Recent revelations of clergy sex abuse cases here and abroad have caused great distress among the people of God. There is simply no excuse for such offenses that can satisfy, and there should not be. The crime is bad enough but further charges of cover up cause even more distress and anger.
But while the Church remains in the media focus, questions should also arise in the minds of all observers.
- Is the Church the only place where such things take place?
- Are the Church and Catholic Clergy worse offenders than, say, non-Catholic denominations and clergy, or public schools, or sports teams, scouting and the like?
- Are celibate Catholic clergy more likely to offend than married men?
- Are Catholic settings more dangerous for children than non Catholic or secular ones?
Many have quickly (and I would say unfairly) concluded that the answers to questions like these would generally be “yes.” For them this is a reason to stay away from Church. Or, for those who dislike and distrust the Church it helps them to become even more hardened in their aversion. But are all these charges against the Church fair? Are there no distinctions to be made? Is the exclusive focus on things Catholic appropriate?
Timothy Radcliff, O.P. the former Master of the Dominican Order has written a thoughtful essay in The Tablet entitled Should I Stay or Should I Go? I would like to print excerpts here and make my own comments in RED. I encourage you to read the whole article by clicking on the blue title in the previous sentence.
Why stay? First of all, why go? Some people feel that they can no longer remain associated with an institution that is so corrupt and dangerous for children. The suffering of so many children is indeed horrific. They must be our first concern. Nothing that I will write is intended in any way to lessen our horror at the evil of sexual abuse. But the statistics for the US, from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004, suggest that Catholic clergy do not offend more than the married clergy of other Churches. Some surveys even give a lower level of offence for Catholic priests. They are less likely to offend than lay school teachers, and perhaps half as likely as the general population. Celibacy does not push people to abuse children. The general media present a very myopic picture by focusing almost exclusively on the Catholic Church. Our offenses are real but so are offenses in other sectors which do not make the news. The fact is the sexual abuse of minors is a worldwide problem made even more extreme by the promiscuous and hypersexualized culture in which we live, especially in the West. Children are often sexualized in movies and advertisements. Women for example have commented extensively on the pages of this blog how hard it is even to buy modest clothes for their daughters. Further, children are exposed to sexual imagery far too early. Both adults and children are inundated by sexual imagery and boundaries are very poor in western culture. In the “old days” young people were chaperoned and there was greater emphasis on modesty. We cannot single out the Church. The sexual abuse of minors is a global problem that cuts across every sector and segment of the human family.
It is simply untrue to imagine that leaving the Church for another denomination would make one’s children safer. We must face the terrible fact that the abuse of children is widespread in every part of society. To make the Church the scapegoat would be a cover-up.….. (Here too, the Criminal Justice System is also to blame. During the same era of the 1950s-1980s too many sexual predators were let off easy. This included rapists. Even today, there are many egregious sex offenders walking our streets. Many have long track records and yet get out early. Recently, two women were killed by a sex offender who was out of jail. He had a track record a mile long and yet he walked freely. Why? So if the Church took such things far too lightly that is wrong. But psychologists, therapists, judges and juries also stand accused. The Church has adopted a zero tolerance policy but our criminal justice system still has too many holes. When will attention turn there?).
But what about the Vatican? Pope Benedict has taken a strong line in tackling this issue as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and since becoming Pope. Now the finger is pointed at him….I am morally certain that he bears no blame here. (As the evidence continues to unfold it looks as if Cardinal Ratzinger was one who took this matter more seriously that others and for this reason the matter was remanded to his care. Remember that he had a very strong reputation (and was hated by some for it) of being the enforcer-in-chief!)
It is generally imagined that the Vatican is a vast and efficient organisation. In fact it is tiny. The CDF only employs 45 people, dealing with doctrinal and disciplinary issues for a Church which has 1.3 billion members, 17 per cent of the world’s population, and some 400,000 priests. When I dealt with the CDF as Master of the Dominican Order, it was obvious that they were struggling to cope. Documents slipped through the cracks. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger lamented to me that the staff was simply too small for the job.. People are furious with the Vatican’s failure to open up its files and offer a clear explanation of what happened. Why is it so secretive? Angry and hurt Catholics feel a right to transparent government. I agree. But we must, in justice, understand why the Vatican is so self-protective…..Confidentiality is…a consequence of the Church’s insistence on the right of everyone accused to keep their good name until they are proved to be guilty. This is very hard for our society to understand, whose media destroy people’s reputations without a thought (Some of the most important work of the Church has to include an expectation of confidentiality. Every day people in my parish tell me of things that are going on in their lives. Many of these things are of a sensitive and personal nature. I have no right to share this information freely. If there is a serious crime involved and I learn of this matter outside the confessional I do have reporting obligations. But 99.9% of what I am told has nothing to do with crime. As a priest confidentiality, discretion and respect for people’s reputations is paramount. The secrecy of the confessional is absolute. Professional confidentiality while not absolute is expansive and people would never come to me or the Church if they felt that their information would be freely shared or that files with their personal data etc would be freely opened to a nosey media and a demanding state. Covering up a serious crime is a crime. But calling the Church secretive because we do not open our files without limit is unfair. The Church is not secretive. Rather, we are deeply respectful of the privacy and reputation of people who often come to us in their weakness and struggles. A few years ago media and government officials demanded the right to search our priest personnel files without any limits. But that is unjust. I, for example, have never offended sexually. I have never violated my celibate commitment. I have never committed any crime. This is true of almost every priest I have known. It is unfair and unjust to demand that my files be open to anyone who asks. Even though I have nothing to hide, I do have a right to privacy and that my personal files not be opened without warrant. It is the same with my lay employees at the parish and with any other personal information about parishioners).
But what about the cover-up within the Church? Have not our bishops been shockingly irresponsible in moving offenders around, not reporting them to the police and so perpetuating the abuse? Yes, sometimes. But the great majority of these cases go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when bishops often regarded sexual abuse as a sin rather than also a pathological condition, and when lawyers and psychologists often reassured them that it was safe to reassign priests after treatment. It is unjust to project backwards an awareness of the nature and seriousness of sexual abuse which simply did not exist then
Why go? If it is to find a safer haven, a less corrupt church, then I think that you will be disappointed. I too long for more transparent government, more open debate, but the Church’s secrecy is understandable, and sometimes necessary…. And so the Church is stuck with me whatever happens. We may be embarrassed [at times] to admit that we are Catholics, but Jesus kept shameful company from the beginning. (Yes, in the end the Church is not a “haven for saints” only but is also a “hospital for sinners.” Many of the Pharisees of Jesus time were scandalized at the company he kept. Jesus said, those who are well do not need a doctor but the sick do, but I have come to call sinners (Mk 2:17). So the Church is a hospital. And what do we find in a hospital? We find care, medicine, treatment, healing and love. But we also find disease, hurt, heartache, pain, and even death. So in the Church is to be observed great holiness, healing, love and beauty. But in the same Church is to be found sin, sorrow, heartache, sinners and other unpleasant matters. Thank God that Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brethren and to be found in our company! (Heb 2:11))
So, to be fair there is sin in the Church, and we have handled many disciplinary matters poorly. But again, to be fair, we are not alone in this. The spotlight is on us to be sure. But spotlights have a way of leaving many other things in darkness. There are serious problems elsewhere in our society as regards the sexual abuse of minors. Scrutiny is needed everywhere. For the sins of the Church, Lord have mercy! For the sin of the whole world, Christ have mercy. For the sins of our own hearts, Lord have mercy.