Bishop Accountability

Priestly Silence on Pedophilia

By Andrew M. Greeley
New York Times
March 13, 1992

A series of accusations of sexual abuse against minors has battered the American priesthood, yet the National Federation of Priest's Councils, the unofficial priests' union, has failed to assume responsibility. Never hesitant about offering advice to both church and state on national and international problems, the federation is silent on the scandal. This seeming indifference is typical of the head-in-the-sand reaction of most priests to the pedophile problem.

The priesthood may be the only profession in this country that makes no attempt to police itself against unprofessional behavior. Moreover, when a sexual abuse case arises, priests usually distance themselves from it. They claim it's the bishop's problem, maybe, but not theirs. In Chicago, where Joseph Cardinal Bernardin is attempting major reforms and re-examing decades of accusations, there is little enthusiasm among priests for what he has done and much sullen mumbling and complaint.

If Catholic clerics feel that charges of pedophilia have created an open season on them, they have only themselves to blame. By their own inaction and indifference they have created an open season on children for the few sexual predators among them.

Even now the typical priestly reactions to a pedophile charge are denying that the sexual abuse occurred, protecting the accused priest at whatever cost, covering up and blaming the victim and the media. He was cleared by the police, they often claim, ignoring the well-known truth that in many law enforcement jurisdictions there is a powerful, unwritten rule against arresting or indicting a priest. Or they will assure you that it was the boy's father who molested him or that the boy's mother brought the charges because the priest had rebuffed her sexual advances.

Personnel boards have had no hesitation in reassigning, after a few months of treatment, clerics who have faced such accusations -- sometimes to the role of pastor.

Bishop Raymond Goedert, former Vicar for the Clergy in the Archdiocese of Chicago, compared the scandal to the Clarence Thomas hearings, saying that it all depends on who you believe -- the priest or the alleged victim.

And his successor as vicar, the Rev. Patrick O'Malley, a past president of the priests' federation, assured a TV audience that members of a parish have the same sympathetic understanding for priests with sexual abuse problems that they do for alcoholic priests. "Slayers of the Soul," a book about pedophilia edited by a priest, asserts that psychologists think sexual abuse, like alcoholism, can be controlled through therapy groups. It does not occur to these "experts" that alcoholics are dangerous only to themselves, their families and the people they smash with their cars, but each pedophile is a threat to the future lives of hundreds of children.

As far as I am aware, no priest has ever turned another in for abusing a child or even testified against such a man. No diocesan senate of priests has spoken out publicly against the harm done by the predators of children to the church and to the priesthood. The priests' senate in my own archdiocese showed concern only for accused priests and for a hope that the Cardinal might keep me from writing more on the problem (he did not try). Concern for victims, past and future, was nonexistent.

Caught up in denial and defense mechanisms, priests seem unable to imagine what it must be like to be a victim or a member of a victim's family -- "a terror," in Cardinal Bernardin's words, that "will haunt them for the rest of their lives." Rarely have I heard that priests agree with the Cardinal that "we must protect children from them just as we protect women from rapists."

Some priests argue that pedophilia and related forms of sexual abuse are no worse in the priesthood than in any other profession. This shows a total misunderstanding of the priest's role in the life of the Catholic laity. To be defiled sexually by a priest is far worse than by anyone except a parent.

All professions rally to support their own when they are under attack. But the priesthood is a special profession. Its failure to police itself is a special disgrace.


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.