The recent furor in the media about child sexual abuse by Catholic priests has been the occasion for much personal reflection and prayer for me in the past months. Many in the parish are rightly troubled by what the press has been saying. It has to be addressed squarely and truthfully.
I hope that you will understand if I don’t preach on the readings this week and take some time to speak to what you have been hearing in the news.
Studies indicate that between one in every five to one in ten of adults in the United States haved suffered from some form of child sexual abuse. Oftentimes, sexual abuse has profound negative effects on the victims that scar them from life.
Even before I became a priest, I met several people who have had to deal with the deep wounds that come from childhood sexual abuse. It is an awful burden to bear. I want those of you who have suffered this abuse to know that you are not alone in your suffering. Precisely when you feel most broken, Our Crucified Lord most wants to draw close to you and love you.
Most of the time, sexual abuse is perpetrated by a family member, a family friend or someone who works with children like a coach or teacher. What we have learned in past decades is, and I say it with great shame, that priests have also been guilty of child sexual abuse. My heart breaks when I think of the victims. I am outraged when I think of those who were responsible for the abuse.
Unfortunately, as long as we continue to live in a sinful world, there will always be some bad priests. When we look at the first priests that Jesus chose, the twelve Apostles, we find that one of them was thief and traitor who likely ended up in Hell. Perhaps Christ chose Judas as an apostle to strengthen our faith against future scandals in the priesthood. No matter how rigorous formation for the priesthood is, some bad men will always manage to get ordained. God leaves all of us, even His ministers, free to make ourselves into devils. We can only hope that when a bad priest is discovered that he is suspended from ministry.
What makes what happened in the Church even worse is that some bishops transferred priests who had engaged in sexual abuse rather than remove them from ministry. Part of the problem was a misplaced faith in psychotherapy; another big part of it was a desire to protect the public image of the Church. So, in addition to having bad priests, we have also had some bad and cowardly bishops.
We should be thankful that the media blew the lid off this scandal eight years ago and forced the Church in the United States to deal with it in a comprehensive way.
Invariably in this discussion the following question comes up: Before his election as Pope, was Pope Benedict a bishop that shuffled abuser priests from parish to parish?
After spending a great deal of time shifting through the evidence, I believe that the answer is no.
Pope Benedict was the Archbishop of Munich from 1977 until 1982. There were over one thousand active priests in Munich in those years. The then Cardinal Ratzinger was outside of his Archdiocese for much of the year because Pope John Paul II had asked him to chair several important convocations of bishops in Rome.
Personnel decisions were left to one of the Archbishop’s assistants, the Vicar General. During this period of time, a priest from another diocese who had abused children was sent by his superiors for psychotherapy in Munich.
The vicar general in Munich authorized said priest to work in Munich and to continue receiving counseling. Several years later, the priest in question went on to abuse more children. The decision to give this priest an assignment was a very bad decision on the part of the Vicar General, who has admitted numerous times that the decision was entirely his own.
In hindsight, we might say that Cardinal Ratzinger should have been more intimately involved in assignment decisions in his archdiocese. But, in an archdiocese with more than 1,000 active priests, thousands of religious and seminarians as well as numerous Catholic institutions like universities and hospitals, it is hard to see how he could have been plugged into every or even most of the decisions.
In 1982, Cardinal Ratzinger moved to Rome and became the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was not until 2001 that he was given exclusive responsibility for handling child sex abuse cases. Only in extraordinary situations did his Vatican congregation step in before 2001, usually only after the priest had already been barred from active ministry and was appealing on some technical aspect of Church law.
Media reports have spoken as if Cardinal Ratzinger had special competence to deal with allegations of child sex abuse before 2001. The janus-faced fact is that he did not.
Since 2001, there has been generally swift and decisive action in permanently removing priests facing substantiated accusations of child sex abuse from ministry under the leadership of Cardinal Ratzinger. Sometimes, the rigor of these measures have results in falsely accused priests being excluded from ministry despite their innocence. There were, unfortunately, several prominent cases where Ratzinger was stopped by powerful churchmen in the Vatican from taking action because it was believed that the accused were innocent. After his election in 2005, Pope Benedict moved quickly to ban these priests, who were in fact guilty, from ministry.
What can we say about the Pope’s record? We can say that there is no evidence that has been made public of a direct link between the Pope and covering up sexual abuse. Moreover, we can say that from at least 2001 onward, he has been at the forefront of cleaning this mess up in the Church, even butting heads with prominent churchmen in order to do.
At this point, I think an historical perspective, given us by an Italian sociologist, might be helpful. The following is an excerpt from a longer article:
“There are cases of sexual abuse that come to light every day against a large number of members of the Catholic clergy. Unfortunately it’s not a matter of individual cases, but a collective moral crisis that perhaps the cultural history of humanity has never before known with such a frightening and disconcerting dimension. Numerous priests and religious have confessed. There’s no doubt that the thousands of cases which have come to the attention of the justice system represent only a small fraction of the true total, given that many molesters have been covered and hidden by the hierarchy.”
An editorial from a great secular newspaper in 2010? No: It’s a speech of May 28, 1937, by Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda for the Third Reich. This speech, which had a large international echo, was the apex of a campaign launched by the Nazi regime to discredit the Catholic Church by involving it in a scandal of pedophile priests.
Two hundred and seventy-six religious and forty-nine diocesan priests were arrested in 1937. The arrests took place in all the German dioceses, in order to keep the scandals on the front pages of the newspapers….
…[There were] highly detailed instructions sent by Goebbels to the Gestapo, the political police of the Third Reich, and above all to journalists, just a few days after the publication of [a papal document that criticized the Nazi ideology] inviting them to “reopen” the cases from 1936 and also older cases, constantly recalling them to public opinion…
In the case of the Nazi campaign against the Church, there were certainly deplorable cases of abuse. The reality, however, was that abuse was as bad or worse everywhere else in the German society at the time. The myopic focus on the sins of the some priests by the media was part of a greater campaign to cripple Catholic resistance to the Nazi Culture of Death that was bent on wiping out all opposition.
Eight years ago, the media did the Church in the US a great service by forcing us to deal with this issue. Today, the situation is quite different. The media are going after the Pope, not because of any of his own wrongdoing, but for quite different reasons.
In light of the fact, confirmed by numerous studies, that a Catholic priest is in fact less likely than the general population to abuse minors, why would the mainstream media be interested in singling out the Church of the issue of child sexual abuse? I can see no other motivation but to undermine the Church’s credibility because of what the Church teaches on the impossibility of so-called homosexual marriage and the sanctity of human life.
Thus we have seen continuous repetitions of decades-old cases fed to media outlets by trial lawyers who hope to make millions of dollars suing the Catholic Church.
One question to close: Do media outlets like the New York Times that are strident advocates of partial birth abortion and have positively reviewed literature that celebrates gay child sexual abuse really care about the welfare of children?