Letters & Op-Eds 2002

Cardinals’ Sins, Clerical Crimes

Can there be anyone left who does not know that the Roman Catholic Church is in the throes of perhaps the greatest crisis of moral credibility it has faced in centuries? Thousands of articles in the U.S. press reported on thousands of cases of molestation of children and teens by Roman Catholic priests, including some bishops. Some priests sexually assaulted once, others repeatedly. Most reported cases happened 20 or 30 years ago but were settled only recently or are still in the courts. Equally horrifying is the fact that many predatory priests were reassigned again and again to parishes where they continued to abuse minors. And-despite the fact that the church had paid up to one billion dollars in settlements and hush money-cardinals, bishops, and their lawyers to this day follow and aggressive blame the victim strategy. Tactics include requiring the abused to give detailed testimony about the abuse, intimidating parents into silence for the good of the church, transferring priests to other countries to avoid prosecution, claiming diplomatic immunity, and even-in April 2002-filing court papers claiming as a defense that the parents of a six-year old child were “negligent. ” As they continue their massive abuse of power, Catholic authorities say they didn’t understand the problem 20 years ago, but now do, and thus the problem is essentially solved.

Excuse me while I remain suspicious. Wasn’t it just last year that the Vatican ignored reports of on-going sexual abuse of nuns by priests in at least 23 countries, many in Africa? Haven’t I talked with lawyers in Ireland, feminists in Mexico, and read about cases in Australia, Austria, Britain, Canada, France, and Germany? Didn’t the Pope just accept the resignation of his close friend the archbishop of Poznan, Poland, who was repeatedly accused of sexually abusing teenage seminarians? Haven’t the bishops who covered up the priestly pedophilia been the same bishops who lied to us about birth control, saying it is intrinsically evil when they no full well there is no theological basis for banning it? Once you get comfortable lying, it gets easier all the time. Meanwhile, church leaders and right-wing Catholics have latched onto the scandal to push their homophobic agendas. Get rid of homosexuals in the priesthood, they say. The sane right-wingers claim the problem is U.S. sexual licentiousness.

What is it that the Pope and bishops don’t get? The roots of the problems lie in the sins of sexism and elitism. Priests who abuse and bishops who defend them believe preserving male power and privilege is more important than respecting the bodies and dignity of children and women. Priests who are, the church admits, often psychosexually immature are bound to seek those they can dominate sexually. Celibacy does not cause pedophilia, but a diverse mature priesthood that included women and men, gay and straight, married and single people, would go a long way toward creating a community in which domination of the defenseless was unacceptable.

Does every crisis have a silver lining? Hard as it is to put such suffering in that context, the loss of moral credibility generated by the crisis will make it hard for the church to claim that they speak “for life,” that abortion should be illegal, emergency contraception banned even for women who have been raped, or condoms forbidden to prevent HIV/AIDS.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2002 edition of Ms. Magazine.

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