Exchange of Letters about Scandal Time III

First Things
December 2002

I agree with Richard John Neuhaus that the crisis in the Catholic Church stems from the infidelity of many bishops and priests to the Church’s magisterial teaching on sexual morality ("Scandal Time III," Public Square, August/September), and I agree too that the American bishops in Dallas wrongly pretended that the central issue in the crisis was the criminal depravity of a small percentage of priests rather than the depraved recklessness of a large percentage of bishops in shielding and reassigning such priests when they knew these men posed grave dangers to children. But I must disagree with Father Neuhaus’ argument that the bishops’ zero tolerance policy adopted in Dallas is incompatible with a Christian understanding of redemption.

The zero tolerance policy requires that any priest who at any time sexually abused a minor will be removed from ministry and, subject to applicable provisions of canon law, dismissed from the priesthood (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People [2002] at Art. 5). Fr. Neuhaus argues that this policy is incompatible with the Christian doctrine of redemption because it applies even to "faithful priests who did one bad thing thirty years ago and have since had an impeccable record and are clearly no threat to anybody." Such a priest, Fr. Neuhaus says, is to be "welcomed as a forgiven sinner to the company of forgiven sinners that is the Church." The zero tolerance policy, he suggests, "may have changed the very self–understanding of the Church."

There is an important truth in what Fr. Neuhaus says, for even when a priest must be removed from ministry, the Church should still be responsible for him. In New York and elsewhere reports circulate of elderly priests being turned out of their rectories on a day’s notice and being left with no means of support and nowhere to go. This is a grave offense against charity and, incidentally, a violation of canon law, which provides that a bishop must worthily support his priests when they are removed from ministry and, if they are truly in need, even after they have been dismissed from the clerical state (Canon 1350). No matter how often a priest may have sinned—whether once or seven times seventy times—and no matter whether the priest remains in ministry or is removed from it, his bishop must remain a father to him and, like the divine Father, must never withdraw his paternal love.

That said, however, I think Fr. Neuhaus’ argument converts into a theological question about redemption what is really a prudential question about the danger of recidivism among sex offenders. Redemption applies to a man qua man, not qua priest, and it implies that God, who wills all men to be saved, offers the grace of repentance to all men, no matter how grievous their sins. Christians must welcome back into the Church all repentant sinners—not just the ones who sinned only once, not just the ones who have not sinned again for a long time, and not just the ones unlikely to sin again in the future.

When the repentant sinner is a priest, however, it is a separate, prudential question whether he should be allowed to continue in ministry, just as it is a prudential question whether a good man seeking ordination ought to be ordained in the first place. The theology of redemption does not answer such questions. We need, rather, an empirical inquiry about probabilities and prudential judgment about risks. If we ultimately conclude that our ability to predict the future actions of a putatively reformed sinner is too imperfect to put a child at risk, then we merely admit the limitations of our own knowledge of some individual’s future conduct. It is our own knowledge, not the divine mercy, in which our faith is limited.

And thus we come to zero tolerance, the rationale underlying the policy being that when a man sexually molests a minor, even if it be only once, we can never be so sure of his future conduct that we may risk the innocence of children on our hopes that the man will not sin again. Fr. Neuhaus, I think, implicitly concedes that the danger of recidivism, and not the doctrine of redemption, is the real issue when he acknowledges the need to argue that "there is not a scintilla of evidence that a person who did a stupidly wicked thing many years ago and is repentant and has rendered decades of faithful service without a hint of suspicion poses any threat whatever to children." In other words, Fr. Neuhaus concedes that, if there is reason to believe that a priest poses a threat to children, then the priest must be removed from ministry, but he thinks that there are some priests who, though they sinned once, are nevertheless reliably known not to pose any further threat.

Now I agree with Fr. Neuhaus that a man who once sexually abused a minor but has long lived an exemplary life probably poses no threat to children. But in this case probability, even great probability, will not suffice. In my view, even if the man has resisted his temptations for a long time, we can never be so sure about him that we may risk the innocence of children on our belief in his future good conduct. The potential harm is so enormous that I, at least, would never trust such a man with my child. Much less would I think that I had the right to trust such a man with the children of parents who do not know the man’s history and are not being given an informed opportunity to decide for themselves whether to trust the man with their children. But if the bishops retain discretion to continue past abusers in ministry, they arrogate to themselves precisely this authority to decide on behalf of unsuspecting parents whether to put their children at risk. Catholic parents, who have the primary authority for the protection and formation of their children, are not, I venture to say, generally prepared to delegate this kind of decision to their bishops.

There’s a final point, incidentally, against the case–by–case approach. In deciding whether to allow a priest to remain in ministry, we have before us the priest pleading for mercy but not the unknown children we are putting at risk. When the interests of many parties are at stake but only one of the parties is known to the decision–maker, a cognitive bias known as the availability heuristic leads decision–makers to systematically undervalue the interests of the parties less cognitively accessible to them. Hence, in applying the case–by–case approach, the decision–maker will tend to systematically discount the danger to children. When the decision–maker also regards the priest in question as a friend, the obvious conflict of interest aggravates the cognitive distortion. To remedy this distortion, balance the picture of the priest pleading for mercy with the image of a child, terrified and crying when our predictions about the man’s future good behavior turn out wrong. Or just ask the mother of a child whether she so trusts her bishop’s ability to predict the future actions of a one–time child molester that she would trust her child with the man in question. We all know what she would say.

Robert T. Miller
New York, New York


Richard John Neuhaus thinks that zero tolerance is a violation of both justice and mercy. If a priest has sinned by committing a sexual crime against a child, but he has repented and lived an exemplary life for many years, Father Neuhaus thinks it wrong that he should be removed from the ministry.

To answer questions of church discipline I often ask myself, WWPT—What Would Paul Think?

Paul himself sinned against God by persecuting the Church and thereby persecuting Christ. But he did it in ignorance, out of his zeal for the law of God, and therefore received mercy; he did not know what he did. He never knowingly violated the law of God.

What would Paul think about allowing a child molester to be a leader of the Christian community? He would certainly accept any repentant criminal as a member of the Church, and Corinth had an unsavory collection of them, but he held leaders to a higher standard.

When Paul described a bishop–presbyter, he emphasized that he must be of good character. The bishop–presbyter like all men is a sinner, but some sinners have good character—that is, their sins are the ones that even just men fall into. He must be the husband of only one wife—that is, if he has been widowed he must not have remarried because remarriage (although allowed) shows an inability to govern sexual desires. A bishop–presbyter must be respected by outsiders.

Child molestation reveals that one is not of good character, and no one, even a worldly sinner, has much respect for a child molester. A bishop publicly humiliates a priest when he removes him from active ministry for an offense of which the priest repented long ago. But if the priest is truly repentant, he knows that this humiliation is inadequate reparation for the sin he has committed against the child and against God, and will accept it willingly.

Leon J. Podles
Senior Editor, Touchstone
Baltimore, Maryland


What would we do if our Lord Jesus would establish a zero tolerance policy towards sin? What if one sin was enough to send you to hell? No chance for repentance, no confession, no hope.

Christianity is about repentance and grace. Those who have sinned, but by the grace of God have returned and have changed their lives, should be respected for it. The cases of priestly abuse should be treated on a case–by–case basis according to Catholic canon law and most of all according to Christian charity.

Bishops should not be subject to lay or state supervision and they should not cease to be fathers and pastors of their flock in the love of Christ.

I am appalled by what some of the abusive priests have done, but the Church should not be submitted to the wishes of the media, state, or even the flock.

Rudy Garcia
El Paso, Texas


In "Scandal Time III," Richard John Neuhaus expresses in several places his concern for a now–elderly priest who is "repentant" and has "rendered decades of faithful service without a hint of suspicion" that he "pose[s] a threat to children or anyone else," because such a priest may now "be thrown out as an abuser," not "welcomed as a forgiven sinner to the company of forgiven sinners that is the Church."

With due respect for Father Neuhaus’ human compassion, I submit that even if the priest were guilty of nothing more than harboring sexual lust in his heart toward a male or female of any age, the priest ought to have immediately recognized that he had not been given the gift of celibacy, and thus had badly misjudged his ability to keep his ordination vows.

Odessa Elliott
Stony Point, New York


After reading "Scandal Time III," I must say that I am somewhat puzzled and dismayed by both the tone and substance of Richard John Neuhaus’ argument.

As part of Father Neuhaus’ critique, he has conjured up what I believe to be a straw man: the lovely Fr. X. This fellow slipped just once, doing a "bad thing," and has since led a life beyond reproach. Fr. Neuhaus omits reminding his readers just what the "bad thing" was in the present context, the sexual abuse of a child. The image of a trusting child being led away to have gross, disgusting, perverted acts performed on him by someone he trusted should be forever before our eyes. If this doesn’t justify lifetime removal from church leadership, what does? Serial murder? Detonating a nuclear bomb in Manhattan? Or nothing at all? Jesus said it would be better for someone who abuses these little ones to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck. Was that unduly harsh?

Fr. Neuhaus speaks of the victims’ groups with what strikes me as a somewhat disparaging tone, saying that they may never be satisfied. I hope that they are not satisfied as long as the current scandalous state of the Church exists, but rather remain a constant rebuke.

Please forgive me if I have misunderstood Fr. Neuhaus’ views, but I feel that zero tolerance is the only just policy possible given the deplorable record of the bishops and that it is desperately needed to begin the process of renewal.

Howard Holley
Barnet, Vermont


Richard John Neuhaus is unhappy with a zero tolerance policy that can boot his hypothetical Father X out of the ministry even though the now–elderly priest only "had one abusive incident" with a minor many years past. Well, I’m unhappy with Fr. Neuhaus’ phrasing. A person doesn’t "have an abusive incident"; rather, a person commits a crime of abuse: a crime that many, including this conservative Catholic, would position just one or two steps below murder on the hierarchy of evil. And just as there is no statute of limitations for murder, even one murder committed long ago, there is no statute of limitations for a crime of abuse, even one crime of abuse committed long ago.

Nor can Fr. X consider himself redeemed after decades of good behavior and faithful service to the Church. The path to redemption must necessarily pass through punishment and atonement, and the abuser must tread this path voluntarily, otherwise his redemption is incomplete, an evasion of responsibility, a failure to act honorably. Not until he has confessed his crime as a sin (to another priest), and his sin as crime (to police), and not until he has accepted and undergone the punishment that is his due, thereby atoning for his sin and his crime, can he be fully redeemed. And this punishment should entail, among other things, being booted from the ministry. I can’t trust an abusive priest: Who knows when or whether his deviant sexual urge—notoriously difficult to get rid of, notoriously difficult to resist—might come upon him again, causing him to "have" another "abusive incident"? Defrock him: and if he wants to continue his relationship with the Church, let him do so as a member of the laity.

Steven Weingartner
La Grange Park, Illinois


A dimension not treated by Richard John Neuhaus’ excellent scandal commentary and ignored by many critics of the zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse is the importance of such a policy as a means of lifting suspicion that rests on the shoulders of the wonderful priests and religious who faithfully serve the Christian community. They deserve a policy that will allow them to be effective and respected.

Also, a criminal breach of trust—which is the nature of the offense—warrants removal from ministry just as it does in the professions of law and medicine. The legal profession has suffered by allowing too many lawyers found guilty of criminal conduct to return to practice after suspensions or reprimands. The public does not respect the "slap on the hand" legal disciplinary system that has hurt the profession, and students are not drawn to the profession with the same respect for its canons and ideals when serious misconduct does not result in total expulsion. The bishops are wise to see the need for zero tolerance as a key means for upholding the standards of the ministry.

William T. Hart
United States District Judge
Chicago, Illinois


Sorry, but I can’t buy the argument that the news media’s obsession with decades–old tales of the homosexual seduction of teenagers—but only when done by Catholic priests—has nothing to do with Catholic–bashing.

It’s true that this country’s bishops disappointed me (again) by leaving Dallas with a policy which, while it seems to say that a priest could be permanently removed from ministry if one church lady doesn’t like the way he looked at her daughter, continues to ignore the source of the current scandal—the bishops’ "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy of enforcing Vatican regulations designed to save Catholic youth from moral and theological perversion.

But if the media were honest about how widespread the problem of the seduction of youth is, it would be revealed that most of the solutions they offer to solve the problem amount to giving the foxes more control of the henhouse.

Three cases of homosexual abuse that were being prosecuted in Manhattan, the media capital of the world, in May 2002 involved Riverside Church, District Attorney Robert Morgenthau’s own synagogue, and the Harlem Boys Choir. And Christianity Today reported that there were "seventy child abuse allegations reported against American Protestant churches each week during the last ten years," a quarter of which were against pastors ("Go Figure," May 21, 2002). But the media know how to be "discreet" about stories that don’t promote their agenda.

For instance, there’s no demand that the schools shape up, despite the fact that in 1998 Education Week searched newspaper archives and computer databases and found 244 allegations against teachers in a six–month period, ranging from unwanted touching to serial rape. And on June 21, 2002, the New York Times, in "Silently Shifting Teachers in Sex Abuse Cases," noted a study of 225 complaints against teachers from 1990–94 and found that in only one percent of the cases did superintendents follow up to ensure that molesting teachers didn’t continue teaching, while at least 16 percent of the teachers were able to get new teaching jobs. The study estimated that 15 percent of the country’s fifty million public schoolchildren will be abused by a school employee. And yet we hear demands that the bishops follow the example of the public schools and Protestant churches.

Don Schenk
Allentown, Pennsylvania


While properly emphasizing that the focus of the scandal should be on our failures of fidelity to Catholic truth, Richard John Neuhaus ironically takes refuge in the liberal assumption that life circumstances can be reengineered to alter life’s divinely endowed essence and particularity of purpose, or at least alter the odds of its being realized. Removing priests from ministry does not derail the Christian imperatives to conversion, repentance, and redemption as he fears. Neither could placing criminals in prison cells ever interfere with God’s redemptive plan.

It is not any less true for being a cliché that right is right no matter who is right and wrong is wrong no matter who is wrong. In the secular culture, politicians caught in wrongdoing claim to take full responsibility, which translates to lying low until the press cools off. What kind of fidelity is to be realized in having prelates perform a slam–dunk imitation of a Clintonite? Scandal times in the Church do come and go, but with their damage permanently accomplished. The only time this is avoided is when saintly action is taken, which is the essence of fidelity. There are principles in law that allow criminals to publicly plead to be indicted when none are forthcoming from civil authorities. There are also principles of law that allow criminals to plead for longer prison sentences than those normally accorded their convictions. This ought now to be occurring regularly. I am not optimistic about it ever occurring.

Edward J. Baker
Fresh Meadows, New York


Richard John Neuhaus’ concerns about gross unfairness should be allayed because the zero tolerance policy does not, in fact, entail that all priests who sexually abuse a minor will be dismissed from the clerical state. The policy requiring dismissal is expressly qualified by reference to canon law, and, under Canons 290 and 1342–2, a priest may not be dismissed from the clerical state without his consent except pursuant to a judgment in a canon court. The American bishops are asking Rome to amend canon law so that a bishop, acting on his own, could dismiss one of his priests, but most observers think Rome will not agree to expand the bishops’ authority in this way. Absent such a change in canon law, a bishop seeking to dismiss a priest will have to convince a canon court that the case warrants dismissal, and thus the zero tolerance policy amounts to nothing more than a declaration by the bishops that, because in their view all cases of sexual abuse warrant dismissal from the clerical state, they intend to seek this penalty in all cases. At present at least, there is no guarantee that it will be applied in all cases.

Father Neuhaus also argues that the definition of sexual abuse in the zero tolerance policy is too vague, so vague indeed that a priest’s erotic musings about a minor with whom he has no other contact would fall within the definition employed. The definition, which is surely very expansive, includes "contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult," and expressly states that sexual abuse may occur whether or not force is used, whether or not there is actual physical contact, whether or not the child initiated the interaction, and whether or not there is discernible harm. Again, Fr. Neuhaus does have a point. A definition like this would almost certainly be struck down by an American court as unconstitutionally vague.

But when Fr. Neuhaus argues that such poor drafting resulted from the bishops being in a media–inspired panic, he ignores the fact that the very definition he quotes refers to Canon 1395–2, which itself, like canon law generally, employs this kind of very vague language. Canon 1395–2 punishes a cleric who "sins . . . against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue . . . with a person under sixteen years of age." Surely this is even more vague than the definition used in the zero tolerance policy. An American lawyer would deplore the looseness of the bishops’ drafting, but, for all its faults, it is no worse than the preexisting standard in canon law.

Jennifer L. Miller
New York, New York


Thank you for "Scandal Time III." In many ways my former pastor, Father Bob Kealy, could be the Fr. X mentioned in your article. Approximately twenty–five years ago, Fr. Kealy came out of the seminary with a drinking problem. During this time, he apparently had a one–night stand with a sixteen– or seventeen–year–old girl. Thereafter Fr. Kealy put himself into a treatment program and has been sober ever since. In that time there has been no further allegations of any sexual misconduct against Fr. Kealy and, at least from what I can tell, he has been a great priest leading an exemplary life.

Neither I nor, I would venture, Fr. Kealy intend to minimize the wrong that was done twenty–five years ago. He betrayed a trust and broke a solemn vow. That great sin, however, was not the end of the Fr. Kealy story, but rather the beginning. If he was dying in his alcoholism, he was reborn in his sobriety. For twenty–five years he gave good and faithful service to his Church. The lost sheep had returned to the fold.

The American Catholic Bishops in Dallas could have celebrated Fr. Kealy’s reformed life. Instead, they chose to kick him out of the priesthood. What hurts the worst is that the reason they chose to offer up priests like Fr. Kealy as sacrificial lambs was not simple bad judgment or even plain stupidity, but cowardice.

Over the centuries, faith is tested in many ways. Some are made to choose between making an offering to Jove and death. Some face the decision between living up to Christian ideals of forgiveness and facing the wrath of the New York Times and certain yahoos in the pews. Our bishops failed their test in Dallas. Let’s hope they are given the second chance that, so far, they are unwilling to give the Fr. Kealys of the world.

John T. McEnroe
Winnetka, Illinois

RJN replies:
These letters are representative of the many received in response to "Scandal Time III." I have already addressed in subsequent issues some of the points raised, so will here try to be brief. Most of the writers do not address what was central to my argument, namely, the unbounded plasticity of the definition of sexual abuse adopted at Dallas. By that definition, abuse can range from a pat on the butt to a hug of congratulation to brutally sodomizing a ten–year–old. Some acts are indiscreet, some are mildly prurient, some are monstrous. It is a grave mistake to assume that the accusations pertinent to the present scandal are typically in the nature of the last. They are not.

Mr. Miller’s thoughtful letter rightly focuses on "probabilities and prudential judgments about risks," although he seems to assume that we know more about recidivism than we do. I agree that many people do not now trust bishops to make the relevant prudential judgments. In view of the dereliction of some bishops and of the media barrage, that is understandable, but it is also a great sadness. Sharply reduced levels of trust between bishops and priests, and between lay people and both, may well be the greatest long–term cost of the present crisis.

I do not find in St. Paul or in the Christian tradition any warrant for Mr. Podles’ suggestion that sins committed knowingly are any less forgivable than sins committed unknowingly. Of course a "child molester" should not be a leader in the Church. Many who have been and will be removed under the Dallas definition are not aptly described by that term of abuse. A person is not identified by a sinful act. A man who visited a brothel in his twenties and afterwards lived a long life as a faithful husband and father is not forever to be known as a whoremonger. But perhaps Mr. Podles thinks that is the kind of sin that "even just men fall into." I suggest he give some thought to St. Paul’s words about Christ dying for us "while we were yet sinners, the just for the unjust."

Mr. Garcia is, I believe, exactly on target, especially with respect to the need for the Church to exercise courage and integrity in governing itself. In the absence of such courage and integrity, long–term damage has been done to the libertas ecclesiae , and Dallas greatly exacerbated that damage. Were we to accept Ms. Elliott’s understanding of celibacy, I am afraid we would have very few priests. Nor, if applied to chastity and continence more generally, would there be many faithful husbands or wives. As for Mr. Holley’s serial murderer or nuclear bomber in Manhattan, see above on the range of offenses. I believe the Christian tradition does not support Mr. Weingartner’s assertions about the connection between punishment and redemption. Salvation entails, inter alia, being spared punishment that we deserve, especially the punishment of God. As for human law and retribution, a man who drove while drunk ten years ago and got home without incident has no obligation to go to the police and ask to be punished for drunk driving. He should be penitent and grateful. Most of us, if not all of us, have committed wrongs against others, which may or may not have been criminal, and for which we have not been punished but are repentant and forgiven. Thank God. I am afraid that much current discussion about punishment sounds an awful lot like vengeance, which, as we are told, is not ours but the Lord’s. Judge Hart is right that "zero tolerance" may serve the good end of upholding standards of ministry, but if zero tolerance entails grave injustices, as I believe it does, I hope the judge would agree that a good end does not justify wrong means. In response to Mr. Baker, see above on punishment and forgiveness. To Mr. Schenk: I said it is our problem and we shouldn’t blame the media for it. That is not to deny the media bias to which his letter refers.

Ms. Miller raises an important question. Rome has now called for a modification, along the lines that Ms. Miller suggests, of how the zero tolerance rule adopted by Dallas is applied. But I believe I have accurately depicted what, in fact, Dallas approved. Canon 1395–2, on the other hand, reads: "If a cleric has otherwise committed an offense against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue with force or threats or publicly or with a minor below the age of sixteen [now raised to eighteen], the cleric is to be punished with just penalties, including dismissal from the clerical state if the case warrants it." That immediately follows 1395–1, which deals with "a cleric who lives in concubinage or a cleric who remains in another external sin against the sixth commandment of the Decalogue which produces scandal." The text and context make it clear, I believe, that the Canon—in sharpest contrast to the almost unlimited elasticity of the Dallas definition of sexual abuse—is not so vague as Ms. Miller suggests.

Mr. McEnroe’s letter nicely illustrates what is so profoundly wrong about the policies adopted at Dallas. It is gratifying that, since I wrote "Scandal Time III," many more priests and lay people are speaking up in defense of priests who are falsely accused, denied due process, or guilty, repentant, and forgiven in connection with offenses that have nothing—absolutely nothing—to do with the imperative purpose of protecting children from sexual abuse. An institution that treats people unjustly in order to deflect criticism from itself is engaged in scapegoating. Scapegoating is unworthy of the Church of Jesus Christ. It is a denial of the gospel of sin and grace by which and for which the Church is constituted.


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