Pastoral Proposals for the Problem of Clerical Sexual Abuse

By Paul Mankowski, S.J.
July 1995
Originally published in Catholic World Report
October 1995

It is a welcome development that US churchmen have begun to deal more openly with the problem of clerical sexual abuse. That said, the public treatment of the problem is still more notable for what it omits than what it includes. The proposals that follow are an attempt to restore the omission, and to resume in the public sphere a discussion that has been going on in the private realm for several years. In most cases my suggestions are observations common among associates, lay and clerical, whose judgment I trust and who view the Church as first and foremost a spiritual edifice, and only secondarily as a social and political corporation.

The prime responsibility of a pastor -- any pastor, whether pope, bishop or priest is the care of souls; his position of spiritual shepherd makes sense only under one assumption: that the persons under his care, his flock, are at risk of spiritual harm, including the ultimate spiritual harm which is damnation. Consequently his task when confronted with adversity (whether a natural catastrophe, such as an earthquake, an economic hardship, such as a factory closing, or a moral disaster, such as a sexual scandal) is to minimize the spiritual damage with which his people are threatened. He must ask himself, are souls likely to be lost on account of this disaster, and if so, by what means? How can they best be preserved from harm and restored to a full life in the Church? Very often the pastoral response to a catastrophe will include temporal aid such as provision of medicine and food, yet the moral and spiritual problems occasioned by adversity are of an entirely different order than its physical, psychological, or economic consequences. Indeed, temporal hardship in itself may be a spiritual boon. Almost always the authentic pastoral work begins where temporal remedies leave off.

Most of the public discussion by church officials regarding the pastoral response to sexual abuse by priests has centered on the therapy to be provided. Now it is a good thing and a necessary part of the Church’s response that psychological and physical therapy be offered to the victims, the victims’ families, and to the offender. But if the Church puts the emphasis on therapy she sends the wrong message to the public. It suggests that the principal harm inflicted by a priest engaged in sexual abuse is psychological or social, and that a primarily psychological approach to healing, combined with a prudential caution about restoring the offender to ministry, discharges the Church’s responsibilities in the matter. Yet the chief damage wrought by sexual abuse is moral and spiritual, and even complete success in restoring the psychological equilibrium of victim and offender will not right these wrongs.

The priest sexual abuser objectively commits a mortal sin. In no official commentary on this issue have I heard any recognition of or concern for the fact that these men must be living as priests and performing the sacraments in a state of mortal sin for a large part of their ministerial lives. The validity of the sacraments themselves is unaffected by the unworthiness of the minister, of course, but what about the counseling, homilizing, confessional judgments, instruction in prayer, retreats, marriage preparations, and the whole business of daily human interactions conducted outside the state of grace? It is reckless and contrary to all human wisdom to assume that a man who can live in outrageous violation of common decency in one area of his life, and in defiance of his solemn commitment to chastity as well, can be expected to discharge his other responsibilities with integrity. Even if we entertain the possibility that abusers themselves resort to confession now and again our concerns are not allayed, because the pastoral efficacy of that sacrament is thereby called into question: either abusers would be resorting to priests of their own kind for a purely formal fix, or to priests unwilling or unable to convince their penitents to leave the ministry while seeking the help they need.

Superficially, of course, abusers can lead commonplace lives, and the fact that priest abusers often go a long time without arousing suspicion is an indication that the nature of their perversion is not obvious in all instances. But this underscores the moral crisis at the center of these men’s existence, the grotesque contrast between the foulness of their sexual behavior and the role of priestly sanctity which serves as a mask. These priests are either tortured by their hypocrisy or not tortured by it -- and in either case there must be incalculable pastoral harm done to those lay people whom they have to help in overcoming temptations and in accepting the Church’s harsher demands. A priest capable of justifying his own sexual predation to himself is not going to be able to give spiritual aid to those who need it most and will almost certainly compound the problems of those who seek his counsel. Once it can be determined that a priest has lived as an abuser, it should be assumed that all his pastoral work was defective, and the diocese should take it for granted than any parish (or other apostolate) at which he worked for more than a short time requires re-catechesis. A pharmaceutical company that wrongly batches a drug does not simply issue a press release saying, “we’ve become more forthcoming about our quality-control failures,” and let the matter drop. Rather, it makes some effort to track down those who may have used the defective product and educates them in order to minimize harm. By the same token, it is not enough for a diocese to offer counseling to an abuser’s parish in order to bring about “healing”; it should actively investigate the condition of the parish in terms of its understanding of and adherence to Church doctrine, and take whatever steps are necessary to put things right. The souls put at risk by the sexually predatory priest are not just those of his victims, but of everyone whom he has given ill counsel, bad example, empty promises, misplaced hope, and above all false doctrine. They deserve to know the truth.

By the same token, it should be remembered that priests are expected to pray faithfully on behalf of the people whom they serve. We can assume that a sexual abuser has not been true to this duty and that the communities in which he served were wrongly deprived of this spiritual help -- and this for the same reason we can assume that his pastoral work was flawed. There is no simple way to make up for this kind of delinquency, but the Church could teach a lot about the importance of prayer and the meaning of authentic priestly life by recognizing the loss as a genuine loss and addressing it directly, perhaps by directing the priests in the diocese or province to offer a number of masses for the parishioners, or by holding missions and retreats in the parish. Such spiritual recompense would have the collateral effect of reminding other priests that their priestly ministry is not confined to the public pastoral sphere.

Because sexual abuse damages the spiritual fabric of the larger Church and not simply the psyches of those involved, bishops and superiors should not only offer therapy to the abuser but should require him to do penance, and should make the fact of this requirement public. Imposing such penance is not vindictiveness, but a simple recognition of the moral facts of the matter, and the Church cannot insist on the moral gravity of this sin while remaining silent about the obligation of penance. The same is true about the harm done in the civil sphere to the secular community. Sexual abusers are felons, and Church officials should make it clear that priest offenders if justly convicted have a debt to pay to their fellow citizens. The requirement to undergo penance and civil punishment should not be understood as willful ignorance of the advances in knowledge of the psychological conditions attendant on sexual abuse or of the desirability of psychological treatment; instead, it underscores the objective nature of the wrongdoing. To take an example from another sphere: given the compulsive nature of alcoholism, an airline pilot’s drinking binge may be subjectively at the same level of diminished culpability as the drinking binge of a potato harvester; but objectively the pilot has committed the greater wrong, and the co-responsibility of his airline is objectively greater than that of the harvester’s employer. Why? Because a pilot and an airline have a broader set of responsibilities vis-à-vis the larger community, and a mishandled 747 rudder has a greater social impact than a mishandled potato. The duties of the Church and the trust accorded her ministers are incomparably more profound and far-reaching than those of any human agency, and violations committed by her priests should be treated with proportionate gravity, irrespective of their subjective culpability.

Sexual abuse does not take place in a moral vacuum. Too often, however, the public discussion of priestly misconduct focuses on the offender’s “disease” to the exclusion of other contributing factors. Undeniably the pathology of the abuser must be taken into account, but frequently his turpitude is dealt with as if it were a tragedy striking from outside the realm of human choice, a disease like Alzheimer’s for which no one is responsible and for which “healing” consists in being frank and open with one another. Such an approach, it seems to me, places the burden on the wrong people and lets the wrong people off the hook. As with alcoholism, sexual abuse can rarely take hold in a man’s life without bad decisions on his part and without the collusion of many who are not themselves abusers. At the very least, bishops whose priests have confessed to sexual abuse should require “fateful glass of beer” testimonies and make them known to their clergy and seminarians: honest accounts by the offenders of their degradation and the cause-effect relationships as they understand them. “Here is how I first went wrong; here is the bad advice I got in the seminary; here was the priest who put me on to the game; here was the cowardly pastor who looked the other way; here was the way our little clique formed; here was the way we diverted suspicion; here is the way we cut the legs out from under fellow priests who complained or who had guessed what was happening; this is how we lied to parishioners and saw that the complainers were frozen out; this is how we rigged things at the chancery; this was the workshop that helped me rationalize my behavior; this is the theologian who took away my faith; this is the first moral teaching I abandoned; here’s how that first forfeiture led to other denials; this is the television program that I used to feed on; these are the magazines I started to read and the videos I started to rent; this was the first year I stopped praying the breviary; here I stopped saying mass when I wasn’t on rotation; here I stopped going to confession; this is a family I cultivated as an ally; these are the stories I fed them about being the victim of hate mail and rumors; these are the bars I started to go to; here is the dirt I found on so-and-so to blackmail him into going to bat for me when I needed it...” And so on. Fifty or sixty of these personal histories in circulation around U.S. rectories and seminaries would make a considerable difference in the life of the Church.

Four years ago I was obliged to attend a day-long workshop for priests on “Sexual Misconduct and Professional Boundaries.” The proffered advice (summed up by the presenter as “Reach out, but don’t touch anyone”) was entirely reasonable as far as it went. But it went no further than the legal and common-sense considerations incumbent on anyone in any professional walk of life. It was greatly disheartening that the Church, in attempting to educate her own ministers on this issue, was unwilling to offer them anything more substantive than the general prudential norms equally valid for a dentist or a high school guidance counselor. Once again, the problem was not what was said, but what was left unsaid. And what was left unsaid should have been glaringly obvious to every man in the room: when Catholic priests -- whose very calling is ordered to intimate union with God by the imitation of Christ -- need to be given coaching on how to stay out of jail, the purpose of priesthood itself has been forgotten. It isn’t lost -- entirely -- but it has become all but unmentionable. And seeking the reason for that brings us up against an issue more touchy than even sexual abuse itself.

The problem of clerical sexual abuse of minors will continue to worsen until the Church puts an end to a deeper problem: the high percentage of gay priests. Putting an end to the problem of gay priests means, quite simply, putting an end to gay priests: discharging them from the positions they hold and refusing gays admittance to the seminaries. This is necessary not because gay priests are pedophiles but because they are bad priests. By “gay” I mean a homosexual who by conviction, declaration or activity is tolerant of sodomy. The gay stance is unambiguously contrary to the Church’s teaching on sexuality and for this reason gay priests live in bizarre and idiosyncratic relations to the Church, relations that always involve some measure of bad faith. This in turn produces an emotional climate in which all kinds of irregularity -- social, doctrinal, liturgical, sexual -- are tacitly accepted. This is not, repeat not, a conscious conspiracy orchestrated by gay priests to subvert the priesthood, but rather a secondary effect of their blurring the black-and-white demands of priestly life in order to indulge their own fancies. The collusion in question takes the form of an unspoken (but universally understood) mutual non-aggression pact. Toleration of questionable sacramental practices or theological opinions is offered in exchange for toleration of questionable sexual appetites: you keep off my views on women’s ordination and I’ll keep off your earring and your overnights at the beach condo. Because deviant sexuality is the gunpowder issue, with so much potential for disruption, any departure from the contract brings a ferocious reaction upon the maverick, and not just from gays.

In 1991, the dissident Catholic journalist Tim Unsworth published a series of interviews called The Last Priests in America: Conversations with Remarkable Men. These remarkable men included a convicted sex offender. His comments illustrate a key element in the “contract”: In no circumstances am I to blame for my failings; it is the Church, and principally the Church as moral teacher, that is to blame:

During my time in prison, my mother and sister came every month. It was a five hour drive. My mother is in her eighties now. She was at my ordination in her new hat; now she had to hand her pocketbook to a dumb bastard of a guard so he could go through it. It hurt to see that. ... My trial was all over the papers. ... My lawyer really didn’t work for me, he worked for the bishop. In the end, he represented the diocese’s interests. ... The Church has lost the prisons. ... The Church is still not handling the sex-offender issue in any other way but a legal matter. It’s still protecting itself, not helping the offender or the so-called victims. The boy I was accused of abusing was practically a grown man, for God’s sake. Oh, I could tell you some stories.

In the extraordinary phrase “the so-called victims,” this priest reveals the inner mind of the sexual predator and hints at the reason why they so often are multiple offenders: in their heart of hearts they believe it is not themselves but the Church that has it wrong. Unsworth’s book is also instructive in a quite unintended way. Since the time of its publication, two more of the “remarkable men” he holds up for our admiration have confessed to sexual misconduct with minors. One is a social worker-priest turned seminary professor:

The vocation problem is a big one. It touches on married and celibate clergy and on the role of the laity. In the current structure, there is no hope for increased vocations. ... What does the priesthood have to offer today? I’m not sure. We’ll need to look carefully and prayerfully at our future shepherds. The issue is no longer celibacy. It’s beyond that. It’s like arguing about who should be made headwaiter on the Titanic. ... I see big trouble ahead. ... Maybe the old system with all its trappings has got to go and a new spirit has got to come in.

The other was a pastor in a midwestern archdiocese:

Who would I ordain? I don’t think I’d ordain anyone who doesn’t read the New York Times or hasn’t written a sonnet. ... We can no longer think of an exclusively male clergy anymore. It just won’t wash. ... We can’t go among the poor and holler at them with picket signs about abortion. I’m beginning to wonder myself about our teaching on abortion. ... Do you think that life begins when brain activity begins? I don’t know. I only know that we can’t bring the poor and homeless into our shelter to feed them and then yell at them for fifteen minutes about abortion.

There is a coherence to be noticed in this incoherence. The rule, which in my experience has no exceptions, is this: for “professional” Catholics, vocal theoretical rejection of one area of the Church’s sexual teaching is accompanied by concrete real- world departure from her sexual teaching in another. Thus, if a man is waving his saber around the issue of contraception, we can surmise that he wants to distract our gaze from another issue regarding which he feels less righteous about his own conduct. Dissent is the cement of priestly deviance.

Now sexual violation of minors has become an issue too big for the public gaze to be averted entirely, and if properly addressed would bring scrutiny into the “lifestyles” of many who are not themselves abusers but would find it very unwelcome nonetheless. Far too often such scrutiny is evaded by inducing the would-be reformers to train their spotlight on the wrong places. Americans have been coached to discuss the crisis of clerical sexual abuse by calling it “the pedophilia problem,” or “the problem of pedophile priests.” We are also constantly (and, as far as I know, correctly) reminded that in the judgment of experts there is no connection between homosexuality and pedophilia; homosexuals are no more likely than heterosexuals to be pedophiles. But from this we are invited to conclude -- erroneously -- that the problem of clerical sexual abuse is un-connected with the presence and influence gay priests. The inference is wrong on several counts.

Pedophilia is a technical term meaning sexual attraction to or contact with pre-pubescent minors. Though comprehensive statistics are hard to come by, it seems clear that the overwhelming majority of the cases of clerical sexual abuse concern abuse of pubescent or post-pubescent male youths (technically called ephebophilia); this is the homosexual temptation par excellence. Where our attention is manipulated so as to focus on pedophilia, it is deflected away from the larger problem and from the group responsible for the larger problem. The offenses continue to pour in (“The boy I was accused of abusing was practically a grown man, for God’s sake”) but those who suggest that the high number of gays contributes to the crisis are for this very reason dismissed out of hand as unenlightened bigots -- of the same stamp as those who attributed epileptic seizures to demonic possession. Indeed it often happens that those who wish to discuss the crisis in moral, spiritual or doctrinal terms are made out to be obstructionists, harming the real efforts to come to grips with the problem.

I spent a summer some years ago in a chaplain training program in a medium security prison. A large minority of the prisoners in the block where I worked were, in the language of the place, “diddlers”: serving time for incest or for child molestation, and I had extensive dealings with many of them. Concerning those who would be called ephebophiles the following traits were common. First and foremost, they were masters of emotional manipulation, with a natural genius for finding the leverage needed to get others to do their will. For this reason they often succeeded with the civilian parole board; it was easy to see how the clergymen of this type could convince bishops to give them second and third chances. Second, they were utterly devoid of remorse, yet paradoxically endowed with a high sensitivity to the moral scruples of others. Third, they were well-spoken, respectful, and fastidious in grooming to the point of foppery. Fourth, they treated adult men with a mixture of contempt and fear, while over-sentimentalizing youth and its enthusiasms. Finally, they were supremely skillful at exploiting any chink in The System to their own advantage: an ambiguously worded rule, the emotional weakness of an officer or fellow inmate, even a gap in scheduling or a mis-distribution of goods. They lived for the opportunity of the moment.

It is this last trait which makes such men so destructive when they are priests. On the one hand they are invested with a trust accorded to their priesthood that gives them extensive and intimate access to the lives of people, including minors, at their most vulnerable, and that awards them the benefit of the doubt in many ambiguous situations; on the other hand the “non-aggression pact” with fellow priests means there is an enormous range of tolerated behavior at their disposal, and they know how to navigate the fuzzy boundaries incomparably well. The half dozen priests of my own acquaintance who became sexual abusers were transparently gay; they were extremely adept at exploiting the “high grass,” the safe-area for dubious lifestyle options kept in place by other gay priests and their collaborators. Moreover, they were artfully aggressive in turning the tables on anyone who demurred, however gently, at aspects of their dress, language or conduct. Which brings us to another harmful aspect of the unspoken contract.

Very often, after a priest’s abuse has become public knowledge, the tendency of his earlier behavior will seem embarrassingly obvious. People generally react in disbelief to the litany of warning signs that were ignored. He said what? He wore what? He did what? And, of course, they ask why a fellow priest who was aware of the signs didn’t report them to a responsible authority. But it must be remembered that utterly conclusive evidence of criminal activity is almost never available; and if the authority in question is not disposed to credit the whistleblower or to act on his hunch, or if the accused is even moderately skilled at table-turning, there is no indication short of a videotape of the abuse itself that is going to stand up to hostile cross-fire. As I write this I call to mind a priest of my acquaintance who openly subscribes to radical gay newspapers and has displayed photos of himself in Mardi Gras costume. Et cetera. Yet I don’t have the slightest doubt that, if I were to bring these facts to the attention of his superior (who almost certainly knows them already), it is I who would be put under the gun for spreading alarm and despondency. After all, it could be the case that this man is perfectly continent, and even if he goes wrong from time to time, it could be the case that he strays only in the direction of consenting adults. And this is perfectly true. Most priests of my own mindset have simply given up trying to get a message to headquarters in these cases. Which brings me to my final proposal.

If bishops and religious superiors are serious about ending sexual misconduct, they have to pull their priests out of their current way of life by the roots, and transplant them into a harsher soil, a soil in which sexual and other forms of indulgence cannot grow. In plain terms: get rid of the VCRs, get rid of the condos, ban the bars, cancel subscriptions, keep your men in uniform, and raise out of the cinders a leaner, tougher generation of priests able and willing to spend their free time in prayer. I realize that the majority of priests are innocent, and use their instruments of recreation for innocent purposes. But many don’t, and the painful but unavoidable cost of restoring the priesthood means that even the innocent will have to share the hardship of the guilty. I can picture religious superiors shaking their heads in amusement at the prospect of performing such radical surgery on priestly life; it is, indeed, all but inconceivable. But it is no more outlandish than the belief that you can continue to provide for priests the lifestyle they now enjoy and expect workshops and guidelines on professional boundaries to make the abuse problem go away. It won’t.

Nothing will prevent some readers from claiming that the argument of this essay is that all gay priests are inclined to molest minors and should be eliminated for that reason. Still, it bears repeating: not all gay priests are inclined to molest minors. Gay priests should be dismissed, though, because their gay stance is in and of itself at odds with the Church. Would we thereby do an injustice to those priests who have homosexual inclinations but are not gay? By no means. Unlike race or sex, homosexual inclination does not announce itself independently of personal behavior. No one has a reason to think any man homosexual except in virtue of language, gestures, manners, behaviors or poses adopted by the individual himself. If a man’s homosexual inclination is only an inclination (neither a political conviction, a declaration, or a lifestyle), then the question of unjust discrimination is simply a non-issue, like the color of cats in a dark room. The tough decisions in this arena will impinge only on those who have consciously made themselves their targets. To require a man to cleave to the teaching and rules of the institution of which he is a representative does no disservice to him or to the people he is commissioned to serve.

It sometimes happens that “pastoral” is used as a code word for a way of accommodating human weakness by means of looking the other way when such weakness involves sin. Such a view is a negation of pastoral responsibility; the Good Shepherd is the same God who has revealed the moral law to us and bound us to it. C.S. Lewis once proposed this definition of pastors: “those men whom we set aside to minister to us as people who will live forever” -- forever, that is, in heaven or in hell. The healing provided by therapy, the credibility re-established through counselling, the openness consequent on frank discussion and so forth are genuinely pastoral only to the extent that they are concern our eternal life and counter the threats to that life. The good shepherd whose flock is at risk of sexual abuse will realize that the real dangers to their souls are not always those deplored most loudly in the media. He will understand that tough decisions are sometimes the kindest decisions in the long run.

[published under the title "First, A Spirtual Edifice," in Catholic World Report, October, 1995, pp. 46-51]


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.