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The Catholic Church and Child Abuse


Gary Fisher

When I wrote this article in April, 2002, the church hierarchy, including the Pope, was still referring to child sexual abuse and pedophilia in veiled terms. As of late May, 2002, some in the church hierarchy were finally referring to priestly sexual abuse and pedophilia in the commonly accepted terminology. Subsequently, several archdioceses announced a "zero tolerance" policy on pedophilia and sexual abuse by the clergy - notably the Los Angeles archdiocese under Cardinal Roger Mahony.

In California a one-year moratorium on the statute of limitations for cases of sexual abuse was put in place much to the dismay of church lawyers who felt this action might very well bankrupt the church. This has allowed a number of additional cases of abuse to be filed in that state. However, as late as March 2003, Cardinal Mahony was still attempting to limit District Attorney access to "priviledged" communications between accused priests and the hierarchy. His actions sent a mixed-message, which no matter how well grounded in criminal law, reinforced the position that the church is still "stone-walling".

Well, as of March, 2004 the stone-walling still goes on. One would think that in light of all the negative publicity and also in light of the fact that many of the Church hierarachy have come to grips with the problem, Cardinal Mahoney would grasp the big picture and move to positively resolve this major blot on the credibility of the Church. Unfortunately, this still is not the case. Mahony is now invoking the questionable argument of "formation privilege" to prevent release of "privileged" documents between bishops and priests accused of molestation. The only possible reason for this behavior is to protect himself from past errors in "judgement" and to protect the Church from further legal action. From my point of view this is a morally bankrupt position for a Cardinal in the Catholic Church to take. I am convinced that this Cardinal by his continued "stone-walling" is doing a major disservice to the Church. I not-so-eagerly await the next twist in this saga.

I have left this article intact because it gives a perspective on where we have come from, how far we have gone in addressing this serious issue in the Church today and unfortunately how far we still need to go.

I am a Catholic. I was an altar boy. Being an altar boy had a positive effect on my life and as a boy, I actually wanted to be a priest when I grew up. As is probably the case with the vast number of former altar boys, I was never abused by a priest.

According to the Pope there is a "mysterious evil" abroad in the church today. It is not a mysterious evil. It is not a mystery. It is child abuse by priests. There is no mystery - it is sexual abuse - pure and simple. If there is a "mystery" in the church today, it is the ongoing and pervasive cover-up, obfuscation and non-specific addressing of sexual abuse by the church. To talk of it in abstract terms is absurd. Everyone including church spokespersons and the Pope knows what the issue really is. It is sexual abuse and pedophilia by the clergy.

The first step in fixing this so-called "mysterious evil" is to call it what it is. The second step is to let the civilian courts deal with it, as they would for any non-priest case of child abuse. It is disheartening to me to realize that such prosecution will ultimately occur to the errant priests not because of religious, moral or ethical concerns, but because of intense media scrutiny of the Catholic Church.

The Catholic Church is in a real crisis. Vocations are down and this will help to bring them further down. What the church has done by hiring high priced lawyers to attack the victims of the abuse - instead of morally, ethically, religiously and decently forcing the priests in concern to deal with their perversion in the same manner that any truly religious priest would council a parishioner to do - is unconscionable.

The attempts at fixing the problem are too little and too late. This "mysterious evil" has been going on at least since the 13th Century. It puts every decent priest into suspicion. Was Father Flanagan of Boys' Town an opportunistic abuser preying on a captive "audience" or was he just a simple priest helping boys get a better start in life? His and every other decent priest's efforts have been put into question by the avoidance behavior of the Catholic Church. When you see a young priest with a group of boys today, what do you think? Could he be an abuser? When you see an elderly priest, do you question whether he was an abuser when he was young or if he is an abuser today? What a pity and disservice to those innocent of such aberrant behavior.

In terms of numbers, child sexual abuse and pedophilia are relatively rare in society and by projection should be correspondingly rare in the Catholic Church and its clergy. By systematically not reporting priests and brothers accused of such behaviors to civilian authorities, the church has put the motives and behaviors of the overwhelming majority of all decent priests in question.

Frankly, I am ashamed to be a Catholic. I am certain I am not alone. The Catholic Church should not behave as a self-serving mega-corporation attempting to protect its ass. One would expect the leaders of any religion to be above such behavior. Apparently this has not been the case at least as I see it for my religion. If a priest were a murderer, would he be given counseling and be transferred to another parish? If a priest embezzled funds from his priest-retirement pension fund, would he be simply given counseling and transferred to another parish? If a priest sold heroin to generate funds for his personal stock market investments, would he be given counseling and transferred to another parish? I seriously doubt it. What is the threshold? Clearly, child sexual abuse by priests has been traditionally below the reporting threshold.

It is now time to pay the piper. It is time for meaningful mea culpas and mucho dinero to the victims. In a moral sense this should be much more palatable to the real church than paying high-priced lawyers to avoid compensation to the victims and to avoid acknowledgment that a very real problem exists.

Even though to my knowledge priestly celibacy has not been statistically correlated with child abuse, it is time to reconsider the church's stance against it. It might be the case that denied of normal sexual outlets, a certain small percentage of priests find an abnormal and criminal outlet with young children. That the preponderance of these victims are boys may speak more to availability than to a gender proclivity. These remarks speak in the face of prevailing Vatican opinion.

Celibacy was initiated in the 12th century because of sexual transgressions and excesses of the Pope and clergy. The current church stance that a priest cannot at the same time serve both man and God is a red herring. The real issue is Church economics: it costs more to support a priest and his family than to support a priest alone.

Should the church continue to impose the unnatural condition of celibacy on persons with true vocations or should it join with the overwhelming number of religions that find no conflict between normal sexuality and devotion to God? The answer might portend the long-term survival of the Catholic Church itself. I wait and watch - hopeful that the church can change for it's own good and for the good of those who still count themselves among the flock and who still believe the message it teaches.

It is well beyond the time for the hierarchy of the Church to stop the denials and come to grips with the real issues that threaten to bring the Catholic Church to it's knees.

Copyright © 2002 Gary Fisher

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