Sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church – Face the systemic issues

Sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church – Face the systemic issues
Pope Francis prays during the weekly general audience in Saint Peters Square, Vatican City, 29 August 2018. EPA-EFE/ANGELO CARCONI

The Catholic Church faces one of its biggest crises since the Protestant Reformation: the recent and ongoing exposé of clergy sex abuse. This time it has also revealed an entrenched culture of covering up such abuse by high-ranking church officials. There is no end in sight unless a number of systemic issues are addressed in the Catholic Church.

The latest wave of sexual abuse revelations by Catholic clergy has rightly caused outrage and anger globally. After the 2002 expose in Boston, which caused unspeakable pain, many thought that the worst of the horrific scandal was over. Little did they know.

The fall of the now ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick a few weeks ago and then the release of the so-called Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report (which details how 300 priests abused at least 1,000 victims) has plunged the Catholic Church into a crisis – perhaps its worst since the Reformation.

A number of things have been cited as the cause of abuse in the Church. The Church’s Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the onslaught of secularism, the mass media, the sexual revolution, gay clergy and now, in the last few days, some are blaming Pope Francis himself. All these are red herrings.

The Church needs to come clean about sexual abuse, cover-ups and who knew what and when. The welfare of victims should be prioritised and those responsible for these heinous crimes held truly accountable. Any alleged abuse must be reported to civil authorities for investigation.

However, true accountability means a thorough investigation which must include the whole institution, including recent popes. The notorious McCarrick, for example, was advanced during the pontificate of John Paul II. He must surely have heard of McCarrick’s reputation because so many others seem to have known, even people who worked closely with him. Why did he ignore the rumours? All those who advised John Paul II should be investigated too. The same applies to Pope Benedict XVI.

Even though this would be a good start, it will not eradicate abuse in the Church. Accountability mechanisms, protocols and stringent legal procedures will not entirely deal with the systemic problems that we, the Catholic Church, simply have to confront. Sadly, there is still little willingness to dig deeper. Scapegoating and denialism are easy and have become part of our Church culture in the hope that problems will vanish.

The leadership model of the Catholic Church is still based on and entrenched in the monarchical models of medieval Europe. The monarch has absolute power and is not accountable to anyone. A bishop is the king of the castle in his diocese. There are few, if any, accountability structures in place for bishops.

The medieval Church, it should be further noted, claimed and mostly had independent legal jurisdiction over its clergy. Priests, monks and members of religious orders charged with civil crimes were tried in Church courts. If convicted they were either imprisoned in Church prisons (often attached to monasteries) or, in the case of capital offences, were turned over to civil authorities (called by the Church “the secular arm”) for execution.

This historical practice, perhaps too broadly sketched, set a precedent: the Catholic Church’s tendency to resolve its legal problems internally. A historian can easily see the tendency in the recent past to send sex offending clergy to monasteries or place them in ministries where they had no access to children as a trajectory from the medieval model.

The current crisis has put bishops under the spotlight. Catholics have been taught to trust, respect and obey bishops in order to be “good faithful Catholics”. This has led to an uncritical church culture where, at best, there is only a disapproving silence when bishops do or say the most ridiculous things.

Bishops decide how resources are used and how money is spent. Catholic bishops have absolute power in their jurisdiction in the Church.

A bishop also decides on who enters a seminary, who is ordained, what parish a priest works in, how much a priest is paid, who is suspended from ministry and who is silenced.

This culture not only opens the door to abuse, but also creates a climate of immaturity. Because of the power bishops have, priests are totally dependent on them. Many priests live trying to please bishops, or in fear of them, as they know that their well-being and future lies in the bishop’s hands.

This creates a culture of fear, mistrust and unhealthy posturing for position. It generates an atmosphere in which mistrust and betrayal become the way of climbing the ecclesial ladder – keep the bishop on side, no matter who else you step on, to rise in the ranks. This is not a healthy model of leadership. It does not encourage healthy relationships. There is too much power centred on one man.

One observer of this, the Capuchin Franciscan Michael Crosby (who died in 2017), has neatly summed this up as a “dysfunctional church”. Father Gerald Arbuckle, a Marist priest who is a cultural anthropologist, has also interpreted this dysfunctionality as a function of power that leads to destructiveness, and has called repeatedly for a ‘refounding’ of the Church.

Last weekend former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, alleged that Pope Francis himself was part of the cover-up. Mounting evidence contradicts Viganò’s claims. Last month, in a meeting with clerics from Peru, Francis said that the abuse scandal was “a great humiliation” for the Catholic Church. He also went on to say that it shows the Church’s fragility but also its hypocrisy.

It was Pope Francis, not Benedict XVI or John Paul II (in whose pontificate the Boston crisis broke), who set up a Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Francis has frequently (and more than any other pope) met with survivors of sexual abuse both in Rome and on international trips – Ireland last week being the most recent.

All these are steps in the right direction. However, although Pope Francis acknowledges that there are problems in the priesthood, he has not done what seems most urgent: set in motion a thorough reform of the antiquated and dysfunctional system that trains priests.

Priests are still trained in a system that was devised at the Council of Trent (1545-1563). This Council was the major Catholic response to the Protestant Reformation.

Professor of theology at Villanova University, Massimo Faggioli, recently described this system succinctly in Commonweal Magazine. He said that it is a “quasi-monastic isolation from the rest of society and the mediocrity of many programs of formation have become more of a problem today than they were four or five centuries ago, when there was less public scrutiny of clerical culture.”

He goes on to say that the fact that seminarians live in a system where they have no rights and the institution exercises a “kind of totalitarian power over their lives” further complicates things.

There is still an unwillingness on the part of the hierarchy in most parts of the world, including South Africa, to recognise that this system of training priests no longer equips them for the Church and world they are going to work in. In fact, the current system still teaches men who are preparing for ministry that they are “set apart” and somehow “special”. This “separation” bestows on clergy privilege and status. This distances them from the realities of life and lays the foundation for clericalism – an ideology in which the ordained are deemed superior over other people in the Church.

Added to this is the complexity of the psycho-sexual development of many of the men who are being trained for the priesthood. Psychological testing is now mandatory for all men wanting to be priests. For some young men this is the first and the last time they have a candid conversation with another human being about life-long celibacy in the seven-year training period before ordination.

Many seminarians, when in a protected space where they feel they can be honest, will report that although they are expected to live celibate lives this is hardly ever discussed. Many are afraid of discussing this because, if they are honest, they fear dismissal from the system. This forces an unhealthy secrecy.

Furthermore, mandatory celibacy for all priests needs to be revisited and discussed. Celibacy only became the norm in the eleventh century. It should be noted too that clerical celibacy has never been understood as a religious doctrine but a discipline of the Church, a point reiterated by successive popes, most recently Pope Francis. Yet, whenever this topic is broached many in power in the Church will shut it down. This further entrenches a culture of silence.

Let me make this absolutely clear: I am not suggesting that celibacy causes sex abuse, this would be untrue. There is evidence to the contrary. The problem, rather, is that sick men are able to hide in a culture that prizes silence about sex. It is the system, in which secrecy thrives because sexuality is not spoken about, that needs unbiased critique.

There needs to be dialogue in the Church about human sexuality. This dialogue must be one which is open to learning from the latest developments in medical and social science research.

There are already resources available from excellent systematic and moral theologians that do this, notably the works of Lisa Cahill, Todd Salzman, Michael Lawler, Margaret Farley, and James Alison. Yet these authors who confront the complexity of sexuality, and try to construct an ethic of fidelity, are not normally read in seminaries. In fact they are often condemned.

We cannot continue to think, as a Church, that we have all the answers when it comes to the evolving complexity of human sexuality.

There is also an unhealthy conflation of ordination with decision-making power in the Catholic Church. Just as bishops hold a lot of power in their jurisdiction, priests hold power in the communities where they work.

Although parishes are expected to have finance committees and parish councils, these are often treated as merely advisory bodies and priests still make decisions. Just recently a disgruntled parishioner told me that in a finance meeting, when interrogated about spending, a priest said “You are here to advise but I make the final decision”.

An open discussion about this and the extraction of decision making-power from ordination needs to be seriously considered if the Church is going to deal with the plague of clericalism. Pope Francis, in a recent letter to the whole Church, condemned clericalism (as he has a number of times) saying: “To say no to abuse is to say an emphatic ‘no’ to clericalism”.

Until the Catholic Church courageously begins to face up to the systemic problems that face the institution it will lurch from crisis to crisis. At the very least, blaming and scapegoating some groups, such as gay priests, must end. At the very least, prioritising the healing of victims over defending the reputation of the Church must become the norm.

But if the Church is to find its moral compass again and regain its moral integrity, it must boldly confront its critical systemic problems. DM

Pollitt is Director: Jesuit Institute of South Africa. (@rpollittsj)


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