In addition to the work I do with the Respect Life Office, I am also the Director of the Safe Environment Program here at the Archdiocese. That means that I’m responsible for overseeing the implementation of some of the key provisions of the Bishops Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, particularly the sections that are aimed at preventing child sexual abuse in our institutions, and in responding appropriately to any incidents that do occur.
It’s a terrible task, because you have to talk to people about the unspeakable, and you have to prepare for the worst. And, you have to face the fact that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we try, or how diligently we work, no system of child protection is 100% effective.
But it has taught me some things that I think are relevant to the current media frenzy about child sexual abuse in the Church. Much ink has been spilled, and many electronic pixels have been created, in the last few weeks about this dreadful issue. Much heat, but really very, very little light.
Let me offer a few ideas about what we have learned in the actual work of dealing with, and preventing, child sexual abuse:
- The media is incompetent and biased against the Church. Well, we knew that already, but this latest flare-up reminded us of how poorly journalists understand (or care to) the way the Church is structured and how it works in reality. It’s funny that political reporters love to write “inside baseball” stories about how campaigns and legislatures work, but never seem interested in learning how the Church actually operates. Of course, the media is not the ultimate problem, and we have to get over that.
- The vast majority of our priests and bishops are good, holy men. Well, we knew that already, too, but it can’t be emphasized enough. The “bad apples” amounted to a tiny percentage of our clergy. It is grossly unjust and iniquitous that all priests and bishops have been lumped into the same category as the offenders. We need to be very careful about how we speak about our clergy, especially to make sure that they know how much we love and respect them. We also need to be sure to understand that our priests are an essential part of the solution to this issue — their leadership and example is indispensable.
- The problem is not limited to the Church. Yes, the vast majority of sexual abuse takes place not in Church institutions, but in other places — particularly in schools and in homes. But, in the end, that doesn’t matter. We can’t get hung up on pointing fingers at others. We have to look in the mirror at ourselves, and make sure that we’re doing whatever we can to make our institutions safe.
- The problem is not celibacy. Just to clarify our terms, in the Roman Catholic Church, priests undertake two obligations — celibacy and continence. Celibacy means that they will remain unmarried, continence means that they will not engage in any kind of sexual activity. To suggest that marriage is a cure-all for sexual abuse, or that being single and continent is a cause of sexual abuse, is absurd.
- The victims are not the enemy. One of the worst things that the Church — and law enforcement officials — did in the past was to treat the victims of sexual abuse in an adversarial way. Too often, they were ignored, disbelieved, and treated as potential litigants to be kept at arms’ length. You will recall the disgusting comment by former-Archbishop Weakland that “Not all adolescent victims are so innocent. Some can be sexually very active and aggressive and often quite streetwise.” If we’ve learned anything, it’s that victims are to be healed, not blamed.
- The problem is not “homosexuality” or “gay” priests. These terms are thrown around very loosely, and we have to be careful about what we’re saying. As used in ordinary speech, the term “homosexuality” refers to a settled affectional and sexual preference for members of the same sex, which one accepts as an organizing principle of one’s life. The word “gay”, which is primarily a political term that means not just accepting “homosexuality” but celebrating it as the equal of heterosexuality, is not helpful to the discussion. It is unfair and unjust to allege or imply that child sexual abuse can be blamed exclusively or primarily on homosexual persons.
- Nevertheless, we would be deluding ourselves if we didn’t admit that same-sex attraction has been a factor here. All we have to do is look at the profile of victims of priestly sexual abuse (about 80% have been adolescent males), and we see that reality. This is not true of sexual abuse in society as a whole, but we can’t address the problem in our Church unless we acknowledge it.
- The sexual abuse of children is primarily the result of disordered psycho-sexual development. If there’s one thing that everyone should agree upon, it’s that a normal adult should not be sexually attracted to children or adolescents, and that such feelings are a symptom of a problem in the person’s psycho-sexual development. Good sexual development has to be an essential part of the formation of priests. But we lay people have to recognize that we bear a considerable burden here too. We cannot expect our priests to have good sexual development if we aren’t doing our share to create a culture of virtue in our Church.
- The problem can’t be dealt with by therapy alone. In many, many cases, our bishops, acting in good faith, trusted the word of therapists who assured them that offending priests could be returned to ministry because they were in treatment, or had completed a course of therapy. This proved to be a disastrous mistake. Therapy can certainly help those with problems in their psycho-sexual development. But some people just cannot be allowed to be around young people, and strong steps have to be taken to ensure that they are not.
- A key answer to the problem involves life-long training in sexual virtue — in chastity. All persons — married, single, clergy — are called to live a life of chastity (see the Catechism, no. 2348). This means that we must integrate our feelings into a healthy adult sexuality, and live according to our state in life. We all experience difficulties in this, as the result of original sin, the temptations of the Evil One, and the sex-saturated culture that we swim in. We are sinners, and we sin. But chastity is possible, even if it is difficult, with the help of God. Everybody, including those with seriously disordered sexual feelings, and those who experience same-sex attraction, can still live chaste lives. Good spiritual development, and the formation of healthy chaste relationships, are essential in this task. This is where the Theology of the Body can be a powerful tool — it is a wonderful way to foster sexual virtue, no matter what one’s state in life.
Much of what we’ve learned from the problem of child sexual abuse in the Church comes down to two words — virtue and vigilance. We have to be vigilant in screening all those who deal with children, training them as to the proper ways to behave with minors and in how to recognize potential dangers, supervising them, and responding properly to any incident.
But we must also foster a culture of virtue — especially chastity and prudence. That’s the most important lesson we’ve learned.