Sexual Abuse Redux

The deplorable phenomenon of priestly sexual abuse that the US faced some years ago has now emerged in several European nations.  We in the US have already thought through the issues involved; let’s hope that Europeans will have a faster learning curve due to the attention given to the topic for so many years in the US.

Without question, sexual abuse by priests is abhorrent; and yes, some in the hierarchy are guilty of serious misconduct in their response to sexual abuse.  Any priest or bishop who violated the law should be held accountable.  Nor is legal accountability the only kind of accountability.  There is moral accountability even when there is not legal accountability.

The phenomenon of sexual abuse has (again) led some who oppose a celibate and all male priesthood to propose that a married priesthood and women as priests would reduce the amount of sexual abuse or improve the handling of sexual abuse cases.

How can anyone think that dropping the rule for celibacy will reduce the amount of sexual abuse?   Much sexual abuse is by married heterosexual males – married clergy in most denominations have a dismal record of adultery and sexual misbehavior (though the rate of abuse by volunteers is greater; see, Mark Clayton, “Sexual abuse spans spectrum of churches”, Christian Science Monitor, 4/5/02;  Sadly, we could anticipate that in the Catholic Church if priests married.

But the most important fact to note is that 80% of the sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was of teenage boys.   The recent revelations of decades of sexual abuse in the boy scouts was overwhelmingly committed by males upon males.  Males who want to have sex with teenage boys gravitate to professions and opportunities for contact with boys.  The Boy Scout leaders who abused boys were not men who made a pledge of celibacy — we don’t yet know how many were married and how many were unmarried.  Certainly some of the males who abused boy scouts were married — marriage does not satisfy the sexual appetite of men who want to have sex with boys.  The current screening practice for admittance of men to seminaries will work much better in preventing such men from becoming priests and having access to boys within the Church.

As for the claim that women would have handled sexual abuse cases better, why is there so much unpunished sexual abuse in the schools which are dominated by women?  Sad to say, there have been dismal reports out of Ireland about abuse of all kinds by nuns.  Those who have been abused by their fathers often report that their mothers were complicit or silent.  One would hope that women with their nurturing qualities would be particularly sensitive to the harm done by sexual abuse, but that claim has not yet, so far as I know, been verified by research.

Still, I agree that having lay people — men and women — rather than priests only handle sexual abuse cases may improve reporting procedures.  The fact is that priests build a brotherhood through seminary formation and the priesthood and it can be difficult for them to believe horrible things reported about their brother priests.  To avoid inappropriate fraternal protectiveness, lay involvement could help.  Indeed, the US bishops chose a woman, Anne Burke, to chair their investigation of sexual abuse.  A look at a few diocesan websites shows that some (perhaps many) bishops have appointed women to chair and be members of committees overseeing sexual abuse cases.  Maybe studies will eventually show that they do a better job than their male counterparts.  Still, it is simply false that males or priests (many of whom come from large families) are insensitive to the harm done through sexual abuse; I believe morally upright males are as offended by sexual abuse as morally upright females; indeed, even males in prison have no tolerance for sex abusers.

Count me as one of those who is very grateful that the media has exposed sexual abuse in the Church. Yet, any responsible media coverage surely needs to note that much higher incidents of sexual abuse occur in many other institutions, such as in public schools; it goes unreported and unpunished and often perpetrators are just reassigned (see Carol Shakeshaft, Educator Sexual Misconduct: A Snythesis of Existing Literature,  Sexual contact with clients is high in the psychological profession and this is precisely the profession that often, as experts, advised bishops on what to do with sexually abusing priests.  I don’t offer this as an excuse, but the blame must be shared.

Is there evidence that other institutions have done a better job dealing with accusations of sexual abuse than the bishops have done?  Again, this is not to excuse them but to put the issue into context.  What they did, virtually all other institutions did and many have not improved (see Philip Jenkins, Pedophiles and Priests, and The New Anti-Catholicism: the Last Acceptable Prejudice).  Not many institutions, not many religious denominations have in place the safeguards against sexual abuse that are now present in the Catholic Church.  The media has a responsibility to report not only the faults of the Church but also the ways that the Church has responded.

In fact, reports are that sexual harassment is fairly common in the newsroom and entertainment world (hello Dave Letterman!); books about the media speak of a “glass ceiling” in the newsroom (see Deborah Chambers, Linda Steiner, Women and Journalism, pages 88-89).  Again, we need a few more honest, equal opportunity muckrakers.

Those who speak of the priesthood as a position of power and who want to be priests because of power don’t understand the nature of the priesthood.  Nor does the confinement of the priesthood to males only have anything to do with the view that women have fewer capabilities than males.  Pope John Paul II was noted for his writings about the equality of males and females (see, for instance, his encyclical On the Vocation and Dignity of Women and his Letter to Women).

The priesthood is a sacramental office.  The Church understands Christ to have instituted an all male priesthood and that the priest “stands” as a “sacramental sign” for Christ.  The Church understands the “matter” of a sacrament to be essential and not changeable — baptism requires water (milk won’t do); the Eucharist requires bread and wine (chips and beer won’t do).  The priesthood requires a male for many reasons, among them fidelity to what is called “the economy of salvation.”  Christ was a second Adam; Mary was a second Eve.  Even more importantly, the Church is the bride of Christ; the image of the bridegroom is the most central and revealing image of Christ in the New Testament.   A bridegroom must be male.  Surely the vast majority of those whose opinions register in polls as approving women as priests have never read a thoughtful justification for an all male priesthood (see Monica Migliorino Miller, The Authority of Women in the Catholic Church and Sarah Butler, The Catholic Priesthood and Women: A Guide to the Teaching of the Church); they have virtually no understanding of what a sacrament is.  Why should their opinions count?

The priesthood is a wonderful way to serve, but Christians can serve no matter what their status in the Church.  Some of the holiest and most powerful people ever were not priests.  In our own time, who was holier and who had greater access to persons of power than Mother Teresa?  Heads of state around the world were eager to do her bidding.

Yes, historically priests have held most of the positions of institutional power in the Church but that is changing and will continue to change.  For centuries, priests have been among the most educated in the community and it was natural for them to have power.  Most of the cultures in which the Church has operated have given most power to males.  The Church, in fact, has been in advance of every culture in recognizing the talents and ability for governance of women.  The first women to be heads of universities, colleges, hospitals and social service institutions were Catholic nuns. Catholic nuns have bravely gone to strange and foreign lands to serve. They conduct their own religious orders independent of male governance.  Now that laywomen are becoming theologically educated they are rising rapidly in the ranks of power in virtually every diocese and parish in the US and in the Vatican as well.  Mary Ann Glendon recently served as ambassador to the Vatican and two women have served in top positions in Vatican dicasteries.

John Allen reports that women hold 48.4% of administrative offices in the Church and 26.8% of the executive positions are held by women.  He speculates that females hold up to 30% more of the positions of power open to them in the Church than do males (The Future Church, p. 196).  A report in 2002 showed that 49 women were serving as Chancellors, the highest position in a diocese, the CEO of a diocese.  That may be why Allen also reports that the Church does better in employing women in positions of power than do Fortune 500 businesses, top law firms and the Department of Defense (196).  Again, the Church is ahead of the culture, not behind the culture.

Some people, like me, jest that one reason the priesthood should be confined to males is that females already have too much power. The power of a loving wife and mother can never be overestimated. But women should seek to be wives and mothers not for the power, but for the opportunity to love.  Teaching in a seminary gives me quite a bit of power over the next generation of priests.  I have been invited by many bishops to instruct their priests; that, too, gives me power.  Nonetheless, I hope I love what I do, not because of the opportunities for power that it gives me, but for the opportunity to serve.

If more of those pressing for women to be priests spoke of the opportunity that the priesthood offers for loving, selfless service, we would at least know that they have some idea of what the priesthood is all about.

While I am deeply, deeply saddened by the harm done to those who suffered sexual abuse from priests, and the harm done to those who have left the Church or despise the Church because of the sexual abuse, I am confident that the future in this respect looks very different.  Seminaries are attracting masculine men who have a powerfully protective stance towards those whom they will serve; they embrace the call to celibacy, in part, as a call to unfettered opportunity to serve others.  In many cases they are being taught by women and learning to work well with women, for collaboration between priests and laity, women and men alike, is the future of the Church (see USCCB, Co-Workers in the Vineyard of the Lord: A Resource for Guiding the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry).

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage