Previously, I posted about the new John Jay College report on the causes and context of the Church’s clerical sex abuse crisis. I noted some of the important and valuable lessons from the report, which we here in the Archdiocese have already been acting upon. On the whole, I believe that this report is a positive step forward for child protection in the Church and beyond.
However, I have to confess that I’m a bit dissatisfied about what this report — and, in fact, virtually every other report I’ve seen on the crisis — has failed to talk about. These kinds of studies are conducted by social scientists, and they naturally tend to look at the problem of child sexual abuse as if it’s a pragmatic issue that can be solved by practical measures like more education, safe environment programs, talk about boundaries, etc. All of those things are crucial, and go a long way to preventing further abuses.
The report seems to be based on an assumption that prevention is the best deterrent to crime. That’s certainly true, up to a point, but in the final analysis it isn’t sufficient in this situation. Prevention efforts and proper responses are necessary — largely because they were inadequate in the past, and that contributed to the problem (and in many cases caused further harm to victims).
But we’re missing a crucial point if we fail to understand that the fundamental challenge is spiritual — a struggle against the inclination to sin that rests in the human heart. In the final analysis, it’s not prevention, but conversion that is the best deterrent to sin — the way to avoid sin is to turn to God to be liberated from the sin in our hearts.
A point of decision is reached in every single case of sexual abuse — a moment at which the abuser chooses to sin, and thereby to do grievous harm to another in order to satisfy their own disordered desires. We as a Church have a special expertise and an obligation to talk about that decision and what led up to it in spiritual terms — speaking openly of sin, virtue, and spiritual battle, and not just using secular psychological/social science concepts and language.
Back in 2004, the National Review Board, established by the Bishops to oversee the implementation of the Bishops Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, issued a report on the crisis. In a very insightful part of that report, the Panel stated that “the over-riding paradigm that characterizes the crisis is one of sinfulness”. They went on to say,
The only way to combat sinfulness is with holiness. This is not a public relations battle for the approval of the press or the loyalty of the laity. It is, fundamentally, the age-old issue of good and evil. The Church must be holy; her ministers must be holy; her people must be holy. The foundation of holiness is a strong spiritual life, a life of prayer and simplicity. Priests who were truly holy would not have abused young people; nor would they have allowed others to do so.
No prevention strategy can succeed unless we stress this point. Our seminary formation program, and all our education programs for laity, must be dedicated to helping people develop the essential virtues — chastity, temperance, fortitude, and prudence. We must devote our energies tirelessly to fostering holiness. Ultimately, only in the union of virtue and vigilance can we expect to provide a truly safe environment for the children entrusted to our care.
That is what we are irrevocably committed to.