Dealing With Sex Abuse

Andrew Britz, OSB

Cases of sex abuse by clerics suddenly filled the U.S. media. Catholics soon began to wonder: How many more will there be? Will they ever come to an end? Will the glorious nature of our church ever shine out again?

Catholics might have contained their shame, at least in part, had they remembered that cases dating back more than 40 years suddenly were all seeing the light of day around the same time. But such mathematical calculations would have helped only to a slight degree, for everyone knew that one case was one too many.

Nor was it helpful to remember that for centuries the church had presented its clergy as a morally superior group among the Catholic faithful: Were we not taught again and again that celibacy was a higher moral calling than that of Christian (and also sacramental) marriage?

Given centuries of consistent teaching about serving God alone in the priesthood, it was all the more difficult to face the seemingly unending revelation of new cases.

The American bishops were backed into a corner and, understandably, panicked. They knew not only that they had to act decisively; they also had to appear to be doing so. Without giving the matter proper thought, they latched on to an image from that most civilized of American sports, baseball. They declared: one strike and you're out.

While they were at it, they set up a lay board, chaired by a state governor, to make certain that all bishops and all dioceses would comply with their one-strike policy.

The policy was indeed simple, but it had a major problem: It contravened the universal canon law of the church.

The Roman curial members rightly struggled over what to do. They certainly wanted to be seen as standing in support of the American bishops who were arguably facing the greatest moral crisis in their country's history. But they also wanted to retain the wisdom and balance, the humanizing principles that have been carefully safeguarded in the universal code through literally centuries of legal fine tuning -- in the best sense of that word.

And so the Romans called in some American bishops to work with them on how to address the imperfections in their one-strike policy. Much of this work was done speedily and wisely.

They called for three key modifications. They insisted on a greater specification of the deed done: there is a moral difference between pulling a bra strap and seducing the victim into sexual intercourse.

Second, they restored a statute of limitation: ten years is proposed, but with the possibility of exceptions in exceptional cases. And, third, they called for new tribunals of priests to replace the lay review boards set up by the American bishops to determine whether an abusive priest is to be permanently removed from public ministry.

All three changes have monumental significance.

The first takes into account the rights of the priest. The moral significance of his act must be addressed. How he has conducted himself during the years subsequent to his failure -- sometimes more than 40 years of unquestionable conduct -- also needs honest assessment, the curial members noted.

The statute of limitation -- normally a necessary element in any civilized code -- needs careful consideration. If the practical possibility of reporting sexual abuse had been truly available to victims of old, the statute of limitation would make eminent sense. But, as a church community, we know that this was not always the case -- thus, a blanket imposition of a statute of limitation at this time would be indefensible.

The third change called for by the Curia -- that lay review boards be replaced by tribunals of priests -- is likely to set off warning lights among lay Catholics across America and create great difficulty for lay people everywhere in the church.

For the curial theologian it is a necessary change. Bishops are seen as the supreme authority in the church and they must never relinquish their power. All boards that report to them can be no more than advisory. The church, according to this thinking, is not a democracy, and thus the practice of power from below can only be destructive.

However true this thinking might be, it would benefit both the curial and the American bishops to close their dogmatic manuals for a moment and view the situation from the other side -- something their very theology has prevented them from doing, not without grave consequences.

The American Catholic layperson, more educated now than at any other time in 2,000 years of church history, believes that it is the clerical mindset itself that has caused the sex abuse by priests to get out of hand. This layperson cannot understand how a bishop could hide this sexual abuse from the church community.

Even more mysterious: why are so many "good" and "effective" priests now forced to resign 30-40 years after their tragic transgression(s) while nary a bishop must face his transgression of quietly covering up a priest's misdemeanours and moving him to a new parish where he could wound a whole new generation of victims?

Americans love their Constitution; they treat it practically as an inspired text. At its heart is a carefully crafted set of checks and balances. Each of the three elements of good government -- the legislative, the executive and the judicial -- has a critical role to play in curbing the dictatorial aspirations of the other two branches.

The authors of the U.S. Constitution knew a truth that Catholic hierarchs, at considerable cost, ignored: Without checks on power and authority, those holding the trust of the community are all too prone to use it for their own ends.

Should we be surprised, for instance, that a male clergy with no earthly checks and balances would over the course of many centuries create a church in which the laity -- and especially the women -- would feel like second- and third-class citizens, even though virtually all of these clerics prayed daily for the grace of being faithful to the Lord?

Let us look for a moment at what some of our greatest Church Fathers said about women. St. Clement of Alexandria said that "a woman should be covered with shame at the very thought that she is a woman."

Tertullian gave such thinking its classical expression: "Woman, do you know that you are Eve? You are the devil's gateway. How easily you destroyed man, the image of God."

St. Augustine, so critically important for a great many avenues of thought in the church, also played a key role in evaluating sexuality. "Women," he said, "are not made in the image of God. I feel that nothing so casts down the manly mind from its heights as the fondling of woman and those bodily contacts that belong to the married state."

St. Thomas Aquinas was not about to be outdone by Augustine. "As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten," he said. "It is unchallengeable that woman is destined to live under man's influence and has no authority from her Lord. Woman is something deficient or accidental."

One cannot imagine that such thinking could develop and take over everywhere in the church for century after century, if women's voice had had even a marginal role to play in the development of the church's theology.

Similarly, one cannot imagine the development of a clerical mindset that could believe it was more important to keep the "church's" (read: clergy's) reputation intact than to safeguard its youth from sexual predators, if the voice of the laity had had even a marginal role in shaping the life of the community.

It would be a lot easier to put the current crisis behind us, if it were a matter of assessing ill will on the American hierarchy's part. Without doubt, however, the majority of bishops erred for what they thought were the best of intentions.

All theology aside, the laity in the American church will not be at peace until the world that created that clerical mindset which placed the institution's reputation above the flesh-and-blood lives of its young people is rejected not only in theory but also in practice. Tribunals of America's very best priests simply cannot replace, at this time, review boards chaired by Catholic laypersons.

And while there is still time and goodwill, it is right and proper that bishops and cardinals who are dead in the water be recognized as such and gently told that "for the good of the church" -- a concept they claim to know ever so well -- the time has come for them to resign their ministry. -- AMB

Published in the November 6th, 2002 edition of The Prairie Messenger

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