Sins & Silence
Letters to the Editor
Series shallow, exploitative attack on the church
Sexual-abuse problem in Catholic Church is infinitesimal; victims should move on

By Guy Woodward
Telegraph Herald [Dubuque IA]
March 19, 2006

[See the main page of the Sins & Silence series for links to all the articles and letters to the editor.]

The recent series regarding sexually abusive priests of the Archdiocese of Dubuque appearing in the Telegraph Herald cries for rebuttal. That's correct: rebuttal.

In spite of its seemingly objective narration of tragedy, triumph and resolution, it remains an astonishingly uni-dimensional piece. Why? Because it resolutely refuses context: it presents a narrative bereft of the comprehensive scope promised by the editor.

First, numbers. How many priests served in the archdiocese in the course of the events narrated? That would contextualize the extent of the abuse. In fact, a miniscule percentage of priests who have served in the archdiocese have ever committed such outrages.

The national average for all priests ordained between 1950 and 2001 (the dates inclusive of the Telegraph Herald narrative) is 1.5 percent. That's right: 1.5 percent! That statistic is gleaned from The New York Times, in a 2003 article, "Decades of Damage: Trail of Pain in Church Crisis Leads to Nearly Every ." The archdiocesan percentage is, I am sure, very similar.

I note, only for comparison, that in 2000 the Baptist General Convention in Texas reported 12 percent of Baptist ministers were sexually engaged with congregants, while 40 percent admitted sexually inappropriate behavior (without further specification). This from a 2002 article in the Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel, "Baptist Tradition Makes It Hard to Oust Sex-Abusing Clergy."

Other examples too many to mention can be cited. The point: Proper context would reveal the literally infinitesimal scale of the problem among Catholic priests. The articles make it seem like a tsunami.

Second: A great many of these men have families, friends and, I dare say, former parishioners who remember them for good they undoubtedly did. Catholic theology teaches that no human being is utterly depraved: All human beings remain essentially good. That they did great harm is true; that they did good is, too, beyond doubt.

The scorched earth portrayals of these men do little good save to excite loathing and hatred.

Third: The majority of these men are dead, unable to defend themselves or offer explanation. I note that the entire "survivors" movement is quite ready to overthrow the American legal tradition of innocent until proven guilty. How odd. The legal system is quite wonderful as a means of the public settling of wrongs against victims, but its protection of the accused is conveniently forgotten in the pursuit of what seems at times more akin to retribution than justice.

Fourth: The entire culture of victimhood is at work here. It might sound hard, but it is true: Life is cruel; it brings terrible suffering on everyone, sometimes at the hands of fellow human beings. One can transcend life's cruelty or wallow in the status of its victim.

The comparison of horrors inflicted and suffered, as if there is a scale to such things, is odious. But I do it here to make a point. Elie Wiesel suffered the full force of the Shoah: He endured Auschwitz, saw the extermination of his family and the attempted extermination of his kind. Rather than the cult of the victim, Wiesel translated these horrors into a literature of humanity and a Nobel Prize.

In our culture of victimhood and litigation, transcendence is sold cheaply.

The entire series of articles was not as the editor would have it, a "serious and comprehensive examination." Had it been comprehensive, it would have possessed context; had it possessed context, it would have addressed the points made above, and more besides.

It was shallow exploitation, playing to crass and bitter and angry audiences, seeking only to wound the church.

Guy Woodward

Woodward teaches at Beckman High School in Dyersville, Iowa, and at Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa.


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