Unless you have been living under a rock, you have been bombarded in recent weeks by daily reporting of the sexploits of the rich and famous, which disclosures coincide with the fifteenth anniversary of similar reporting about the clergy sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Permit me to reflect on both phenomena.
Blame and anger
As clergy sex abuse revelations were emerging with nerve-wracking regularity during what the late Father Richard John Neuhaus dubbed “the long Lent” of 2002, several elements formed what might be called a composite picture. With the older priests, it was generally a case of a formation which took no account of one’s sexuality, assuming that priests were as asexual as angels. With the younger brethren, it was almost universally a case of bad (no, let’s call it by its right name, “heretical”) moral theology taught in the seminaries of the sixties and seventies (to which theology I was subjected). The vast majority of the accused lived alone or were “loners”. In the cohort of younger priests, again, heretical views in ecclesiology had been presented, as well as little to no exposure to the meaning and dignity of the priesthood, so that one would never want to bring shame to the Church or one’s holy vocation (once more, I lived through such “formation” or lack thereof). In other words, sinful and shameful behavior was inevitable; the great miracle is that so few men actually succumbed – a fact rarely if ever acknowledged by the media. Consult the John Jay study for further documentation. Presently we have the media darling, Jesuit Father James Martin, serving as the spokesman for the very positions that got us into the mess, to begin with.
Now, as to how bishops handled the problem. In short order, it became eminently clear that the cases coming to the fore were not instances of pedophilia; rather, they were homosexual acts engaged in by priests with young men (post-pubescent teens). I advised numerous bishops not to refer to these acts as pedophilia – because, in the vast majority of cases, they were not. Calling them by a wrong name was inaccurate, misleading and bound to reap the whirlwind. Truth be told, if they had been labeled as homosexual, most media outlets would have buried the stories, lest they be accused of “gay bashing.”
It is certainly true that the main source of public anger stemmed from the fact that bishops shuttled abusing priests from assignment to assignment. And here, I have some degree of sympathy for bishops. Why? Because they were told by “professionals,” that is, psychologists and psychiatrists, that these men had been rehabilitated and were apt candidates for reintegration into active ministry. Bishops were caught between a rock and a hard spot. Many of them doubted that true rehabilitation had occurred or was even possible; their instinct told them not to return such offenders to public ministry. On the other hand, had they not followed the counsel of the “professionals,” they would have been pilloried in the media as prime examples of a backward, medieval, science-denying institution.
Where bishops cannot be excused is how so many priests were treated. All too often, an accusation was treated as fact. In not a few cases, priests exonerated by civil authorities were nonetheless declared guilty by bishops and/or diocesan review boards. Many bishops threw priests under the bus by agreeing to financial settlements without the knowledge and consent of the priests in question, thus exposing these men to the appearance of guilt (why else dole out thousands or even millions of dollars?). Yet again, such episcopal behavior came about due to the advice of lawyers and insurance companies – with the result that the reputation of clergy and the patrimony of a diocese were wrecked. Violating the legal axiom of “testis unus, testis nullus” (one witness is no witness), a simple accusation of a single individual was deemed valid. Equally problematic was the refusal of the hierarchy as a whole to fight fire with fire by suing those who had made false accusations – and even forbidding priests from suing to vindicate their own good name. Likewise, eliminating the statute of limitations in church law was an egregious error; ironically, though, dioceses fought tooth and nail against eliminating the statute of limitations in civil law! In short, hysteria prevailed.
I am writing this editorial shortly after the death of Cardinal Bernard Law, a churchman who, unfortunately, is totally identified with missteps of his in regard to clergy abuse. He was a leader in the civil rights struggle, a promoter of ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, the man most responsible for Pope John Paul’s decision to commission a catechism, a staunch defender of Catholic orthodoxy. Truth be told, as Phil Lawler points out in a recent First Things essay, Cardinal Law did nothing different from many bishops in the country:”Law was not unique—nor even unusual—in his approach…” Law was merely the scapegoat. As a matter of fact, he did nothing different from every other entity in society. I hope that God’s judgment of him is more just than that of so many human beings.
Hollywood and Humanae vitae
Now a new round of hysteria is in evidence. Not a few of the current accusations in society-at-large border on the absurd. A media mogul invites you to his hotel room at ten o’clock at night to discuss your bright future. Did you really think you were going to be praying the rosary there? A congressman opens his office door in his underwear. Did you really think he wanted you to pick up his slacks at the cleaner’s?
The legitimate accusations, on the other hand, should come as no surprise. The current drama of Hollywood stars, media types, athletes and politicians is the fruit of the hyper-sexualization of society as a whole for decades at every level. As I have written before, when the Catholic Church of the fifties and sixties counseled against suggestive language and jokes or “dirty” books and magazines and movies, the Church was ruthlessly mocked as being grossly out of step with modernity. In the present moment, a puritanism is surfacing which will make the Catholic approach of an earlier era look permissive. Further, when Blessed Paul VI in Humanae Vitae warned that a contraceptive mentality would bring in its wake the degradation of women, along with a rise in fornication and adultery, he was classified as a Cassandra. In 1981, St. John Paul II, in his landmark document, Familiaris Consortio, offered the antidote: “. . . husbands and wives should first of all recognize clearly the teaching of Humanae Vitae as indicating the norm for the exercise of their sexuality and they should endeavor to establish the conditions necessary for observing that norm” (n. 34).
It is perversely humorous to recall that clerical sex abuse was blamed on celibacy. How many of the current crop of the accused are celibate or even know what that means?
When priests sought legal assistance from their dioceses, they were told it would be unseemly for the diocese to assist them; they were on their own. We now discover that the Congress of the United States has had a slush fund all along to provide funding on behalf of accused members of Congress both for legal assistance and compensation for accusers.
Self-righteous Hollywooders currently express amazement and disgust at what has been uncovered. Really? Hollywood has had a reputation for licentiousness as far back as my boyhood – and they have certainly produced every kind of filth imaginable for decades. The advertising industry has also promoted smut for years on end. As I write, Dolce & Gabbana has a commercial in which a woman is undressing a man. Is this not dehumanizing? Is this not making someone an object of one’s passions? A new film, a winner at the Cannes film festival, “Call Me by My Name,” glorifies a relationship between an adult male and a teenage boy. IMDB (International Media Data Base) proffers this bland assessment: “In Northern Italy in 1983, seventeen year-old Elio begins a relationship with visiting Oliver, his father’s research assistant, with whom he bonds over his emerging sexuality, their Jewish heritage, and the beguiling Italian landscape.” Other reviews are even effusive about it all.
Indeed, the Catholic psychiatrist Dr. Richard Fitzgibbons has opined on this matter based on years of observation of patients demonstrating what he terms “sexually aggressive behaviors” (SAB). He concludes that “this personality disorder is widespread in our time and results in the belief that one has the right to use others as sexual objects.” He regards this reality as “definitely of epidemic proportions.” How has this happened? The leading cultural factor in this epidemic is the media – particularly television shows and movies whose goals are celebrating sexual ‘freedom.’ Hostility toward Judaeo-Christian morality among politicians, educators, celebrities and public figures is also a contributing factor to SAB.”
Who’s obsessed with sex?
How pervasive is this problem? Allow me to share but four of many possible anecdotes from my personal experience.
A few years ago, I was on a shuttle bus to Newark Airport. A family of husband, wife and three children boarded. Apparently the thirteen-or-so-old boy was not enamored of the trip to Florida for a winter vacation. The father tried to improve his attitude by saying, “Hey, kid, listen: You’ll be able to find all kinds of hot girls there. You won’t want to leave!” Seeing me across the aisle, the father said, “Well, padre, you know how kids are today!” To which, I responded, “My problem is not with the kids but with their parents.” The response of silence was deafening.
A mother approached me with great concern and fear that her daughter was a lesbian, and she wanted to send the girl to a therapist (the father opposed the plan). Naturally, I asked what made her think that. “She’s the only girl in her class who doesn’t have a steady boyfriend.” “I would thank God for that, if I were you,” I replied. “How old is she?” I inquired. “She’s in third grade,” came the response. “Ah, I agree that psychotherapy is indicated. For you, not for her!”
An eighty-year-old woman confessed adultery – the one and only time of her sixty-year marriage. “Why would you want to ruin such a wonderful record of fidelity?” asked I. “Well, Father, when my grand-daughter tells me about all her sexual experiences, I begin to regret everything I have missed out on.” And these are the people that Pope Francis tells us whom young people ought to be consulting and emulating!
For a number of years, I was the “go-to” guy for Larry King. Whenever he had some Catholic deviant scheduled, he had me come on to provide “the Catholic response.” One day, Larry said, “What’s with the Catholic Church’s hang-up on sex?” I replied that I was unaware of any. He pressed: “The Catholic Church is obsessed with sex.” I thought it was important to provide an intelligent rejoinder. “Larry,” I asked, “have I ever asked to be on your show?” “No.” “When asked to be on, did I ever suggest a topic?” “No.” “I have been on six or seven times to date. For the first show, we had a Jesuit womanizer from Los Angeles, who was expelled from his order. The second show featured a Jesuit psychiatrist who was a dissenter from Church teaching on same-sex relations and who revealed that he had been living with his male lover for years. On the third show, we heard about the former Archbishop of Atlanta and his long-term relationship with a woman. The fourth show highlighted a Michigan priest who had been secretly married to a woman. Who’s obsessed with sex?” Silence.
With all the sectors of society being dragged out of their closets of sexual aberrations, bishops and Catholics in general ought to offer society-at-large our experience of how to deal with this epidemic (after all, out of roughly 48,000 priests in our nation, fewer than a dozen accusations surfaced last year). Of course, the untouchables to this moment have been public school teachers, who have been shuffled around school districts for decades. In New York City, a credibly accused teacher is not fired; he or she is sent to “the rubber room” to record attendance figures, all the while collecting the same salary. Lest we forget, all too many accused priests were given two hours to vacate their rectories and often left penniless (until not a few bishops decided to bribe them with a few thousand dollars into seeking laicization, so as to make the problem go away).
One of the mandates given Pope Francis by the cardinals who elected him was to deal with clerical sex abuse around the world. His handling of the situation has been underwhelming. Bishops who have protected errant priests have been promoted by him; priests who had been laicized were reactivated by the Pope (who eventually had to be re-laicized!). Members of the pontifical commission for the protection of minors have resigned because of his ambivalent signals.
With all the above said, what some people have failed to understand is that abuser-priests (like all other abusers) come from sick families and a sick society. What can and should be done by committed believers? Speak out against the sexualization of every aspect of life. Insist on public portrayals of children and adults as subjects, not objects for self-gratification. Promote and defend the tried and true Christian view of marriage, family and sexuality. Live those norms yourself.