The Crisis — Causes, Effects, and an Answer

Two recent events have once again brought the issue of clerical sexual abuse to the forefront here in the Archdiocese. The first is a source of great sadness and anguish. The second is the source of indispensable wisdom about the causes and effects of sexual abuse in our Church.

The List

The first event is release of the list of 120 Archdiocesan clergy who were either (a) credibly accused of sexually abusing a minor or possessing child pornography, or (b) the subject of a claim that our Independent Reconciliation and Compensation Program (IRCP) considered eligible for compensation.

The distinction between the two categories is important. Some of the clergymen on the list whose cases where our independent lay Review Board found that an allegation was credible and substantiated. It’s essential to note that neither the Review Board nor the IRCP is a court of law, they’re not bound by the evidence rules under civil or criminal law, and – most important – in the case of many of the IRCP cases the clergymen were either dead or already out of ministry and thus did not have the opportunity to defend themselves.

This list has gotten a lot of attention. And it will not be the last bit of bad news that we hear – far from it. But some very important facts haven’t gotten enough attention. No clergyman is currently in service who has had a credible allegation of child sexual abuse. The vast majority of the cases are old – most occurred between the 1960’s and the early 1990’s. There have been no credible claims against a clergyman who was ordained since the Bishops’ Charter was adopted in 2002. And we have only had two credible cases since 2002, although there are two others that are still pending in the criminal justice system. We have clearly been successful in mitigating the damage and risk.

Still, even one case is too many, and we have devoted enormous resources to preventing any further offenses and responding appropriately to any new allegations. Failure is simply unacceptable.

There is one thing that is particularly significant about this list, something that is missing from it – the victims. Behind the name of each one of the clergymen on that list there are victims, in some cases only one, but in other cases many. Over 350 victims received compensation from the IRCP, and there are more who never applied. Each one of those victims was betrayed, desecrated, violated and assaulted by one of the men on the list. The effect on them, their pain and suffering, and in many cases the destruction of their lives, cannot be adequately reflected in any list. Someone said to me recently that they feel sorry for the clergymen whose names are on the list. I understand that sentiment, but my primary sympathy is for the men and women whose names will never be revealed, who have suffered and continue to suffer in silence and anonymity.

Pope Emeritus Benedict 

The other recent event is something that should get much more attention, because it gets directly at the heart of the causes and effects of the scandal – an article written by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on “The Church and the scandal of sexual abuse”.  This provides the key to understanding the deeper significance of the list and of the entire contagion of sexual abuse. It also shows us the way to hope out of this darkness.

Benedict identifies a number of key causes that led to the scandal. First and foremost, he finds its roots in the 1960’s in the sexual revolution:

… in the 1960s an egregious event occurred, on a scale unprecedented in history. It could be said that in the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely, and a new normalcy arose…. Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms.

This is undeniably true, as anyone who lived in the 1960’s and 1970’s could attest. The traditional morality that insisted on the link between sex and marriage, and sex and procreation, was swept away and replaced with a new mindset in which sex was merely a form of entertainment for which the only ethical rule was consent. And, as Benedict points out repeatedly, once the traditional moral standards were eliminated, there was nothing to stop some people from justifying sex with minors.

The second key cause was the internal collapse of Catholic moral theology, which had traditionally been rooted in Scripture and natural law, and which held firmly to the doctrine that there are some acts that are never morally acceptable. This was also swept away by academic theologians, bishops, and poorly formed priests who instead held to a morality that in effect served as a permission slip to sin. This was further facilitated by a rejection of the authority of the Church to pronounce definitive doctrines on matters of morality. Benedict says,

In the end, it was chiefly the hypothesis that morality was to be exclusively determined by the purposes of human action that prevailed. While the old phrase “the end justifies the means” was not confirmed in this crude form, its way of thinking had become definitive. Consequently, there could no longer be anything that constituted an absolute good, any more than anything fundamentally evil; (there could be) only relative value judgments. There no longer was the (absolute) good, but only the relatively better, contingent on the moment and on circumstances.

In other words, anything could be considered morally acceptable under the “right” circumstances and with the “right” motives. It is easy to see where this leads – to a regime of no rules, of “anything goes”, where everyone is the ultimate judge of what is good and evil, and where “the Church should stay out of the bedroom”. Of course, once authentic morality is pushed “out of the bedroom”, any kind of sexual act becomes justifiable, including sex with minors.

According to Benedict, this corrosive anti-morality was conveyed to priests in flawed seminary formation and reinforced by bishops who “rejected the Catholic tradition as a whole and sought to bring about a kind of new, modern ‘Catholicity’ in their dioceses”. Does anyone seriously doubt that this happened? One of the major initiatives of the papacies of Popes John Paul and Benedict was to push back against the “dictatorship of relativism” and to restore authentic Catholic moral doctrine – that was the purpose of the great encyclical Veritatis Splendor.

Benedict then shines a light on the heart of the matter. While speaking of the effort to make changes in the Canon Law to permit better enforcement of its criminal law in cases of abuse of minors, he says this:

In fact, it is important to see that such misconduct by clerics ultimately damages the Faith. Only where faith no longer determines the actions of man are such offenses possible…. A society without God – a society that does not know Him and treats Him as non-existent – is a society that loses its measure. In our day, the catchphrase of God’s death was coined. When God does die in a society, it becomes free, we were assured. In reality, the death of God in a society also means the end of freedom, because what dies is the purpose that provides orientation. And because the compass disappears that points us in the right direction by teaching us to distinguish good from evil…. Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God.

Of course this is true. Nobody can legitimately and truly believe in God, and know and love him in their heart, and commit such heinous acts.

The loss of God can be seen vividly, Benedict argues, in the lack of reverence for the Eucharist and a lack of understanding of the true nature of the Church. For many, the Eucharist is treated as a mere ceremony to mark family events, without any sense of the Real Presence of Christ – body, blood, soul and divinity – in the Blessed Sacrament. The lack of reverence for the Body of Christ cannot help but lead to a lack of respect for the image of God that is in the body of every human being.

Likewise, the Church is seen only as a political apparatus that can be re-made by us into whatever we wish. Benedict sees the falsehood in that view: “The crisis, caused by the many cases of clerical abuse, urges us to regard the Church as something almost unacceptable, which we must now take into our own hands and redesign. But a self-made Church cannot constitute hope.” This, he argues, is the agenda of the Evil One, who wants to lead us away from God – by considering the Church as purely a human entity created for human ends that is thoroughly corrupted by the evil acts of some of her members. This message of despair causes people to look at the list of offenders, reject the Church and turn away from God. That road leads to destruction.

The Answer

Benedict offers a solution to the problem. It isn’t a pragmatic program, agenda for legal reform, or bureaucratic structure. As such, it won’t satisfy anyone who sees the problem of clerical sexual abuse as purely a human phenomenon. All those things are vitally important but they aren’t sufficient. Benedict offers instead a response that gets to the real root causes:

It is very important to oppose the lies and half-truths of the devil with the whole truth: Yes, there is sin in the Church and evil. But even today there is the Holy Church, which is indestructible. Today there are many people who humbly believe, suffer and love, in whom the real God, the loving God, shows Himself to us. Today God also has His witnesses (martyres) in the world. We just have to be vigilant in order to see and hear them….

Today’s Church is more than ever a “Church of the Martyrs” and thus a witness to the living God. If we look around and listen with an attentive heart, we can find witnesses everywhere today, especially among ordinary people, but also in the high ranks of the Church, who stand up for God with their life and suffering.

There are many who will look at the list of offenders and despair. But the true response to the list and to the crisis in general is instead one of hope. God offers us, through his Church, all we need to deal with both the causes and effects of this terrible scandal of sin. Prayer for and with those who suffer, the intercessory help of our Blessed Mother and the saints, acts of reparation, devotion to Divine Mercy, and above all the sacraments, particularly the Eucharist – all these will help us to be witnesses to the great goodness of God, to reject all the lies of the Evil One, and to purify the Bride of Christ so that nobody will ever suffer from abuse again.

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