A number of things should be clarified to help us properly contextualize the present crisis of sexual abuse within the church.
What needs clarification? Three things in particular: The effect of sexual abuse on its victims, the prevalence of sexual abuse within our culture, and the nature of the disease of paedophilia:
First, and most important of all, the effect of sexual abuse on its victim:
We can never overstate the utter devastation of soul that is caused in a victim of sexual abuse. Nothing so scars, violates, and unravels the soul – literally pulls it apart – as does sexual abuse. I’ve heard two highly respected psychiatrists say that their hunch is that teenage suicide, so rampant in our culture, is, 80% of the time, a result of sexual abuse, however complex might be the proximate sequence of events leading up to the suicide. That’s also true, I suspect, for many adult suicides. Sexual abuse scars deeply and permanently.
Next, some stunning numbers about it’s prevalence. We don’t, for obvious reasons, have hard numbers here, but, in so far as we can make an educated guess, it’s estimated that, in the Western world, one out of every four or five persons, girls and boys, comes to adulthood scarred, having been violated sexually in either a major way or minor way, though it’s rare the violation is minor because by nature all sexual abuse is serious. In terms of an image, this means that [statistically] some form of sexual abuse is happening in every fourth or fifth house in the Western world.
These tragic numbers do not excuse priests who are guilty, but they can keep us aware that priests are less than .01 per-cent of this massive problem. In fact, statistically, this disease is marginally lower among the clergy and vowed religious than it is among the population at large.
Moreover, also against popular understanding, paedophilia is not a celibate or gay disease. It’s a disease, pure and simple, cutting across all boundaries, clergy and lay, men and women, gay and straight, married and celibate. Like alcohol, it plays no favourites. It’s a sickness and not a question of somebody not having proper willpower or of somebody who doesn’t have sex acting out because of that deprivation.
A comparison might be made to alcoholism: Sixty years ago, society had very little understanding of alcoholism as a disease. We naively thought that the problem was simply a failure of willpower: “Why don’t they just stop drinking!” Now we recognize that alcoholism is a sickness and must be understood and treated as such.
A naive understanding of the nature of paedophilia is also one of the reasons why bishops made some mistakes early on. Unaware of the real and deep nature of this as an illness, some believed the perpetrator when he said, “I’ll never do it again.” The perpetrator was sincere in saying that and they were sincere in believing it, but, as we know now, that’s a dangerous naivete, both ways, akin to an alcoholic (not in treatment) promising to never drink again.
What causes paedophilia? While there is now division over a former axiom that held that “every abuser was first abused”, everyone agrees that paedophilia is caused by some massive trauma in childhood. In many, perhaps most, cases the perpetrators were themselves sexually abused as children. Whatever the trauma he or she experienced, the consensus is that, whatever happened, it was massively deep and this is part of the nature of the disease itself. Paedophilia is an awful disease because something awful caused it.
The anatomy of the illness can help us to understand it: A paedophile is someone who is sexually attracted to a pre-pubescent child. What causes this? The literature in the area suggests that a reason for that attraction, perhaps the main one, is not to do with sex but with the particular trauma the perpetrator experienced as a child, namely, some trauma killed the child in them and the pathological sexual attraction to children exists in the paedophile because his or her own childhood was stolen.
If we keep all of this in mind, it can help us not to fall off either side of a delicate tightrope that needs to be walked on this issue: On the one hand, we can never be too careful regarding sexual abuse. Anything that makes light of it or exposes children to undue risk must be vigorously fought. On the other hand, understanding paedophilia as a disease can help us not to be unduly scandalized by the fact that it also afflicts some priests and religious, as do other diseases.
Nobody is exempt from the human condition and learning that there are some priests who are suffer from a disease that afflicts many, many people shouldn’t lead to the conclusion that a whole system is shot through with hypocrisy, that bishops are more concerned about self- preservation than the gospel, or that vowed celibacy is, in se, an unhealthy condition. Illness is not the same as hypocrisy.