“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:5-6)
Jesus’ sober words about scandalizing young Catholics should be imprinted on the hearts of all Church employees, clerical or lay, who have anything to do with the oversight of children in the universal Church (see CCC 2284-87). The grave damage done to many victims and their families has been far-reaching, striking a severe blow to the Church in advancing her God-given Great Commission (see Mt. 28:18-20). While things have undoubtedly improved overall since the Long Lent of 2002, we still await Pope Francis’ reckoning regarding Theodore McCarrick, two years after he resigned from the College of Cardinals.
Consequently, I welcome Clerical Sexual Misconduct: An Interdisciplinary Analysis, which is edited by Doctors Jane Adolphe and Ronald Rychlak. The book, which also addresses the abuse of adults, is valued not only because of its scholarship, but also for the commitment to Catholic orthodoxy of its contributors, who realize that any remedies must be faithful to the liberating truths Jesus has revealed to his Church in particular and to mankind in general.
“When the Church suffers under the weight of the sins of her members, it is always her most devoted sons and daughters who do the heavy lifting,” says Dr. Jeffrey Mirus, founder and president of Trinity Communications, in his foreword. “What is truly remarkable about this book is the breadth and depth of the analysis of the entire sex abuse crisis from men and women possessed of deep Catholic identity and firmly committed to authentic Catholic renewal.”
Clerical Sexual Misconduct serves as a reference work to understand better the key factors that enabled the scandal to develop over time, and also proposes measures to ensure it never happens again. Mirus provides a helpful distillation of the book’s main sections:
In Part I (Challenges: Church Culture and the Social Sciences), the authors explore the data on clerical sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Considering past studies, seminary formation, the problem of homosexuality, and differences in the data over the past twenty years, this portion of the study also reflects the courage of the authors in exposing prevalent cultural myths which conceal the roots of the problem.
In Part II (Contributing Factors: Extra-Church and Intra-Church Influences), the authors set the problem of clerical sexual abuse against the background of the surrounding problems which influence it. Here they consider such things as the broader cultural roots of abuse, Catholic organizational culture, and clericalism.
In Part III (Consequences: Legal and Policy Issues) we learn much about the complexities of canon law, criminal law, and civil law as these impact the ability of both the Church and the world to punish abuse and bring it under control. This material is indispensable for an understanding of why sexual abuse has been, and continues to be, such a difficult issue to deal with effectively.
Finally, in Part IV (Charting the Course Forward: Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Reflections), the study saves readers from discouragement by identifying the authentically Catholic roots of a true solution. For most of us, who do not have to deal directly with the abuse problem, it is this part which will make us better Christians, uniting us more fully to our Incarnate Lord, and strengthening both our understanding of human sexuality and our commitment to moral life in Christ.
An index should be made for this first and any future editions, because it will aid Church leaders in navigating the book more efficiently and effectively.
Supporting priests and eliminating clericalism: Both essential for needed reform
Priests in particular must be supported and defended, so that these men of God are empowered to do the work for which Christ and the Church have called them. This means proper formation, beginning in the home, Catholic schools, and seminaries, including learning that celibacy is a gift to help them serve as spiritual fathers. “In taking the title ‘Father,’ the Catholic priest stands as an image of natural fathers and of God, the Father,” writes Dale O’Leary, a journalist and author. “[A]nd therefore sexual improprieties of any kind are rightly viewed as incestuous and blasphemous” (p. 66).
In addition, our Eucharistic Lord must be their priestly role model, devotion to the Blessed Mother encouraged to grow in chastity and charity, and fraternity among fellow priests and fellowship among faithful lay people promoted to preempt the loneliness that tempts priests from living a holy life. Dr. Robert Fastiggi, a professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, cites an exchange between an Italian journalist and the former head of the Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees the handling of clerical abuse cases, to illustrate the importance of a Christ-centered life:
Andrea Tornielli: In the face of the scandals of abuse, Benedict XVI and Francis insisted on the path of conversion and prayer….
Cardinal [Gerhard] Müller: It’s the most authentic way. There are procedures that have been established to combat the phenomenon, but spiritual renewal and conversion are more important. There are priests who never go to spiritual exercises, never approach the confessional, never pray the breviary. And when the spiritual life is empty, how can a priest act according to Christ? He risks becoming a “mercenary,” as we read in the Gospel of John (p. 312, emphasis added, alluding to John 10:10-15).
In addition, while priests and bishops need to be respected and otherwise supported in leading the Church, the Church also must be vigilant in opposing clericalism to avert another scandal, as Pope Francis has emphasized and the authors affirm. “Clericalism has contributed to the current crisis in two important ways,” write a group of women faculty members, including Dr. Janet Smith, in an appendix to the book:
First, because clericalism leads clergy to believe that they “deserve” special perks that may lead them to engage in immoral behavior; and second, because it encourages priests and bishops to dismiss legitimate criticism of bad behavior, especially criticism made by lay people. (p. 393)
The faculty members elaborate on the latter point:
In essence, it is the sense that being a priest entitles one to a certain respect above that to be bestowed on others, especially lay people—respect not just for the office but for the person of the priest and all his decisions and actions. It is the belief that because of a priest’s ordination, education, and sacrifices, he deserves special deference, even obedience, and is not to be questioned by a lay person who may have greater expertise… (Ibid.)
The cautionary tale of Cardinal Law and the need for the Church to self-police
A classic example of clericalism was the punishment—or lack thereof—that Cardinal Bernard Law experienced after his grave mishandling of sex abuse cases in the Archdiocese of Boston. While Cardinal Law was rightly removed from his episcopal office, he could have, arguably, gone to prison for his misdeeds, including for reassigning the notorious John Geoghan and Paul Shanley. Consequently, when Pope St. John Paul II reassigned Cardinal Law to head St. Mary Major, one of the four major basilicas in Rome—a prominent position the cardinal held until his retirement—it marked one of the most ill-advised decisions of John Paul’s pontificate, not least because of the pain it caused victims’ families in Boston and beyond.
A much better assignment would have been designating the cardinal to serve quietly as a confessor for a community of retired women religious, with prohibitions on his speaking and serving the Church otherwise publicly. While Cardinal Law did not directly abuse children, he enabled derelict clerics to continue committing grave sins, which is a distinction without much of difference, given the harm that resulted.
“It is no surprise that legal systems are responding,” Professor Rychlak writes. People rightfully expect civil authorities to protect them from crime. Government systems have long accommodated Church needs, but wrongdoers have exploited those accommodations. It is, therefore, not surprising to see lawmakers removing them. However, many innocent priests are now under scrutiny and feel as if they are suspects. If charged with a crime, they wonder whether prosecutors, judges, and juries would truly accord them the presumption of innocence.
But the Church is not helpless. It can and must start by policing itself (pp. 223-25).
Aiding that cause will be a new Vademecum, or guide, “On Certain Points of Procedure in Treating Cases of Sexual Abuse of Minors Committed by Clerics,” which the CDF recently issued.
Finally, in considering exceptions to a zero-tolerance policy that permits offending clerics to return to ministry after having paid their debt to society, Rychlak emphasizes that bishops
must protect the most vulnerable of the flock. That likely means that perpetrators must be placed in carefully selected positions when they have resolved their legal situations. Parents have a right to know if someone in a position of authority has previously committee crimes against children. (p. 225)
However, given the moral peril of reassigning clerics who have been justly convicted of personally abusing children—not to mention the legal liability—the Church would be wise to heed the counsel St. John Paul II gave to US cardinals in April 2002, counsel which also reaffirms the need to uphold the totality of Church teaching on sexuality if we’re to advance successfully our God-given mission:
People need to know that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young. They must know that Bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life (no. 3).
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