Sexual Abuse—The Church's Millstone

By Janet Patterson
AMDG / Roman Catholic Faithful
Spring 2003

[See Janet Patterson's other essays "Hope" and Driven from the Flock.]

Sexual abuse of minors—the very topic—brings forth a myriad of emotions, from anger to disbelief. When the alleged perpetrator is a priest, reactions may range from rage at the accused and/or Church to disbelief and hostility towards the victim/s. The Vatican recently announced its concern about due process under canon law for priests and clarification about the definition of sexual abuse.

Under American law we are all entitled to due process. When a crime has been committed, the court system is the venue to judge the guilt or innocence of the accused. We are a nation built upon the premise that justice should extend to all. Why does canon law even figure into this equation? Was there or was there not a crime committed? If so, then let the justice system do its work. If the priest’s guilt has been established, he must face the legal consequences. These consequences should be at least as harsh as those administered to any other sexual abuser.

Some confusion seems to exist about the exact definition of sexual abuse. The legal system has defined the various types of sexual abuse, so a standard already exists in America. We do not have to re-invent the wheel; we simply have to follow the letter of the existent laws. Why the haggling over the possible “nuances” of the bishops’ Dallas charter?

How about sexual abuse for which the statute of limitations has expired? Should there be a moral statute of limitations—if the abuser legally escapes the limitations, does that mean that no harm has been inflicted, that the abuser can now have a clear conscience?

The reality is that over the years the Church hid information concerning abuse from the faithful, intimidated many who sought support from the hierarchy, and lied to the parishioners about the cause of the priest’s removal. The harsh reality of sexual abuse is that most victims are unable to reveal or deal with their abuse until well past the expiration of the statute of limitations. By concealing, lying, intimidating, and stone-walling, the Church leadership has effectively sanctioned the actions of the predators in its midst. Those who have daily dealt with the spiritual, emotional, and physical dimensions of their abuse can find no peace in the claims that they should have “come forward” years before.

The zero-tolerance policy has also come under fire. If a priest has abused only once in his ministry, should he be allowed to remain in the priesthood? For those who answer “yes”, can the lifelong impact on that “one”victim be so readily dismissed? In all likelihood, the priest’s abusive behavior came to light only when someone stepped forward with allegations. Despite the priest’s assurances to his bishop that this victim was the only one, in most cases the reality is that many victims preceded this abuse victim. By questioning the necessity of a priest’s removal for only “one” offense committed many years ago, we overlook the fact that the abuse was a crime many years ago, is still considered a crime, and that the victim/survivor has had life-long difficulties. In the scales of justice, is a child’s or adolescent’s life less valuable than that of a priest? A priest’s dismissal for sexual abuse cannot be more painful to him than the pain his victim/s have suffered daily.

Another issue is that of “forgiveness.” When a bishop states that he forgives his fellow priest, wouldn’t the person doing the forgiving have to be the victim? If a crime is committed against a person, do the friends of the criminal have the right to “forgive” his actions? Does their forgiveness erase the damage done to the child or to the adolescent? Another variable in this complex situation is the reaction of parishioners to allegations of sexual abuse against their pastor. In most cases, the priest is seen to be caring, dynamic, and charismatic. Catholics then struggle to reconcile two contradictory situations—the public perception of his integrity versus the private reality of his crimes.

Piercing the veil of denial is almost insurmountable at times. We each have comfort zones, areas where all is right with the world, and we feel secure in our perception of reality. When the horrendous specter of clergy sexual abuse arises, many cannot accept the truth, since that threatens the safety and security of their comfort zone. Denial is powerful in its impact. Victims are left isolated, abandoned by their parish communities. Sometimes outright hostility is shown to victims and to their families.

A different variable is minimization, or the trivializing of the abuse impact. By downplaying the devastation the abuse victim lives with on a daily basis, many otherwise decent, compassionate people further hurt the victim. As survivors tell their stories, common themes occur—a spiritual abyss, mistrust of others, desperate attempts to deaden the pain, and a profound sadness. Comments such as “Get over it,” “That happened so long ago; why bring it up now?” or “Remember how much good the priest did” further wound the abuse victim. These remarks stun victims since their lives have been permanently altered by what others consider unfortunate, but manageable, circumstances.

A major factor in this issue is the role of power. Members of the hierarchy of the United States, in general, seem threatened by accountability for their actions. Often the laity is relegated to the role of second-class citizens, as “unenlightened” so therefore unnecessary to consult. Did any bishop, when getting medical advice about priest abusers, ever have the idea that perhaps parents might have different ideas when it comes to putting a molester within reach of their children? If any bishop had said to parishioners, “Is it all right to allow a child molester to lead your parish?”, the answer would be a resounding “No!” coupled with disbelief that the bishop would even have to ask the question. In order to control the followers of the Church, the hierarchy has exerted a stranglehold on information throughout the years. Secrecy, lies, evasions, and false perceptions have kept the hierarchical power base intact for far too long. To truly be a Church of the people, the hierarchy has to dismantle their many protective mechanisms and instead be truly approachable. The laity is not the enemy. The money needed to maintain the power base, with its expensive attorneys, came from the pockets of the average Catholic in the pew. Surely using the laity’s money to maintain the hierarchy’s control cannot be justified.

Also an air of arrogance is perceived among many in the hierarchy. Some act as if they alone possess truth and insight into spiritual matters. Why do some bishops and archbishops insulate themselves from contact with abuse victims by having layers of diocesan personnel deal with victims? If the Church is a family, why then are the spiritual “fathers” reluctant to listen to victims and to their families? The message from those abused is unpalatable, but the discomfort of the listener pales next to the searing pain of the one spiritually abused. How can the Church extend a healing hand when many “healers” have little in-depth understanding of the ravages of abuse? Sexual abuse is not something that disappears with its revelation. Bishops who truly want to help must be willing to listen to the victims’ stories; in effect, they have to allow themselves vicariously to suffer as the victim has. They must “Walk the walk,” not merely “Talk the talk.” They must allow themselves to feel the abandonment, depression, rage, and despair victims undergo. Until they can look at an abuse survivor as a true brother or sister in Christ, they cannot be effective in this ministry.

Church leaders need to heed Christ’s admonition :“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:6 Abuse victims have not sinned by being abused, but the abuser ravages the spiritual foundation of his victims.

How can lay people effect change in the Church? First, by realizing the power of their money. If an appeal for justice cannot prevail, often a threat to the finances can. Church-sponsored charities and institutions [provided they are true to the faith] must continue their services, but the laity can exert pressure for openness and financial accountability. Second, they can speak up in great numbers to stop this spiritual “Holocaust.”

Concentration-camp survivor Elie Wiesel could have been referring to today’s sexual abuse scandal by his words: “Let us remember: what hurts the victim most is not the cruelty of the oppressor, but the silence of the bystander.”

By not speaking up, we give tacit consent to injustice and to abuse.

To remain morally neutral is to allow evil to continue.

Catholic laypeople can collectively insist that no child or adolescent be “sacrificed” to this evil. By speaking up, laypeople can help the Church regain its image as a Church of Truth and Salvation.




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