Sowing, Reaping, and Protecting

Our nation has been horrified over the past few months with revelations of sexual misconduct by major political and artistic figures. This follows the disclosure last year of the President’s sexual misconduct and the rehashing of past sexual scandals involving powerful political figures like President Clinton. Along with the new allegations have been numerous instances of cover-up conspiracies, cultures of fear and silence, and punishing and intimidating of victims and witnesses.

All of this is way too familiar for us in the Church. It is startlingly similar to the crimes of clerical sexual abuse against minors, and the failure to respond to those allegations, all of which began to come to light in 2001. We have learned many hard lessons from our past failures, and we are continually challenged to keep improving.

One thing we have learned is that sexual abuse of vulnerable people comes from many causes, and that there are many ways that we can respond to it.

One major contributing factor has been the destruction of all norms of sexual morality that came about from the Sexual Revolution. A climate of “anything goes as long as there’s some kind of consent” seems to be the only operating principle of sexual ethics in our culture. And even that standard seems to be optional among the rich and powerful. Gone are the virtues of modesty, chastity, continence, self-control, respect, and temperance. They have been replaced by a hedonistic worldview that treats human beings as mere bodies to be used for pleasure – a pornographic culture. Virtue has been superseded by vice. And we are left with the disordered sexual feelings that have eclipsed healthy sexuality and replaced it with lust.

This cultural ethos certainly infected the Church – we are not at all immune from social trends and attitudes. And it definitely pervades the entertainment industry, which has also been its principal propagandist. And, of course, the political world has been inundated with it. This shouldn’t surprise us, especially when you consider the toxic formula that produces it. The loss of sexual virtue plus the glorification of vice plus tremendous power imbalance in relationships equals a structure of sin that inevitably harms weak and vulnerable people – and in our culture, that principally means young women and men, and especially children.

St. Paul hit it on the nose: “whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Gal 6:7). And we have certainly reaped the whirlwind. The calamitous results of the Sexual Revolution are uniformly depressing and tragic, as the daily headlines demonstrate. Just consider: 50+ million unborn children lost; the destruction of the nuclear family in large parts of our nation as marriage rates have gone down and out-of-wedlock births have skyrocketed; robbing children of their innocence and normalizing early sexual activity, which has disastrous consequences for mental and physical health; confusion about sexuality that even leads people to doubt the reality that we are made as male and female; an epidemic of sexually-transmitted disease, some of which are fatal and incurable; massive increases in depression in women and young people; the explosion and mainstreaming of pornography, which is fed by the appallingly exploitive human trafficking industry; and on, and on, and on. The number of victims grows daily.

And the behavior we’ve seen reported falls right into this disgraceful legacy. Some of it is as bad as it gets: rapes committed on the “casting couch”;  forcible grabbing and groping of private parts; pursuing, grooming and molesting minors. Others are not as grave but still appalling, particularly the persistent and egregious courses of sexual harassment like repeated lewd comments and unwelcome solicitations of sex. Organizations have rallied around the powerful to cover up their abuses, and the weak have been cast aside. I’ve been involved in policing this behavior for a long time and it still astonishes me how brazen and unprincipled some people are.

We’ve learned from our own history in the Church that there are concrete ways to prevent – or at least minimize – sexual abuse and harassment. The willingness of victims to come forward is the first and most important step in preventing the whirlwind from taking more casualties. That is the only way that we can remove offenders from circulation and prevent future victimization.

Of course, victims won’t come forward unless they know that they will be listened to and that justice will be done. Recent events and campaigns like #MeToo have shown that many are willing to speak up once they know that people will listen. Unfortunately, it’s also obvious that some people would rather re-victimize them in order to protect a powerful person like Harvey Weinstein or an institution like a Hollywood studio, to advance the political career of a person like Roy Moore, or to preserve a GOP advantage in the US Senate. We have to make clear that this kind of re-victimization is utterly unacceptable and reprehensible, and that there is no excuse for overlooking sexual abuse to serve some utilitarian agenda.

It’s also essential that victims understand that we want to help them to heal. The transition from victim to survivor is difficult to manage, and it’s a very individual thing. If an organization is serious about responding to sexual misconduct, they have to be willing to invest time, effort and money to helping victims heal. We’ve done that recently and successfully here in the Archdiocese with our Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program.

We also have to have an up-front commitment that there will be no toleration of sexual abuse or harassment, and that an organization’s efforts will be held accountable and be transparent. There have to be clear standards and they have to be enforced consistently and reasonably. This is especially important in the sexual harassment arena, because the boundaries of acceptable behavior are malleable and uncertain right now, and it would be a tragedy if normal human relations are deterred because of unnecessary fear and suspicion.

The ultimate response to the scourge of sexual misconduct is to re-develop a climate of virtue. Authentic sexual desire is a gift from God, intended to lead us ultimately to the mutual self-gift of marriage. It can also be expressed in altruistic and chaste friendships, and in many other positive and healthy relationships in the workplace and elsewhere. If we could restore an ethos of sexual virtue, then that would be a genuine Sexual Revolution.

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