Sunlight is the Best Disinfecant

The Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, writing about the need for transparency in government as a way of ensuring responsibility and accountability, famously said, “Sunlight is the best disinfectant”.  Our Church has painfully learned this lesson in dealing with the problem of child sexual abuse.

The recent news articles over the past few weeks about particular cases, both here and in Europe, have fostered wide confusion about how the Church handles sex abuse cases, and about the causes of the crisis.  I’d like to offer a few reflections to shed a little sunlight on each of these topics.

The Church, like any organization, operates according to certain rules and regulations.  These can be found in the Code of Canon Law, various papal and curial documents, and in the ordinary course of doing business in chanceries and departments of the Holy See.   The failure of Church officials to govern and discipline according to the Canon Law was one of the major problems in dealing with sex abuse cases in the years before 2002.  In those days, overlapping jurisdiction, painfully slow deliberations, communication difficulties between Rome and other nations, inconsistencies between dioceses, failure of some high-ranking officials to grasp the big picture, irresponsibility and buck-passing all created significant problems and left children at risk.  These problems exploded in 2002, and damage has not yet been healed.

The Church has learned many hard lessons from this experience.  But dwelling on the failures of the past do not really help us much in moving into the future, nor does it help heal the wounds caused by evil acts and negligent leadership.

Since the American scandal broke in 2002, things have changed significantly.  The process for removing offenders from active ministry and for resolving their cases has been regularized and streamlined, due to the leadership of Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict.  The Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and the new canonical rules that go along with it, are a model for Church governance and for child protection.  Victims are not treated as threats and adversaries, but we are doing much more to reach out to them and help them heal.  And herculean efforts are being made to prevent sexual abuse in our institutions.

For those who are interested in knowing how cases are now actually handled (and who rightly do not trust the American press to describe it accurately), the Vatican has posted a short primer on their website, along with information about the response of the Church around the world.  For more information about how the Church in America has responded to the crisis, and has instituted significant reforms, you should visit the website of the U.S. Bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection.

Another major source of heat and smoke, but very little light, has been the question of the cause of child sexual abuse in the Church, particularly by clergy.

Some people have ignorantly blamed celibacy, as if living a single life necessarily disposes a person to child abuse.  Others have cited “homosexuality” as the primary cause, reasonably noting that about 80% of the victims of sexual abuse by clergy were teenaged boys.

In this inflammatory situation, we need to be very careful with our terminology. In my opinion, the problem is not “homosexuality”, as that term is ordinarily understood.

The Catechism defines “homosexuality” as “relations between men or between women who experience an exclusive or predominant sexual attraction toward persons of the same sex.” (2357)  Note the emphasis on “relations” — that is, on conduct, and not on the disordered sexual attraction alone. In the popular understanding of the word “homosexuality”, it also means that the person has accepted these feelings and actions as “normal” for them, and has organized their affectional and sexual life around them.

The real problem in the sex abuse crisis is not “homosexuality”, understood in that way.  The root of it is in the disordered sexual feelings — particularly feelings of same-sex attraction — that are experienced by men who are not well-formed in their psychological and sexual development.  On top of this is the inability or unwillingness of some men to conform their conduct to the virtue of chastity.

Merely saying “it’s a homosexual problem” finds a handy scape-goat, but doesn’t get at the real problem or the real solution — helping men who are preparing for the priesthood and who are already ordained to achieve a normal sexual and psychological development, helping them to reject any sexual feelings towards young people — again, particularly same-sex attraction — for the distortions and lies that they are, and training them spiritually to live lives of chastity and continence.

If anyone is interested in further information about homosexuality, and how it can be addressed by the Church and by mental health professionals, the best document is “Homosexuality and Hope” by the Catholic Medical Association.  The U.S. Bishops’ statement on Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclination is also an excellent resource.

In the end, sunlight — the truth — is the indispensable tool if the Church, and society as a whole, is ever going to understand the causes of child sexual abuse, heal the victims, and prevent further problems.

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