© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with permission.)
For those who hoped that the Catholic church had begun to appropriately handle its systemic sexual abuses from the 1980s and 1990s, the recent Pennsylvania Grand Jury report is deeply disturbing. The report indicates that in the state of Pennsylvania alone, over a period of 70 years, more than 300 priests were accused of the systemic sexual abuse of over 1000 individuals and the systematic cover-up of this abuse. This report comes just weeks after the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the Archbishop of Washington, who had been accused of sexual abuse of children and adults over decades, and after recent revelations of systemic clerical sexual abuse in Chile and Australia.
With a focus on the Pennsylvania report the New York Times reports:
“Despite some institutional reform, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped public accountability,” the grand jury wrote. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.”
Though one might hope for internal church reforms — and perhaps that this will spur a new conversation about the possibility of women and married priests, including openly gay married priests — the report shows that the time has passed for waiting on such internal reforms. A legal investigation of such systemic abuse, accompanied by other means of law enforcement, is the only likely way to adequately address these abuses. The church-directed efforts have shown too clearly the risk of such studies being overseen by individuals who have conflicting interests in the results.
The background for this tragic state of affairs — regarding why the church has ended up in this situation in the first place — also still needs to be more clearly articulated. The church hierarchy, unfortunately, has been as inept at these reflections as at self-reform. Various factors — both cultural and structural — have created an institution that is dogmatic, authoritarian, sexually repressed, and unable to muster the self-criticism and self-monitoring needed.
Fundamental to the culture is a belief common among Catholics that those with power in the church are those who God has blessed and chosen. There is an assumption that the Holy Spirit guides the church in its decisions on the election of the Pope and the appointment of the hierarchy, and that those in the priesthood have been called. Consequently, not only is it presumed that all of these clerics are due respect and honor, but it is very often assumed that to question them is to question God’s providence. It is really a very strange mental knot to tie. But many have tied it, and those benefitting from it, just pull the knot tighter and tighter.
Add to this the fact that the culture of the priesthood is enormously gay, but of a self-loathing, repressed variety and, as should be clear now, also too often tainted by sexual tastes of a quite sinister variety. As a gay former priest told me years ago: He and his generation of Catholics grew up thinking that you would either get married or become a priest. Many like him, who had sexual orientations outside the norm, thought the priesthood was their calling since marriage clearly wasn’t. Given the prevalence of thinking like this, the fact that the institution of the church has ended up in its mess should hardly be surprising.
It is against this backdrop, of course, that not only the clergy generally, but the hierarchy as well, has been filled with people very uncomfortable with their own sexuality, very often with individuals who feel that their own sexual inclinations are morally wrong. But unfortunately, their own moral sensibilities have not given them the ability to control their sexual drives. Twisting themselves ever more tightly into their own emotional knots generally did not work to make them well and whole. Quite the opposite.
Structurally, it is of course a problem that very often the fates of those in the hierarchy who make the most important decisions on this issue are tied up with those who have been involved in the most heinous of crimes at the local parishes, or have been involved in abuse power relationships at the countries Catholic seminaries, or have been sexually abused at the nation’s minor seminaries, with the 14 to 18 year olds, under the tutelage of their loving mentors. It’s as unsavory as you would think, as we should all be aware now.
All bishops passed through some of these institutions. Some of them passed through all of them. And their decision-making on the sexual abuse cases can hardly be thought to be non-self-interested. In many cases, some of these young men were clearly exploring their own sexuality, sometimes failing in their own eyes to live up to their aspirations. Tied to this is the further structural issue that the promotions within the church come top-down. Those who cooperate with the authorities of the institution are those who move into the hierarchy of the institution.
Unfortunately, dark chapters probably remain to be written about how many in the hierarchy have put in words for their own lovers. But that aside, when it comes to the issue of how to handle sexual abuse issues within the church, those in power have very much rewarded “discretion” — in this case, that means, there has been an interest in covering up enormous injustices because of a fear of how the exposure of those injustices would affect the church, financially and culturally.
Of course, the cover-up always has a background moral justification. The good of the church (keeping up the morale of the majority of congregants and ensuring their continued participation in the church, as well as ensuring the financial viability of the institution) trumps the good of the altar boy molested, or the good of the minor seminarian, often enough viewed as just discovering what he really likes anyway. And add a bit of earlier mentioned theology to that: Remember, God has chosen those in power. To question them is to question God.
The congregants themselves want to trust the authority of those who have spiritually advised them, who have been their confessors and accompanied them on their life journeys in some of the most pivotal moments, from birth and baptism, through growth into adulthood, with confirmation, to marriage and funerals — all moments where the church officials, including many of those guilty of the crimes, have played a key role in helping congregants make sense of questions of meaning, overcome emotional travails, deal with life’s difficulties and celebrate its joys.
The abusers clearly abused this trust, but so did the bishops, even those who were not themselves the abusers, but who were involved in the cover-up. How many of them sent reassuring emails or had reassuring phone calls in which they communicated their remorse at the tragedy of the situation but affirmed the abused and their families that the church was handling this internally, that appropriate steps would be taken, and of course, that those who wrote would be in the prayers of the church?
Part of the problem is that the church has supported authoritarian beliefs, playing on the eagerness of the congregants to accept the decisions of authorities. Part of it has to do with a clerical system that is bound to attract people ill at ease with their own sexuality. Affecting Catholic culture in a deep enough way to address this authoritarianism would be quite a feat. But addressing some structural issues could help. Isn’t it time that the church rethink celibacy? Isn’t it time that it rethink women in the priesthood? Isn’t it time it rethinks its disdain for homosexuality and allows priests who are open about their homosexuality? These moves would mean that many different kinds of individuals would be attracted to the clergy than have been in the past. These would be slow steps that might begin to correct the sexual sickness of the institution. They would also bring the Catholic church into alignment with decisions of other mainline Christian churches.
But the resistance is strong — and it comes in the form of old, and dated, theological arguments, arguments based on authority, but offered with the pretense that they flow from pure reason. Jesus, the more Orthodox theologians will say, did not have female apostles. And so, the church may not have female priests. Rather than analyzing such decisions against the background of the unique culture in the Middle East of the time of Jesus, as the church does on an array of issues (from slavery to views toward hierarchical rule in politics), those making the arguments pretend that static gender roles exude from pure rationality.
Yet, their arguments are willful, not rational. They resonate in our own culture only with a very small minority of basically quite conservative churchmen, largely also politically and personally invested in the false assumptions of the argument. When evaluating whether the argument is really rational, it is informative to consider how many outside of this system actually find the argument compelling. Virtually none of those in non-Catholic Christian denominations do. Only a small percentage of American and European Catholics do. But the church’s Orthodox will argue that the fact that only the few see the reason doesn’t make it less rational. That is true enough in theory. But in the case at hand, it merely unveils a lack of ability for self-questioning and modernization.
Even these changes in the requirements for the priesthood, which would in principle just bring Catholics into sync with mainline Protestant understanding of the role of women and gays in the contemporary world, would go some way in beginning to redress the systemic sexual abuse within the church. In the Pennsylvania case, seven percent of the priests were involved in such abuse and its cover-up. This is far beyond the norm.
My own experience within Catholic institutions — while perhaps anecdotal — also provides some evidence of the severity of the problem. Among my decades of background at Catholic institutions, I was a seminarian at a Benedictine monastery for two years in the mid-1980s. There, of the eight clergy who were faculty members there, five had believable allegations of sexual misconduct brought against them. Two were brought to court for pedophilia charges against children under 12. Three had allegations brought against them for misconduct with young seminarians. That’s 62.5%. You’d be hard-pressed to find another organization with similar levels of such problems. Changes have occurred since I was there. But as the Pennsylvania report indicates, the Catholic church is still enormously sick. Unfortunately, it seems to have little capacity for understanding its own sickness, let alone for making the changes needed to appropriately address it.
We can, unfortunately, expect little movement on the issues I’ve mentioned. So the time has come for more external controls. More investigations are needed. Statutes of limitations need to be extended. Some of those involved need to go to prison. Maybe external controls will help move the recalcitrant institution to make needed changes. Let’s hope so — for the good of the children.
A note about the author:
My particular interest in this issue is related to my background having grown up Catholic and having studied philosophy and theology and taught philosophy in Catholic institutions. I attended Catholic grade school and spent some time in a Catholic high school. Besides having studied at the mentioned Benedictine monastery as a Catholic seminarian, I completed my bachelor’s degree at an archdiocesan university and finished my master’s degree in philosophy at a Jesuit university, where I was also briefly enrolled in their master’s program in theology, before going to Germany where I did my doctorate in non-Catholic university. From 2010 until August of 2018 I was a philosophy professor at an archdiocesan university in Florida (where I also served one year as an Interim Dean). I am now in the midst of a transfer to a Florida state college.