A Catholic today (and their cousins) cannot avoid paying some attention to the priest sexual abuse scandal. Who were the priest abusers? How did they come to commit such acts? Why did it take so long for their behaviors to be revealed and then confronted? Have the scandals been stopped? Are things finally different now in the church and if so, how are they different?
Instead of facing the scandals and trying to understand the scandalous acts, some Catholics just left the church. They already had complaints and discomforts. The priest scandal was a final straw. Others took the priest scandals as another challenge to their faith, managed by blocking it out. They refused to read about it or think about it. The errant reactions of both groups will cause more pain and further loss. Child sexual abuse is certainly repulsive and nauseating. Most people prefer not to think about it or talk about it. Sadly, escape seems easier than confrontation.
Child sexual abuse has gone on forever and it is extensive in some cultures. After long periods of inattention even in professional literature, there is now literature on the topic; in psychology/psychiatry, sociology, and childhood education. Even in the academic literature, however, the topic is often treated superficially.
News about child sexual abuse is now everywhere in the press and serious attention must be paid both to the offenders and to the contexts which contribute to their offenses. One essential aspect of all offenders is their sexual and psychological immaturity. No matter their age or their accomplishments, sexually and psychologically the abusers are adolescents. Sex with a woman is not an option. For this reason, sexual acts, when they occur, take place with children.
Looking at priest pedophiles, one has to consider the context of their priestly formation — the seminary context. Sexuality was not a subject addressed in seminaries in the 20th century. Not even in moral theology classes was sexual abuse or sexual maturity addressed. If sexuality was mentioned it had to do with the structure of sex organs and why contraception was a violation of their purpose and design.
Touching was not mentioned. There was no mention of child sexual abuse or the development of sexual maturity. Violation of priestly celibacy meant having sex with a woman. This inadequate and distorted moral education certainly was a contributing factor in the child sexual abuse of some priests.
The extensive work of Sigmund Freud had no place in seminary education. It was as if Freud’s works and the work of many others on sexuality simply did not exist. Existential philosophers and their works on the human person, and the maturity of an inner person, also were ignored.
The focus on sexuality in the seminary was on homosexuality. Any expression of homosexuality resulted in immediate expulsion from the seminary. Priests from the outside, brought in to hear confessions, were instructed to respond to any homosexual sins by requiring that the sinner leave the seminary immediately, that very evening.
Notice how quickly the Vatican responded to accusations of homosexual expressions by Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland. The accusations were made by several priests. They had not yet been subject to any legal examination and will be contested by the cardinal. The cardinal, however, resigned his post and his resignation was immediately accepted. How different this was from the endless delays in dealing with pedophile priests. Continued...
In the 1970s, a study of sexual and psychological maturity in the clergy showed the need for better sexual and psychological education. Even the Vatican insisted that more attention be given to these issues. But not much changed. The same old professors taught their same old material. This inadequate education contributed to the continuing priest sexual scandals. Finally, however, changes are taking place but all too late for many victims and the many scandalized Catholics who simply left the church.
I talked to a friend recently who is a retired chief of police. He mentioned police officers who took advantage of their respected public image in order to commit sexual violations of young people. As with priest offenders, a public image of power and respect was taken advantage of by psychologically and sexually immature persons. In both cases, the sexual behaviors, once revealed, caused scandal and smeared the public image of formerly respected persons in a community.
In both police departments and diocesan offices, the first reaction was to keep the scandalous acts secret. But this didn’t work. Now that certain background contexts and influences have been identified, education and cultural changes are being made. Not only are dangerous priests and policemen being removed, but efforts are being made to return respect to the decent priests and policemen who have been smeared by the personal failures of a few.
JAMES F. DRANE
James F. Drane Bioethics Institute
Edinboro University of Pennsylvania