Swimming the Tiber 35: A Serious Issue

Up to this point, most of my posts have included a humorous undercurrent (or at least I like to think so). I’m going to do my best to avoid that this time around. I need to spend a short post to talk about something very serious and recent when it comes to accusations against the Catholic Church: the clerical abuse scandal.

To be honest, I planned and wrote this post before Cardinal Pell was recalled to Australia to face charges on multiple counts of sexual assault of a minor while he was a seminarian (Victoria semi-recently lifted the statute of limitations on child abuse). I didn’t think this would be so completely topical, but suffice it to say this: If he is guilty, may justice be done to bring the victims as much peace as is possible, and if he is not guilty, may justice likewise be served by the dismissal of this case. But now let us return to this regularly scheduled post.

Between the 1950s and today, thousands of people in the United States, and more worldwide, have accused Catholic priests of sexual abuse of minors. In many of these cases, the allegations were known to Church officials and were not dealt with properly. Since then, a number of investigative reports have been released and the widespread problem has been brought into view.

There is no defense for this. There is no justification. There are two things: (1) to know why this happened (so we can prevent it in the future), and (2) to determine whether the Catholic Church is safe for my children.

Question 1 has been given fairly extensive study by Rome, by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), by the media, and by the public in general over the last 20 years. The problems were manifold, but I will try to summarize.

  1. Priestly sexual abuse of minors was not known to be widespread. Individual bishops in individual dioceses handled allegations against priests without much discussion among those bishops. This allowed the problem to continue relatively unchecked without an organized effort against it.
  2. Common medical opinion suggested that child abusers could be treated, cured, and returned to society. Although opposed early by some, there was a general idea at the time that men who abused children could, like alcoholics and drug addicts, be corrected and returned to ministry. This was obviously an incorrect assessment, and repeat offenders were allowed to access children again and continue their abuse.
  3. Some cases were specifically covered up. There have been anti-Catholic arguments that the Pope himself is personally responsible for every abusive cleric (he isn’t–see above about how these cases were handled generally), but there really were bishops who covered up abuse in their dioceses–again allowing repeat offenders to continue their abuse. This is unconscionable.

There have been other explanations by other people, but these seem to me the salient points.

Now to question 2: Is the Catholic Church a safe place for my children? The short answer is, “As safe as anywhere else, if not safer.”

In the first place, the Church has done a remarkable job of turning this around. They have acknowledged the problem and apologized for it, but more than that, they have taken steps to avoid it in the future. Every priest is evaluated closely for these tendencies before being put in a position. Educators, teachers, and anyone who looks after children (at, say, Sunday school or a church retreat) must undergo education, not only about the evils of abuse, but about how to spot signs of it in children. Children are likewise educated in Catholic schools. Every volunteer, paid employee, and seminarian undergoes background checks. Of course, every offender engages in a “first-time offense,” so background checks are not always productive. To avoid point 1 above, these investigations are taken not merely to the diocese but to Rome. Substantiated allegations immediately result in the laicization of the priest (defrocking, i.e., removal from the priesthood).

There are still problems, yes. Rome has a backlog of cases to investigate, for example. Priests, of all people, are called to a higher standard, and we should like to think that this would never happen at all. But remember that the Church has both sinners and saints in her ranks; some of the chaff are evil indeed, and we must be wary. Child molesters seek out places where they have access to children; the Catholic Church has many schools, but so does the government, and there’s no indication that priests are more likely to abuse children than others in similar positions of authority over children, whether at Protestant churches or in public or private schools.

Anecdotally, I taught at a public school for one year. In that time, a (female) special education teacher at the same school I taught at was fired after being charged (and later convicted) for sexual abuse of minors. I didn’t know her personally, but the number of children abused by adults in schools is staggering and should not be taken lightly just because there is greater media focus on churches.

Which returns me to my short answer to question 2 above: The Catholic Church is as safe as anywhere else, if not safer. The spotlight on the Church and her focused efforts and increased cooperation seem to me to make her even safer than, say, educational institutions with very little oversight. I fully intend to keep a wary eye over my children and to educate them thoroughly as I am able, especially as they get old enough to spend time in educational settings. That goes the same whether they are in a CCD class at the local parish, a parochial school, a private school, a public school, or with a tutor. “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance,” said John Curran (not Thomas Jefferson), and that applies to our free will as well as to our democratic liberties. It is our duty as parents to contend with the world on behalf of our children, as our heavenly Father does for us, and that responsibility does not end in even the safest place.

There is one more question that some will ask, though I do not: Doesn’t a scandal of this magnitude, from even your bishops and cardinals, prove that the Catholic Church is false and corrupt? The short answer is no. The medium version (I haven’t time for a lengthy one) is this: If we abandoned the Church every time one of her leaders was a sinful man, this whole Christendom thing never would have gotten off the ground. The objective Truth we find in Catholicism does not depend on the moral standing of her clergy (praise the Lord!), but rather upon the divine Word, who said that the gates of Hell would never overcome his beloved Church.

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