Priests' Silence On Sex Cases Deepens Agony

By Andrew Greeley
Chicago Sun-Times
February 28, 1993

I sometimes despair of my fellow priests. Within the last month the cardinal has courageously announced that the sexual abuse of children by priests cost the archdiocese $ 1.8 million last year and will cost more this year. Father Robert Mayer was sentenced to three years in prison. Bill Kurtis' devastating "investigative report" on sexual abuse by priests appeared on TV, and the church's Permanent Review Board (which will decide whether an accused priest will be reassigned to parish work) opened its offices and its 800 hotline. Yet, I have the impression that most priests still don't realize that the integrity of the priesthood is at stake in this crisis. How else can one explain their silence on the suffering of sexual abuse victims?

As a social scientist, I believe that they are trapped in a massive and institutionalized denial mechanism, in an impermeable collective neurosis, what Irving Janis called "group think," like that of the generals and admirals at Pearl Harbor who had evidence of the impending attack but still couldn't see it coming.

What, I ask in phone calls to a half dozen priests (enough to plug into the clerical grapevine), are the "guys" saying about Bob Mayer's conviction? The "guys," I am told, are saying that they don't believe the young woman who testified against him. Mind you, Judge Thomas Durkin, who sat in the court throughout the trial and listened to the testimony, believed the young woman. But priests (not all priests obviously), who were nowhere near the court, reject her testimony. Why? According to my sources, the "guys" say that all previous allegations against Father Mayer dealt with young men.

Anyone who knows anything about the subject of pedophilia knows that in many cases (as that of Father James R. Porter in Massachusetts) the gender of the victim really doesn't matter. It's the humiliation of the victim that provides the sexual kicks for the molester.

A priest writes to this paper that, since he didn't know about the abuse that has been going on through the years, he feels no need to apologize or express regrets. He is, however, concerned about the threat to the privacy of

Dear God in heaven. Young lives have been ruined by priests in Chicago and he's worried about the privacy of priests!

Father Dominic Grassi of the Association of Chicago Priests writes to this paper, hints darkly about my "hidden agendas" and then says that the association has indeed spoken out on the sexual abuse of children. As proof he offers the ringing statement, "The Association of Chicago Priests strongly supports the efforts currently being undertaken to strengthen our policies and procedures that protect children from any harm."

Does he really think that bland sentence is enough to restore the dignity, the credibility and the integrity of the priesthood? Does he really think it represents an effort to reach out and heal victims and their families? Does he really think it expresses regret for all the suffering and the pain and for the character assassination of victims' families?

Speaking of character assassination, Father Grassi demonstrates a neat ploy. Once you question the character and motivation of the critic, you have dispensed yourself from facing his criticism. The issue, in fact, is not whether I have a hidden agenda; the issue is why the priests' association has not included a bill of rights for the laity in its code of conduct for priests.

What must priests do? The answer is clear and simple. Some of them, a group organized or unorganized, must speak up and express compassion, sympathy and regret; they must promise that to the best of their ability such crimes will not happen again, and they must define a bill of rights for lay people that they will enforce in their parishes - a code of conduct that specifies what obligations priests owe to their people. The cardinal has publicly apologized and promised amendment. Why has no other priest done the same thing? Andrew Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, author and sociologist.


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