A Survivor Views the Catholic Abuse Scandal
I want to tell you what I think of the Catholic Church’s child-abuse scandal, about which The New York Times recently published an editorial.
First, I have a confession. It’s not that I did anything wrong, but it’s hard to talk about. If I were writing this blog under my real name instead of a nom de plume, I would keep silent.
I am a child-abuse survivor.
I’m not alone. It’s estimated that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused before age 18.
I call myself a survivor instead of a victim because I don’t let it define me. A crime was committed against me when I was five years old and I am over it now. Mostly. Maybe never completely. I don’t know.
It wasn’t a priest: thank goodness for that, at least. It was a family friend. A trusted friend. He came into my bedroom. At the age of five, I didn’t understand what I was seeing, though I now know that what I saw meant he was aroused.
Mercifully, I don’t remember anything of it after that point. The next thing I remember is talking to my parents about it the next morning. Sometimes, psychological trauma stops the formation of long-term memories. My brain blanked out the worst parts so that I wouldn’t have to deal with them.
My parents handled the crisis wisely. They did not panic or wig out. Actually, I’m sure that they did panic and wig out, but they never let me see that. They never showed the pain, fear, and rage that I’m sure they experienced.
They made certain that I knew I was not to blame for what had happened. I had not done anything wrong. I was not bad. The man who hurt me had a sickness that made him do bad things. He would be punished for hurting me. Doctors would try to cure his sickness so that he would not hurt anyone else. That’s all I ever knew about it afterward.
Catholics in Denial
Because of my own experience, I know how important it is to prevent child abuse.
I’m also a Catholic. I don’t believe that the church is always right, and it absolutely has not done enough to protect children from priests who are mentally and spiritually ill. But even though I know it’s a real problem, I have trouble believing in my heart that priests could do such terrible things.
And that heartfelt reluctance to believe in the problem is what I think led the church astray. I think that church officials were trying to do the right thing but ended up doing the wrong thing.
Donald Cozzens, in his book Sacred Silence: Denial and the Crisis in the Church, lists several forms of “denial” with which both church officials and Catholics meet accusations of priestly child abuse:
“There is no problem. It can’t be true.”
This is a comforting but completely unrealistic answer. It’s especially unrealistic in the light of human history and the Catholic doctrine of original sin, under which all people (including priests) have a dark side against which they must struggle.
“Abuse by priests may exist, but it is very rare.”
Even if it’s less common than some people believe, any child abuse is too much. That applies most of all to abuse by priests, who are supposed to be moral and spiritual leaders.
“The media distorts everything.”
Probably. Some people in the news media do seem anti-Christian and anti-Catholic. But that’s not an excuse. People in the news media can be as anti-Catholic as they like, but if their anti-Catholicism causes them to expose terrible crimes committed by priests, then they have done a favor for Catholics and for the church.
“The problem is no worse than in other religious groups or in the general population.”
Possibly. Again, it’s not an excuse.
“They wanted it — they liked it.”
This is the most offensive denial of all. It’s a variation of the excuse used by date rapists.
Even if there are cases in which a teenager has a “consensual” sexual relationship with a priest (leaving aside the facts that the teenager is a minor, the priest is an adult, and the power imbalance makes the teenager’s consent problematic), it’s still not an excuse. Priests have vowed to live by a higher standard.
Church Officials in Denial
The New York Times editorial takes Edward Egan, a bishop who later became a cardinal and archbishop of New York, as a fair example of church officials. It says that in his court depositions, Egan too is in denial. He:
“…betrays a distressing tendency to disbelieve accusers and to shuck off blame. He responds to accounts of abuse not with shame but skepticism, and exhibits the keen instinct for fraternal self-protection that reliably put shepherds ahead of the traumatized flock.
That might be a natural human reaction, but priests and church officials are held to a higher standard — and they should be.
Nobody Likes Due Process
One issue complicates the situation: due process. It’s something that we all know about, but tend to forget when we or our families are crime victims. It’s based on several facts:
- The victims of a crime are not able to judge the case impartially.
- Being accused of committing a crime does not automatically mean that the accused person is guilty of the crime.
- We need a procedure to reliably determine the guilt or innocence of accused people — even when they are priests.
The church has always had very strict standards of evidence for proof of criminal guilt. In the middle ages, accused criminals sometimes committed blasphemy so that their cases could be transferred to church courts, where torture was not allowed and they would get every benefit of the doubt.
What I think has happened is that church officials instinctively want to believe that accused priests are innocent. For that reason, they have distorted the valid idea of due process to give accused priests much more than the benefit of the doubt.
Instead of suspending accused priests from their duties, which would hurt their careers, or defrocking repeat offenders, which would end their careers, some church officials transferred them to new parishes and hoped that counseling would heal their illness.
The Problem and the Price
Church officials failed to realize that the basic problem was not psychological or spiritual illness. Instead, it was the fact that some priests have been unable or unwilling to live up to the high standard that their vocation demands. Counseling will not cure that.
The price of church officials’ failure has been paid by abused children and their families, by Catholics in general, and by a loss of credibility for one of the world’s greatest moral and spiritual institutions.
Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.