April 8, 2002
The Child Sex-Abuse Scandal
by Friar Jack Wintz, O.F.M.


The Biggest Scandal
The Sex-abuse Scandal May Help Change the System
Looking at the Larger Context

Like many of you, my heart is heavy whenever I read, see or hear media reports and commentaries about clergy sexual abuse and the Catholic Church. Although I don’t feel qualified to comment in an expert way on this complicated issue, I do want to respond to the concerns, frustration and even anger that many of you have expressed in e-mails to Friar Jack’s E-spirations. I hope to add some personal reflections, at least, to the discussion raging these days throughout our society.

If you want some background on the current situation, I can recommend our Web feature “Clergy Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church” at AmericanCatholic.org.

The Biggest Scandal

As others have pointed out, the greatest scandal on the part of the Church is our failure to put the child victims and their families first. In some dioceses, unfortunately, Church leaders have made the cover-up of these scandals and the offending priests their most important priority. How did we get our priorities reversed in this way?

Into our Catholic hierarchical system, at least in some instances, has seeped the tendency and practice of covering up faults. The system seems to give those higher up such importance, dignity and sacredness that their reputation must be protected at all costs. Even those at the bottom often “buy into” this layered arrangement that tends to give special privilege to those on top. If we look at the Gospels, however, we notice that this was not the mindset of Jesus. He often called those in leadership to task for giving scandal or laying oppressive burdens on those in their charge. He told those in leadership to be servants of the others.

Deep down, we recognize the truth in Jesus' teachings about the nature of leadership. We know that God created us all in the divine image and that we have equal dignity as God’s children. In fact, Jesus and the prophets before him taught that if God has a special love for anyone it is for the poor, the broken and the downtrodden. And yet, we Christians have a tendency to accept as God-given and eternal the pyramid model of authority. According to this model, those on top deserve more honor and protection than those at the bottom.

The Second Vatican Council (1963-1965) came along and stressed that all members of the Church make up the “People of God.” It did not deny the need for Church leadership, but suggested that the real Church is not to be identified solely with the upper levels of a hierarchical institution. The Church is the whole “People of God.” This includes not only those serving as leaders but the whole body of the faithful. Vatican II seemed to be guiding us to a more collegial and democratic model of community. Some dioceses and parish communities in the Church embraced this development more than others.

The Sex-abuse Scandal May Help Change the System

It has been difficult to move from the hierarchical mindset to a more egalitarian model in which all members of the Church enjoy a profound dignity and honor in God’s sight. It is even hard for those at the so-called bottom of the pyramid to claim equal dignity for themselves. They have been trained to support the system without question. To some extent, the famous dictum of the late Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire, applies here: The oppressed internalize the lowly image that the oppressor has of them.

One consequence of the clergy sex-abuse scandal is that the faulty priorities of the hierarchical system have now been unmasked for the whole world to see, and changes will have to be made. Structures of privilege, secrecy and protection from blame seem to be unraveling before our eyes.

Meanwhile, the Church majority, made up of laymen and laywomen and their children, are beginning to see their rights and dignity properly recognized. They are more and more seeing themselves not simply as servants of the higher-ups whose only role in the Church is to pray, pay and obey. Now they are more fully aware that their voices deserve to be heard and respected as they claim their rightful place in the Church envisioned by Vatican II.

It is easy to fall into the heresy of confusing the Church with the upper levels of the hierarchy and failing to see the Church as the whole “People of God.” I call it a heresy because it is clearly contrary to Catholic doctrine. Even Time magazine as recently as its April 1, 2002, cover story on the sex-abuse scandal fell into that misconception at times. Even though its story provided good insightful information, background and commentary on the issue of clergy sexual abuse, their wording at times suggested that the Church’s hierarchical leaders alone were the Church. Here’s one example from its pages: “The Roman Catholic Church is a stern hierarchy that has always kept its deliberations secret....” All of us need to keep reminding ourselves that the Church is larger than those wielding the most power and that all members have equal dignity before God--and all voices should be respected.

Looking at the Larger Context

Despite our failures as a Church regarding the tragic sexual abuse of children, it’s helpful to examine the issue from a wider perspective. Clergy sexual abuse is an issue that extends well beyond the Roman Catholic Church and contains more complexities than meet the eye.

Without doubt, the Roman Catholic Church has a rigid, age-old, top-heavy hierarchical leadership structure that tends to be self-protecting and secretive. We all need to work at changing the faulty aspects of this system. At the same time, it is good to realize that the Roman Catholic Church is not the only institution that has to deal with problems like excessive secrecy and child abuse. Smaller leadership systems, as well, can have the same problems.

Even an institution as simple as the family tends to be self-protecting and secretive regarding abusive behavior within it own ranks. I think it is generally agreed that most cases of sexual abuse of children happens within the family. The perpetrators often are older family members, relatives, family friends, babysitters.  The first instinct is often for the family leaders to keep sexual abuse from going public. We know, of course, that such cover-ups are not right, especially if the victims remain at risk. Yet we all recognize the temptation most people have to cover up mistakes and sins of which they are ashamed. 

This is all the more true as we explore more complex institutions--athletic or youth associations (e.g., teams or scouts), educational institutions, police departments, the military, religious institutions of all kinds, political parties, medical associations, psychological associations, big companies like Enron, even news networks and TV conglomerates. Most institutions and power structures try to protect their reputations and keep their secret sins hidden. Again this is not right. Those victimized by such organizations should be protected and the offenders reported and brought to justice. One wonders at times, however, why the media and other groups sometimes go after certain offenders and systems with more fervor and fury than they go after others.

I’d like to share with you a few facts and comments I’ve come across while reading various articles published in the last week or so. They may give you--as they gave me--a greater perspective on the scandal at hand, especially regarding sex offenders themselves.

1) A statement from Catholic clinical psychologist Thomas Plante (Time, April 1, 2002): “The best data we have suggest that about 5% of the Catholic clergy have had involvement with minors, mostly adolescent boys. That figure is consistent with other male clergy and the general population.”

2) Observations from Curtis Bryant, S.J., a licensed psychologist, who formerly served at St. Luke Institute, a psychiatric hospital near Washington, D.C. (America, April 1, 2002): Bryant suggests from data collected at St. Luke’s that “Over 50% of priests treated [there] were abused as children.” Another comment from Bryant is, “Initially the church viewed sexual offenses as sins to be confessed rather than a sickness to be treated.”

Following up on the growing realization that pedophilia needs to be looked at as an incurable illness (and not only as sin), Bryant also suggests this: The priest offender hopefully comes to acknowledge that “his sexual disorder cannot be cured but can be treated, cannot be eliminated but can be controlled; that this disorder is chronic and must be faced and worked on indefinitely.”

3) A comment from Catholic writer and psychologist Eugene Kennedy, author of The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality (The Washington Post Online, March 22, 2002):  “Having worked both as a priest and as a clinical psychologist whose clients include priests struggling with pedophilia, I heard more sadness than sin in their troubling stories. For many of them, pedophilia is rooted in the distorted notions of a guilt-drenched sexuality handed to them by the official Church. As a result, they never fully grew up and never became whole sexual beings. I have listened to them, their eyes glistening with tears, as they try to patch together some sense of themselves that will enable them to go on with life after they have been caught seeking satisfactions they do not understand.”

Another observation I heard or read within the last two weeks, which brought me a bit of light regarding the tendency on the part of Church leaders to give priest offenders a second chance, is that the Gospel of Jesus teaches us to be forgiving. It is not surprising that those who have not digested the truth about pedophilia being an incurable disorder and who have been trained to be forgiving could err on the side of being too lenient with sex offenders--a deadly mistake that hopefully is being quickly corrected in the wake of the current scandals.

A final note for us during this Easter season: We do not face these problems and crises alone. The Risen Jesus, who has triumphed over sin and death, breathes the Spirit of forgiveness and healing upon us and walks with us toward Pentecost.

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