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Preempting clerical sex abuse

New book analyzes what went wrong and what must go right for the Church to move forward.


“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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About Thomas J. Nash 13 Articles
Thomas J. Nash is a Contributing Apologist and Speaker for Catholic Answers and a Contributing Blogger for the National Catholic Register. He is the author of What Did Jesus Do?: The Biblical Roots of the Catholic Church and The Biblical Roots of the Mass. He has served the Catholic Church professionally for more than 35 years, including as a Theology Advisor for the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).


  1. This reader surely is not competent to critique “Clerical Sexual Misconduct: An Interdisciplinary Analysis” (Jane Adolphe/Ronald Rychlak, editors). HOWEVER, I very recently wonder if we are simply walking a sort of Maginot Line, which did not work so well against an earlier Blitzkrieg…

    What is afoot today—-of which the sexual abuse crisis itself is mostly a SYMPTOM—-is the bypassing of those “primal certainties” which St. Paul had clearly in mind: “When the Gentiles who have no law do by nature what the Law prescribes, these having no law are a law unto themselves. They show the work of the Law written in their hearts” (Romans 2:14-15).

    Those primal certainties are the innate knowledge that real good and real evil actually DO EXIST, and the innate knowledge of which is which. (Truth is the correspondence of the mind to THE REAL, not merely to speculative theology.)

    Rather than this givenness and innate language of Natural Law, are we being danced into a dialect of what is simply “PERMISSIBLE” or “INADMISSIBLE”?
    Pope Benedict wrote of such a complete reversal of values: “[…] it is a rupture with the entire moral tradition of mankind. There are no longer any values independent of the goals of progress, and everything can be permissible [!] or even necessary—-moral, in the new sense of the term [!]—-in a given situation” (Values in the Time of Upheaval, 2006).

    So, even BEFORE routinely applying disciplinary or even multidisciplinary expertise and forensic analysis to researchable causative factors, matched by calibrated corrective actions…instead, is even this effort a kind of shell game, for example, first decoyed by the fig-leaf “pedophilia” (less than one-fifth of the cases), and then by fig-leaf “clericalism,” and then…? The subliminal “rupture” in town is “morality, in the new sense of the term”–very primal certainties being displaced by the situational dialect of what is superficially “permissible” or “inadmissible.”

  2. You paint a mural of beauty, but forget the weakness of man.

    “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.” You forgot to mention that the church often resisted the exposure to civil law of prelates by covering up their misdeeds. This attitude continues with the dogmatic secrecy of a confession.

    “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.” 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.
    I would suggest that our lay people have encouraged the monster. Blindly kissing the ring or kneeling before them in adoration. Lest we forget: Shanley ran a “man/boy” motel for homosexuals to rape their young and innocent victims. Lest we forget:
    When L.A. Cardinal Roger Mahony, in concert with Bishop Norberto Rivera, head of the Mexico city Diocese of Tehuacan shuttled the notorious Mexican Father Nicolas Aguilar Rivera between the US and Mexico in the late 1980s to shield him from prosecution. That cove up continues ‘til today.

    When I was an Altar Boy in the 1950s I truly admired the four sterling priests I had the privileged to pray with. Never was there a hint of impropriety. We pray for when that day returns.

    Truly, there is a lot more to unpack!

  3. Vatican fig leaf cosmetics partly cover shame not at all the grievous corrupting sin of adult clerical homosexual networking. At the previous 2019 Vatican world bishops summit focus was more on child abuse although it included young adults including seminarians. Failure in that it does not detail specific punishments for Church leaders who violate these norms, and it does not mandate the involvement of authorities outside the Church. It does not address homosexual activity among priests and prelates the source of the entire morass of abuse. It became clear the Vatican will not address what must be addressed. How can it when it appoints Fr James Martin SJ as Vatican communications chief and Cardinal Kevin Farrell as prefect Dicastery for the Laity, Family, and Life. Neither Thomas Nash, those interviewed, nor Doctors Jane Adolphe and Ronald Rychlak adequately address the primary issues of adult homosexual webs within Church structure that aid and abet, and conceal. It doesn’t appear further research, new guidelines will be effective unless there is a significant change of moral attitude. That it was recently announced by the Pontiff that homosexuality will be reevaluated leaves little doubt that the reality of entrenched homosexuals priest bishop and cardinal, what fosters homosexual abuse will be addressed. A current odd phenomenon, perhaps not too bizarre given what’s already in vogue is male on male behavior being intellectualized and promoted by clergy notably in N Italy as the more noble form of sexual relationship, a vision stemming from ancient Greece, recently reported by journalists and openly professed by some clerics. The holding back of the McCarrick investigation findings is a symptom of this mortal disease. For all his bad press and detractors Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano opened a can of worms, allegedly detailed in a dossier to which the Vatican to date has not produced for scrutiny, and is incapable of a convincing response.

    • Thank you, Father Peter. I do think the book does address your concerns about networks, and ongoing reforms, including re: formation, will gradually have their positive impact as well.

    • Despite the bleak outlook for an effective preempting of clerical abuse, and a significant hands off interrelational clerical abuse malaise I can’t leave this commentary without recognition of the cleansing fire of divine love. Grace is always at work. Hope a necessary constant virtue. While faith is waning attendance falling there is also growing evidence of spiritual heroism, Catholics forging against the winds of secularism. Faith is a fire that remains ignited even if in disparate pockets, a parish community here and there. Was it James who said the prayers of a holy man are powerful indeed? God responds in kind to those willing to take risk for the truth, his Cross, and the salvation of the many. A few good men and women can work miracles. And if not in the effort is its own reward.

      • Attn: Fr Peter Morello, PhD

        Fr you are full of wisdom, integrity and compassion in Christ … I’m not an educated man Father nor am I a theologian by any means … I’m a sinner but I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and I actively practice my faith and my Catholic Catechism … I found your discussions to be an honest assessment of “my church” the one I love … I keep telling people, it’s not the church that’s faltering, it’s the people leading the church … I believe ordinary followers of Christ Jesus are being quiet of their faith because of fear … They are afraid of how the church is being run from the top down, people want and need to see accountability … leadership leading not stagnating or even worse red-lining our faith … there’s questionable trust with local bishops and priest to protect us, the flock … Is my priest a wolf in sheep clothing … Will he come to save me, the one sheep that slipped away from the flock or will he devour the innocence of the youth or commit homosexual activities … Does my Priest, Bishop, Cardinal truly know and live by the God’s word as written in the Holy Book of Life – The Bible … Thank you again Sir for your dedication to the fight … There is Good and Evil in the world … Satan is active and he found a home in our Church … Continue to do the right thing as God’s servant …

  4. When a cardinal is made custodian of a Roman basilica, it signals the end of his active career. That is why Pope Francis sent poor Cardinal Rylko into exile into that very same post for the “crime” of being St. John Paul’s friend and collaborator. It is anything but a promotion: especially for someone like Cardinals Law and Rylko who are younger than 75 when placed there. Cardinal Law was not a bad man; he was flawed for sure. But he should not be scape-goated for the malfeasance of the bishops and chancery officials of the Boston archdiocese from 1968-84. Certain high ranking collaborators of Cardinals Cushing and Medieros (some still living) were the ones who presided over a cesspool of clerical sin and infidelity.

    • Thank you, JAD. There are better ways to mark the twilight of a prelate’s service to the Church than appointing him to head St. Mary Major, especially in the very problematic case of Cardinal Law. No doubt his predecessors in Boston have their blame, yet Cardinal Law made their wrongdoing his own when he willfully decided to reassign Geoghan and Shanley during his own tenure.

  5. “But the Church is not helpless. It can and must start by policing itself.”

    Well no, that is not going to happen. A profound inject of the Holy Ghost (read Divine Intervention) into the heart of the hierarchy would set things aright but I harbor absolutely no illusion about the Church being able to police herself in 2020.

    • Thanks, Liz. If they’re women who are truly committed to Jesus Christ and his Catholic Church, I’m certainly for having such women in positions of leadership. But if they’re women who think the Church Jesus founded is inherently patriarchal and needs to have its fundamental teachings changed, including regarding who can be ordained a ministerial priest, then, no, because such women will add to the Church’s problems, instead of fostering genuine reform.

      • Mr. Nash,

        Thank you for this excellent review: though the read may be difficult, it is obviously necessary. I have had my eye out for a book of this caliber on the subject.

        As for women in leadership, a few years back I read a book by Monica Miller on the “Authority of Women in the Catholic Church.” The book competently articulates the Church’s longstanding teaching on women in the Church, and then to my surprise Dr. Miller (a stalwart orthodox Catholic) suggested toward the end of the book that, because they are simple titular positions, women could indeed be made Cardinals. Wow! That threw me for a loop, and did not sit well with me. As you indicate in your response to “Liz”, I’d expect the Pant-Suited LCWR Sisters to line up for the honor.

        But, after McCarrick’s disgraces came to light, I was blown away by the outrage and the common sense vocalized by what I would normally describe as pious but uninterested Catholic women. So many mothers I know–almost wholly ignorant of Church politics–began expressing to me their opinions about what should have been done with abusers.

        Reasonable, actionable advice from “the feminine genius” would do wonders for the Church. A mother cannot help but think of her own children at all times. To have women in the room with the men making the decisions regarding these difficult situations would be invaluable. The Church teaches about the complementarity of the sexes, so let’s see that teaching given some teeth. Women have a tendency to be more empathetic, which, when accompanied by right reason, can help us make the decisions that our Lord would want us to make on behalf of the vulnerable.

        I have decades of experience in the corporate world. It is inevitably the men who consider initiatives based on PR, bottom line, and advancing the influence of the organization. It’s inevitably the women who ask the questions, “but what will this mean for our customers?”

        Saying that we can’t have women in leadership because we’ll end up with liberals seems moot considering the Cardinals we’re currently straddled with. We need to be consider how women in leadership can be made possible within the bounds of Church teaching. And honest about the fact that many in leadership currently use that teaching as license to hold on to their own power.

  6. The points made in this thoughtful piece are well taken. Unfortunately, they will come to nought as long as Francis is content to remain mum about the report he promised us two very long and difficult years ago on the crimes of McCarrick and his enablers/cronies (a cabal that includes many of Francis’s biggest clerical supporters). Until every last one of them has been held fully accountable, all the prescriptions for how we can clean up, move on from, and guard against future iterations of this unholy mess are useless. I have no hope that any of them will ever be exposed (let alone punished), as Francis would much rather criticize climate change and capitalism (subjects he knows novsmthing about) than deal with the sexual and financial corruption that should be his first order of business.

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