Sexual abuse in the Catholic Church should not be given special treatment


Creative Commons, UN Geneva

The Archbishop Silvano Tomasi at the UN Geneva Conference on Syria in 2014. Tomasi released the sexual abuse data at the Geneva conference on torture that same year.

I was raised Catholic. When I was little I learned about the Bible and went to church most Sundays. I listened to our priest give homilies and I showed him the drawings I’d made of Jesus Christ and of the Devil. He smiled at the serious ones and laughed at my idea for Jesus Camp, a place for little kids to go where they could learn the complicated prayers in a way that wouldn’t allow them to forget as often as I did. He laughed, and patted me on the head, and then I went home.

I was fortunate to be in a parish blessed with a priest as conscientious as he was quirky. Our Father was many things, he could be a little long winded sometimes, but he led a life devoted to the church, he spoke out repeatedly in defense of gay rights, and he was, first and foremost, a teacher. I was blessed to be in a parish served by such a good man, but not everyone is so fortunate.

When a priest lays his hand upon you, who are you to say no to God? What must it be like to be full of faith, as many children are, and to have that faith destroyed?”

The Catholic Church has been rocked for the last decade and a half by the explosive discovery of sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy, and investigative pieces revealing broad coverups for abusers. One such piece was published in Boston in 2002 revealing the incredible scope of sexual abuse by clergy taking place in the city. Since 2001 the Church has required bishops and other superiors to forward abuse reports they deem credible to the Vatican for review (they have received over 4000 reports) but not until 2010 did the Vatican instruct bishops to report such cases to law enforcement when it was legally required. In the United States there are about 400,000 active priests and while 4000 credible cases may seem insignificant in comparison, the majority of sexual assault cases are never even reported, much less within the acceptable time period (most states have statutes of limitations ranging from within two to seven years, Minnesota requires it be within 6) and beyond then they can no longer prosecute.

Since 2004 the Church has defrocked almost 850 priests for sexually abusing children and sanctioned over 2500 more with lesser penalties. Many of these were in the United states since abuse reports and settlements are often paralleled by prevalence of reporting and the scandal has gotten a great deal of press in the U.S. since Boston. As investigation and exposure eats its way up the chain of command, the Church is now faced with the problem of whether to dismiss bishops who, it is becoming clear, took part in cover ups.

Last year and the year before, MPR conducted a significant investigative series on sexual abuse and cover up in the clergy in and around the Twin Cities called Betrayed by Silence. This series uncovered a remarkable persistence on the part of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis (the local governing body representing the Catholic Church) in its refusal to release the names of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse or molestation. Last June, Archbishop John Neinstedt, who, along with many other bishops across the country (only one of whom was convicted and jailed), was accused of silencing claims of sexual abuse by officers of the Church, and resigned from his post leading the Archdiocese but hasn’t yet been permanently replaced. Many victims are skeptical that removal from positions of authority is sufficient punishment for covering up abuse.

It revolts me that a priest, a teacher, could do these terrible things to a child, to a student.”

At the very core of the Church’s doctrine is respect for authority. God speaks to the Pope and the word of God reaches the people through God’s Church. To challenge your superior is to challenge the word of God, to challenge the word of God is an act of heresy, and throughout history acts of heresy have often been punished by death. So when a priest lays his hand upon you, who are you to say no to God? What must it be like to be full of faith, as many children are, and to have that faith destroyed?

It revolts me that a priest, a teacher, could do these terrible things to a child, to a student. It breaks my heart to think of the thousands of kids and adults around the world who don’t sleep well anymore because they can’t forget the person they trusted who betrayed them. It shocks me that in our country, so often presented as the pinnacle of security, this stuff happens. This isn’t a crime we can lock away in the vaults of history and analyze as if it is gone; this atrocity is happening today. The culture of silence still blankets the world.

The fundamental teachings of Catholicism couldn’t be more antithetical to betrayals of child, parish, and Church, and focus instead on charity and compassion. The Church is responsible for a network of schools educating children from their earliest years until they reach college when they can choose to enroll in one of hundreds of Catholic colleges and universities. It funds and supports hospitals around the world and supports aid missions to impoverished countries. To suggest that the Church is uniformly evil would ignore generations of Catholic lives devoted to making the world a better place. By the same token, the good of individuals within the Church does not license it to shield the identities of abusers from authorities or allow those abusers to escape legal consequences (and jail time) in favor of Church issued penance.

The only way forward through this crisis is prosecution without generalization. As a justice system we must examine the Church (and any other incident, as this crisis is, tragically, by no means confined to Catholicism) with as sharp an eye as the law requires of us, but I hope that as individuals we can trust ourselves and that when we encounter a priest we’ve known for ages, one who we know has devoted his lifetime to doing good and who has about him not a whiff of scandal, that we need not shun him. We should not lump such men in with the horrible and disappointing human beings who use their places in the Church as cover for monstrous crimes against children, instead we should greet them with praise and gratitude.