude in his own diocese, immediately offered to resign, and set about complete disclosure beyond what would have been required by law or custom, at Mass, in front of the laity.
The pope has pointed out that, “because of the great harm done by some priests and religious, the church herself is viewed with distrust, and many are offended at the way in which the church’s leaders are perceived to have acted in this matter.” He goes on to recommend to them “the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person’s soul,” as he puts it. But, to date, no one has seemed inclined to beg forgiveness, to show the courageous humility that would demonstrate a repentance “to the depths of the soul” and which would be, precisely as such, the basis for rebuilding trust.
So, these two things — the sexual misconduct with minors by priests, and the handling of this misconduct by the bishops involved, including their reaction to their own mistakes — are in this case the “skandala,” the “stumbling blocks” that have arisen. In the wake of these scandals, controversy then arises in the first place not over calls for reform but over precisely what shape reform should take. The biggest issue is, perhaps, accountability. That is one reason why the lack of convincing displays of penitence are so upsetting to many, for deep penitence implies deep belief in and acceptance of the ultimate accountability — to God and to God’s judgment, and so to all accountabilities implied therein, to the neighbor in Christ and especially to those over whom one has authority. Habitual penitence, continuing conversion, is an attitude of habitual accountability.
Can structures of accountability be put in place that involve more lay people in consultation and decision making, and which therefore allow for more transparency in church governance? In the past, almost nothing polarized people more instantly than their answer to this question. Liberals called for a more “democratic” church, and conservatives reminded them that the “church was not a democracy.” But the current crisis has engendered calls for accountability from both sides, liberal and conservative. Could we not imagine a future in which the terms of the debate were not the terms of the old polarity, but one where accountability and authority were not pitted against each other, one in which accountability rendered a renewed authority more credible?
The essential issue is not democracy vs. autocracy, for democracies can lose credibility too, but rather what structures allow the sort of meaningful input and visibility that engender trust, namely, the feeling “I was heard and it mattered.” It may be that such structures might start out as mediated “listening” sessions, which could evolve into more formalized structures. It may be that Catholic universities could have a role in this. After all, the traditional role of the university is to foster and facilitate “clarification of thought,” to use Peter Maurin’s phrase.
A second major issue in which the call for reform has become controversial is in the call for the reform of the priesthood. Both the left and the right have a vision for this reform. Those on the left have called for the abolition of clerical celibacy and some have called in addition for the elimination of the ban against the ordination of women. On the right, the return to more closed, more disciplined, more self-consciously ascetic seminary formation in the context of a less permissive sexual morality overall is the recipe for reform.
But do we know whether either of these calls for reform will actually address the issue? Many of the cases of sexual misconduct are by priests who are now in their 60s and 70s, priests who had been formed in the sort of seminaries the conservatives would like to see rejuvenated. On the other hand, there seems to be no statistical correlation between celibacy and sexual misconduct with minors. Sociologist and columnist Father Andrew Greeley points out that “in an ABC news poll, 6 percent of Catholics and 6 percent of other Americans said that there had been a sex abuse case in their congregation — a finding that shows that the problem is not just celibate or Catholic.” Other studies bear this out, showing that most adults who sexually molest minors are, or will be, married. Studies of abuse cases in the dioceses of Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, using criteria more strict than legally required, have shown that respectively 1.8 percent, 2 percent and 1.6 percent of priests in the diocese had credible cases of sexual misconduct with minors leveled against them. There is good reason to believe that there is at least this high, if not higher, an incidence of such misconduct in the general population. As easy as it may be for an unmarried priest, in a position of authority and trust, to abuse minors and to hide the abuse, it would seem just as easy, or even easier, for married men (and women) to do it in the privacy and convenience of their own families.
But the issue of celibacy is not simply about how likely it is that celibate men will find sexual misconduct with minors more tempting than others would. It is related, as its critics point out, to the issue of accountability. As they see it, celibacy is one of the critical elements in the creation of the closed clerical culture that has allowed its own abuses of power and trust to go unchecked and mostly unrepented.
To this clerical culture, and especially its higher reaches where the bishops and their closest priest associates reside, the laity and their concerns seem mostly invisible. How else can you explain the complaints of mothers and fathers that their serious worries about how their children were being treated were dismissed or evaded or given the runaround? There is no sense that these are our children, the church’s children, but rather your children, those of the laity, whose duty is to listen and submit.
In fact the only way to explain this without invoking the deepest kind of active malice is by distance. The married, sexually active laity are too distant, too invisible, of too little account to the closed celibate brotherhood of those in power. It is precisely that distance for which repentance and reform are required. Nevertheless, the contribution of celibacy to this distance is not clear, and it is certainly contrary to the stated intention of the celibate charism, which is to make people more, rather than less, available for loving service. Nor does a celibate clergy necessarily have a monopoly on closed clerical culture: Female clergy in Protestant denominations sometimes report they have found themselves also butting against a closed, clerical culture of men, but in their case, married men.
The issue calls for sustained discussion. Perhaps the requirement should be rethought. Perhaps a thorough reading of some of the classics of spiritual governance, such as the Rule of Saint Benedict, could help us imagine a celibate culture of service and mutual obedience. In the Rule, provision is made for the abbot, whose power in some ways is absolute, to consult the youngest, the newest, those most likely to have a fresh perspective. In any event, the discussion should be thorough, and the purposes and accomplishments of the charism of clerical celibacy be as much a part of the discussion as the pathologies and drawbacks of it.
Another issue in the call for the reform of the priesthood is the issue of homosexuality in the priesthood. This issue is even more vexed for some than the issue of celibacy, though the issues are connected in the minds of many. Does the celibate priesthood attract a higher percentage of homosexuals than the priesthood would without the requirement of celibacy? And does it matter? Since almost all of the cases of abuse of minors have involved abuse of prepubescent boys or male adolescents, the question is bound to arise. Is homosexual orientation the problem in itself, or psychosexual immaturity? Does homosexual orientation, as an objective moral disorder, invalidate one’s priestly ordination, as one Vatican spokesman has suggested? Or does the undoubted presence among the saints of faithfully celibate homosexual priests obviate this critique?
In the minds of the liberals, basic church teaching on homosexuality and sexual issues in general is called into question by this crisis. In the minds of conservatives, on the other hand, it is precisely the opposite issue that is raised, namely, the way in which dissent on the sexual teachings of the church has made it appear that sexually active gay lifestyles can be morally acceptable. But these debates are older than the current crisis, and it has only exacerbated them rather than rendered them clearer. It can be said with certainty, however, that the moral teaching of the church on sexual matters needs the benefit of more, rather than less, discussion.
One final issue, in some ways separate from the scandal itself but nevertheless intimately related and repeatedly raised in discussions, is that of anti-Catholic bigotry in our society and in the press. With some justice, anti-Catholicism has been called the last acceptable public prejudice in American society. While abusive priests and those who protected them cannot be permitted to take refuge in this charge to avoid change, it seems to many that this bias does show up in the way the offenses and the alleged cover-up are reported. For example, the most reliable evidence indicates not only that the rate of sexual misconduct with minors is no different or even lower among Catholic priests than among the general population, but that the prevalence of genuine pedophilia, that is, the abuse of prepubescent children, is extremely small. In Chicago, among the 40 priests who constituted the 1.8 percent of the diocesan clergy against whom sexual misconduct had been credibly alleged, only one was a pedophile. The other cases were all cases of sexual activity with postpubescent boys as old as 16-17 years old. And, while the difference is arguably slight to the parent of the 17-year-old boy and I personally would be uncontrollably furious, still the choice to portray these crimes with the name of the worst yet least committed of them seems like bias.
Nor is there any indication that there is less of a problem in Protestant churches or other religious groups. As Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Penn State, pointed out in an article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, “the phrase ‘pedophile priest’ conjures up images of the worst violation of innocence,” as though callous molesters like Father James Porter, who assaulted children 7 years of age, were the norm. This makes a difference not only in image but in the assessment of treatment and the possibility of rehabilitation.
The media also seem inclined to underplay the way in which almost all, if not all, of the cases coming forward are cases 10 years old or older, often much older. In an article for Commonweal, Peter Steinfels, himself a critic of the closed clerical culture, put it well: In stories where we read that “’Today’s announcement adds to mounting revelations of sexual abuse by pedophile priests that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent months,’ [w]hat gets left out is the fact that those other ‘mounting revelations’ are equally of deeds done one, two, or more decades ago.” This is significant because, in fact, most dioceses and seminaries have been addressing this problem beginning in 1985 but most especially from 1992-93 onward when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops approved procedures mandating such actions as prompt response to allegations, immediate suspension of those credibly charged and as much openness as possible. These truly watershed years saw the creation of systems of response and accountability, especially in such large dioceses as Chicago, Saint Paul and Seattle, which are truly exemplary. Notre Dame’s own local diocesan bishop, John D’Arcy, has exhibited extraordinary leadership in this regard, having instituted strict guidelines from his inception as diocesan bishop in 1985, years before they were required or even recommended.
My point here is simply to illustrate the grounds for the charge that the media are biased, in this case, in choosing to ignore the ways in which the problem has been addressed — and, if the much lowered incidence of abuse and reassignment is any indication, addressed with success. Reporting such as this leads only further into impasse. It makes it impossible for justifiably furious lay Catholics to imagine that their leaders have to some extent already repented the past, and that these leaders’ seeming lack of genuine outrage now may stem partly from the feeling that their previous good efforts have been overlooked. It also makes it easier for a hierarchy used to evading lay scrutiny and unwilling to confess the sinful contempt for lay contributions, views and gifts to dig even further into complacency and further from the humility required if trust is to be re-established. If two parties cannot even imagine the grains of goodwill that may be present in the other, it is unlikely that they will be able to imagine their way beyond an impasse.
These are some of the issues as I see them, but I should add a few more general points. The first is about holiness and its relation to scandal. Scandal is always public, by definition. Holiness is often hidden and often even seeks to hide itself. Holiness may be, and often is, attached to the normal in seemingly humdrum ways. Spouses may be heroically faithful to each other and to the care of their children, yet it yields only what looks to be a “normal” life. There is a community of religious sisters in Jerusalem who, day in and day out, take care of brain-damaged babies of Palestinians and Israelis alike, babies whose only progress in life as they get older is that they need larger diapers and can perhaps learn to blink. No one notices. Not to mention the majority of good priests who pour themselves out in loving and idealistic service to those souls entrusted to their care, in some cases especially to the youthful.
In reacting to a scandal it is wise to remember that our own proclivity to overlook and downplay the goodness which would challenge us is itself a liability. For it is only by looking at that goodness, by acquiring the habit of noticing it, that we will find the inspiration and the courage to re-imagine a future for the church beyond the impasse that seems thrust upon us. This applies to the whole church, not just the laity.
Finally, in times of scandal it is also good to remember that the Catholic church is an article of faith. To some extent, of course, the church is a historical organization, empirically visible. In this sense, believing in the church is like believing in Amtrak, as a friend of mine once put it. It’s just there. But in another sense, Catholics believe that the church is the “Body of Christ,” the living memory and presence of him in his passion and resurrection, and this is not even in principle visible, just as God is not even in principle visible. Just as the problem of evil does not do away with faith in God but calls it forth, so scandal in the church does not do away with faith in the church but calls it forth. Faith in the church, that is, as the irreplaceable and unique sacrament of Christ, his Body, which, as the Catechism will tell us, is “born principally of Christ’s total self-giving for our salvation, anticipated in the institution of the Eucharist and fulfilled on the cross.” To the eyes of faith, it is that love which renders the church holy, and in the eyes of faith there is absolutely nothing that can render that love null and void, nothing that can remove it from the church, for that is the church’s very identity.
To the eyes of faith, calls for reform, the adoption of penitence, etc., are only even intelligible, let alone realistic, as calls to be formed, ever more fully as a people, by the love of Christ. After all, that love is the very constitution of the church, and the desire to be conformed to it and bear witness to it in a life of loving service is the only reason to be a Christian.
The demands of charity in response to a scandal may feel like a millstone hung around the neck, but the sooner it is borne, the sooner it will be recognized for what it is, the light burden and yoke of Christ, the demands of that charity which does not “puff up” but “builds up” (1 Corinthians).
John C. Cavadini is chairman of the theology department and director of the Institute for Church Life at Notre Dame. This article was adapted from a talk he gave on campus this spring.
Notre Dame Magazine, Summer 2002