This article will, I fear, upset a number of people. Something needs to be said, but, given the levels of hurt, disillusionment, bitterness, anticlerical glee, vicarious over-identification, and just simple gossip that surrounds this issue, nothing meaningful can be said which will not, I fear, deeply offend somebody. There is a lot of hyper and raw nerves around, yet the greater danger lies in remaining silent.
The issue is one which has been prominent in the news in recent months, namely, that of priests and religious brothers being arrested and charged with pedophilia. Every day the list of accusations, revelations, and arrests grows and, with that, every day, pain, confusion, suspicion, and bitterness grow as well. Everyone, save those who feast of gossip and misfortune, has been deeply pained by this. It’s an open sore within the community, especially among Roman Catholics, who, until recently, had a tendency to place their priests on a pedestal. How does one make the adjustment from seeing someone as another Christ to seeing him arrested for sexual assault?
There is, understandably, a lot of paranoia and suspicion around: How far-reaching is this thing? What is the church covering up? Whom can we trust? Are our kids safe around rectories and sacristies?
Beyond this, these events have made clerical celibacy, itself, the object of suspicion. Omnipresent now is the idea that priests are prone to this type of perversity because they are celibate. Thus, for example, in the suburbs where I live, the local newspaper polled a number of Catholics at a local supermarket. Without a single exception, each one felt that clerical celibacy was at the root of this.
What’s to be said in the face of all this? There’s over-reaction and there’s under-reaction. We have too much of both. What’s a proper reaction?
All reactions should begin with compassion for the victims. They, after all, have been most hurt. This compassion must be very concrete, not just ideological. There must be real compensation and real help given, psychological, spiritual and financial. Part of this reaction must also be the recognition of the seriousness of the crime. Something has been wounded inside of these persons which, this side of the resurrection, can never be fully put right again. Any trivialization of that is not just an under-reaction, but is itself criminal.
However, such compassion must be sharply distinguished from something else which looks very similar but which is itself another form of victimization, namely, the tendency some people have to vicariously and neurotically over-identify themselves with these victims. This parades itself as a compassion and crusade. It is only the latter, not the former. Real compassion manifests itself by actual and concrete outreach towards a victim and not in the claiming of that victim for one’s own ideological or curriculum vitae purposes. Genuine compassion aids the healing process. Vicarious over-identification, for all its fervor and good intention, is counterproductive in that, in its further sowing of hatred and polarization, like swelling around a wound, it delays and positively hinders healing.
Secondly, we must see these revelations as a knife lancing a wound. The truth sets us free. A wound open to light and air can heal. The church and the priesthood will survive. In the long run, both will be healthier. Moreover, the adverse publicity and the civil lawsuits will force us to screen clerical candidates more carefully as well as take more seriously any kind of sexual deviance among priests. Bishops, religious provincials, seminary rectors, and parish councils are all learning, under fire, some valuable lessons. Things will be better in the future.
Thirdly, something needs saying which most newspaper reports and other commentaries, radio and television, have not always brought out. For whatever reasons, these have been reluctant to state that pedophilia is not proportionately higher among Roman Catholic priests than it is among other professions. In fact, statistically, it is slightly lower among Roman Catholic clergy than among the male population at large. Moreover, it is not higher among celibates than among married men. Translated, all this means that your kids, statistically, run no higher risk around priests and religious brothers than around anyone else, including their own fathers.
Pedophilia is a disease, and a very complex one at the. Like alcoholism it plays no favorites but ravages priests and laity, celibates and non-celibates, alike. Celibacy, whatever its other merits or dysfunctions, is not the culprit. Like many other factors it can be complicitous, but of itself it is not the issue.
Finally, we may not withhold compassion from the victimizers themselves. Despite their crime, there is, I’m sure, more than one good thief among them. Christ died among, and for, people like them, and us. The gravity of their offense must, with a certain brutality, rule out all trivialization of the crime, but to withhold compassion and understanding from them is, on our part, the sign of a small mind and of even a smaller heart. We are dealing here with an illness, a disease, not with maliciousness. Moreover, many of these men were themselves, as children, victims of abuse. Further, few persons have ever had to endure as public and as humiliating a crucifixion as they have suffered. Any heart not overly preoccupied with its own hurts and narcissisms will have a compassion that, at some point, embraces these men as well.
Morris West once said: sin, sex, and suffering form perhaps the most constant trinity within human experience. How true that is!
The final word must be the word prayer. When so many are hurt and hurting, our hearts must move towards prayer…for the victims, the victimizers, the community, and for forgiveness and healing so that, eventually, for all, there may be a new day.