It’s understandable to want to stick up for those we love, even when we know they’re in the wrong. And because we love the Catholic Church, currently reeling from a new round of sexual abuse reports, we naturally want to – at least we should want to – come to her aid.
For many Catholics, our love for the Church has manifested itself in anger over the sexual predation of certain priests and the cover-ups by certain bishops. “Drain the swamp” has been borrowed from the political realm and has become a common Catholic rallying cry – we want to find out which bishops knew what, and who failed to act on what they knew. We want those who betrayed the Church so badly, when they were supposed to be shepherding its flocks, to answer for it.
However, love for our faith has produced in many an almost kneejerk defensiveness, prompting an understandable but misguided and overdone effort to stick up for the Church. Things are much better now, many of us are now saying; clerical sex abuse is largely a thing of the past; it’s not just priests who are guilty of it; certain secular opponents of Catholicism are exploiting the abuse in order to throw rocks at us. That sort of thing.
This is all well meaning, but it doesn’t help the Church. First of all, it helps the offending priests and bishops by downplaying and whitewashing their culpability for the evil for which they’re responsible.
Secondly, it risks minimizing in our own minds and hearts a need to increase our personal holiness, which any Catholic layperson should pursue at all times, but especially during a crisis such as this one.
And most of all, it poses the danger of making us forget the victims – so many of whom have lived for decades with the evil to which they were subjected.
There are some particularly common defensive responses to the horrid sex abuse scandal that we need to keep in check:
Most Catholic priests are not molesters, and most molesters are not priests, so the situation is being overblown.
Yes, the statistics behind this argument are true. But are excuses like this really good enough for an order of men who are supposed to be models of holiness, who along with their bishops are responsible not only for their own salvation, but that of their flocks as well?
The sexual violation and objectification of anyone, let alone a minor, cannot ever be “overblown” in terms of how filthy and evil it is. That the perpetrator is a priest only adds another diabolical layer.
Yes, there are so many good and faithful priests out there. We must pray for them because, no doubt, they are bearing great scorn, ridicule, and abuse because of what other priests have done.
But we also must carefully avoid excuses born of an overly defensive mindset that boils this evil down to nothing more than crass statistics. That isn’t conducive to generating the prayers that the Church, her priests and bishops, and (above all) the victims all need right now.
Most of the sexual abuse happened decades ago. It’s essentially old news, being dredged up again just to make the Church look bad.
It’s not old news for the victims. A boy molested at age 13 in the early 1970s, for instance, hasn’t reached retirement age yet. His abuse doesn’t just reside in the past. It has remained with him every day since it happened, and it will stay with him for the rest of his life.
Untold physical, emotional, and spiritual damage still seethes and burns today in the minds, hearts, and souls of the abused. Many of them have left the Catholic Church, never to return – as have many Catholics who have been heavily scandalized by this depravity. (Matthew 18:6 leaps to mind.) Thus, to the emotional and psychological damage wrought by this evil is added a massive amount of spiritual devastation. This is not just a past thing.
If we overplay the “happened decades ago” angle, we may lose sight of the need to keep praying for the victims, and for the many Catholics out there struggling with their faith because of this evil.
Most of the priests responsible for this “old news” are dead, in jail, or out of ministry – but at least some of the bishops who enabled and protected these men are still around. A few have even risen in the Church’s hierarchy. The “happened decades ago” treatment, applied too liberally, lets these men off the hook – at least in this life.
So let’s play that card only in legitimately protecting today’s priests – the vast majority of whom are innocent of this depraved behavior – from undeserved attacks, ridicule, and stereotyping. Beyond that, the only purpose of such excuses is to hide and downplay the truth. The victims deserve more.
Other institutions – public school systems, youth sports leagues and recreational programs, summer camps, and so on – are afflicted with sexual abuse, too. Why is the Church being singled out?
Other institutions are not the Church of Christ on Earth, the divinely established earthly vehicle of the salvation of souls and minister of His sacraments. In particular, they are not the earthly guardian and distributor of His Precious Body and Blood in the Eucharist.
Other institutions don’t hold solemn doctrinal and moral teachings that Christ commanded us to preach to the world – a mission that becomes awfully hard when Church leaders, even a small minority of them, have violated those teachings in some of the worst ways imaginable.
We’ve all heard plenty about how other institutions also responded to sexual abuse by sending the offenders off to psychiatric “experts” who then pronounced them “cured” and fit to re-engage in their previous work. But, again, those other institutions are not the One, Holy, Apostolic Church founded by Jesus Christ. So, frankly, I’m getting particularly sick and tired of hearing excuses like that one.
Is the sexual exploitation and objectification of minors by the shepherds responsible for their spiritual care, in the end, the fault of a bunch of shrinks who misled the bishops into not addressing it as the evil that it was?
Good grief. Talk about passing the buck.
Thousands of priests – men who swore to dedicate their lives to Christ’s Church and Her people in sacred chastity – forced young, innocent members of their flocks into being sexual playthings.
These poor young people were not nurtured, respected, or loved in a Christ-like manner – but treated as sexual objects. Certain “men of God” took advantage of their trust and innocence to forcibly violate their bodies, psyches, and souls.
And in so many cases, the bishops’ reaction to this was…to send the perpetrators off to psychiatrists?
That the Church responded to this evil the same way the rest of the world was responding to it is no excuse. The Church is supposed to be better than that.
Confronting and eradicating evil requires courage, and claiming that things aren’t that bad isn’t spiritually courageous. Nor is it spiritually brave to whine about being singled out for scrutiny, or playing the “everybody else was doing it” card to justify a horrible problem or the lousy ways with which it was handled.
Enough of that. It’s our call and duty as Catholics to offer no excuses.
We must pray first for the grace and faith to increase our own holiness – and then take action to make ourselves better Catholics. The Church needs strong sheep to help it recuperate from where the shepherds went wrong. This is the only way.
We must also pray for the priests and bishops – for the “good” ones who bear the brunt of scorn and anti-Catholic ridicule for acts they have not committed, and even for the “bad” ones. They no doubt have let waver, or have even lost, their supernatural faith. They’ll need it restored if they are ever to see sexual abuse by priests as the evil that it really is.
Most of all, we must pray every day for the young people who, no matter how long ago, were violated physically, emotionally, and spiritually in so many disgusting ways by the very men who were supposed to be nurturing their souls. They are owed more prayers than we can ever possibly give them.
Ken Foye is an American Catholic living abroad, teaching English writing, reading, presentation, discussion, and conversation classes at a four-year university in northern Japan. He is an Oblate of St. Benedict and is married to a Japanese convert to Catholicism. Among his academic research interests is the inclusion of faith and religion discussions in the English language classroom.