For the past two decades, at least, there have been murmurings of sexual misconduct among Catholic priests-in the United States and elsewhere. Despite its culture of secrecy, which mimics society’s culture of secrecy about such issues, stories have surfaced here and there: a young boy, now a man, accusing a parish priest of rape; a woman speaking out about how, years before, the priest to whom she went for guidance took advantage of her vulnerability.
In all these cases, damage control seemed the Church’s greatest concern. Priests were sometimes removed from a particular parish (often allowed to continue his criminal misconduct in another, as it now turns out). Bishops and cardinals knowingly engineered the cover-ups. Large sums of money were dispensed-always on the condition of secrecy.
Something has happened to this modus operandi. Something has changed the status quo, so long protected by the men in power. Perhaps it has been the feeling of community that has arisen when one victim after another decided he or she would no longer be bound by the promise of secrecy; in situations like this one, there is comfort and courage in numbers. Perhaps it is a product of the public at large gaining an awareness of sexual abuse and beginning to take it more seriously.
Perhaps even devout Catholic families are finally saying “Enough!” and are no longer willing to hide their rage and sorrow behind the unwavering respect they have been taught to feel for those who profess to guide them in their faith.
Whatever the reasons, the lid is off. Priests have been tried and convicted. Others have committed suicide. Bishops and other Church officials are being held accountable. Documents proving years of cover-up have been made public. The Pope has called U.S. cardinals and bishops to Rome. Damage control is now likely to be organized on a much grander scale.
The question, now, is whether management of this horrendous history will stop at damage control, or whether in fact the men who run one of the world’s great religions will have the intelligence and courage to dig deeper, go further, examine (and perhaps change?) the doctrines and practices which have proven to be such a favorable environment for those priests who are pedophiles, rapists, or otherwise misuse their positions of power.
I am not optimistic.
I am not optimistic because I don’t believe that the cardinals and bishops ever gave much thought to the victims of these crimes. Tardy apologies notwithstanding, ample documentation proves they began to take such accusations seriously only when they threatened their own positions of power.
And I am not optimistic because discussions to date show a shameful ignorance of what produces such crimes, what kind of man is prone to committing them, and what issues must be explored in order to understand the criminal conduct.
Celibacy and homosexuality have been mentioned repeatedly as possible causes for pedophilia and/or the sexual abuse of people of whatever sex, whose trust in and dependence upon a particular priest gives that priest the opportunity to victimize.
Yet there is no proof that celibacy, as a chosen way of life, induces this sort of behavior. And a man who is homosexual is no more likely-in fact studies have shown he is much less likely-to commit this crime than one who is heterosexual. Homosexuality is a sexual condition, an identification that includes much more than sexual behavior.
Pedophilia is a crime, in which an adult male cannot control his pressing urge to sexually abuse a young boy. Similarly, the sexual abuse and/or rape of girls and women is the product of a man’s inability to control his raging need for sexual domination and control. No serious study has ever suggested a link of any sort between homosexuality and these crimes.
Allowing male priests to marry and permitting women to enter the priesthood are the two other elements that have surfaced in the current debate. The Pope has made it clear that neither is up for discussion.
Insofar as allowing priests to marry would certainly humanize them and bring them more closely in touch with the lives and problems of most of their parishioners, this might help modernize the Catholic Church.
I doubt, however, that it would have much effect on that percentage of priests who are pedophiles. Allowing women to enter the priesthood would certainly go a long way towards breaking the absolutely patriarchal hold always held by men in the hierarchy. Still, it would take decades-perhaps longer than any of us have on this earth-to effect systemic change in that patriarchy.
Patriarchy itself is at the root of the problems faced by the Catholic Church, and by many other governments, corporations, military establishments and organizations here and throughout the world. Let me be clear, I am not speaking of faith, of belief or devotion or community. I am talking about the Church as a system, a patriarchal system.
Silence and secrecy have always served the patriarchy well. Patriarchal mores, patterns of thought and behavior guide cardinals and bishops in protecting their own. Patriarchal ideas run amok in discussions of celibacy and homosexuality, linking healthy choices and conditions to criminal aberrations. Patriarchal values led Cardinal Bernard Law, in Boston, to disregard years of pleas by a concerned female parishioner while the priest about whom she was concerned continued to abuse young boys.
Until we decide to take a long hard (and in-depth) look at how patriarchy operates in our world, until we examine the power relations we have allowed to dominate all aspects of society, we will continue to build upon a vitiated base. In the problem faced today by the Catholic Church, it is not about priests who are celibate and others who only pretend to be.
It is about the “boys will be boys” attitude that encourages some men who are sick to prey on innocent boys and girls and women, and the men who supervise them to turn a blind eye because the offenders are, after all, their brothers in patriarchal privilege.
Come what may (or may not) out of the meeting in Rome, the people who are the true body of the Church no longer seem willing to abide by laws which enable their children’s victimization, and their own. Hopefully, the people will demand reexamination and change in ways that may, finally, effect the patriarchy where it lives.