RE: More than 300 accused priests listed in Pennsylvania report on Catholic Church sex abuse (Washington Post, August 14, 2018)
GORDON: Oh dear – mind if I take a moment from needling you on climate change to pose a nettlesome question about the Catholic Church, Stephen? As a good person and a good Catholic, your anguish over this latest revelation is palpable. But the key words to me are “latest revelation.” While the world abounds with good Catholics like yourself, the institution of the Catholic Church abounds with child abusers.
Whatever the reason(s) you think it’s happening – and I would dare anyone to suggest let alone prove that it isn’t still happening – child abuse is endemic in the institution of the Catholic Church. It’s a global problem (just read the list at the end of “Spotlight”), it’s been going on for decades (if not centuries), and far from being able to police itself, the Church hierarchy has been actively covering up the problem forever. If any other private or public organization in the world had this track record of criminal sexual predation, rape and child abuse, they would have been put out of business long ago. Why is the Catholic Church exempt?
I’m not on a crusade or anything, to me it’s just another sign of our world falling apart at the seams, but if it were up to me I would a) jail every priest who is shown to be abusing children, b) jail every bishop and cardinal who directly aided in any cover up of these crimes, c) relieve every other cardinal of their position (like they didn’t all know what’s going on?), d) end the Catholic Church’s tax-exempt status, and e) take all of the Church’s money and divide it up among all the individual parishes, with instructions to start a new church. They couldn’t possibly do worse than what exists already. (Although I’d let you all keep Pope Francis, he seems like a good guy!)
I don’t mean to be offensive at all, I am simply struck by a profound paradox – I find many Catholics (like you) to be among the most beautiful people I know. And I find the Catholic Church to be one of the most irredeemably corrupt institutions I can think of.
STEVE: Gordon, the week that this horrible news broke was also the week that Richard Sipe died. My pastor had been a student of his in Baltimore seminary 50 years ago. In grieving the Pennsylvania news of clergy abuse and the ongoing pain of victims, Father Joe mentioned that Richard Sipe was a prophet often scorned and turned away by the church hierarchy who did not want to hear what he had to say.
Sipe was the source that the Boston Globe reporters used for their “Spotlight” series. He is considered the best expert on how many priests are pedophiles and why sexual abuse of that kind and other abusive sexual relations by clergy persists. His research led to an estimate of 6% of American priests being pedophiles. Sipe later raised the percentage to 9%. Reports I’ve read put the percentage of pedophiles in the adult population at about 5%, so the prevalence among priests may be worse than in the general population, but it is hard to get a definitive prevalence statistic for the general population by which to compare. From the perspective and reports of the victims, I have read reports that 7% of adults report that they were sexually victimized as children, with the figure for women being more like 15%.
There were about 38,000 priests in America in 2015, so that might mean about 2,280 were pedophiles, or 3,420 at the 9% figure. That’s a lot. Recall that in “Spotlight” the reporter heard Sipe’s 6% figure and exclaimed something like “that’s 90 priests!” – which would be 6% of 1,500, but in 2002 the Boston archdiocese actually had 1,678 priests (down to 1,088 in 2015), so even more than 90.
Sipe’s research connects the problem to the general issue that about half of all priests are sexually active, either as heterosexuals or homosexuals, and so a cult of secrecy has developed to prevent scandal to the institution, and that cult of secrecy has suppressed facts about pedophilia among the church’s clergy. As bad as the cases of abuse are, the cover-up by the church hierarchy makes it all even worse. That is why this Pennsylvania grand jury has done a great service, and why I will be asking the Maryland Attorney General to do a similar investigation in my state.
This truth must come out. Yes, the first reaction to a report of pedophilia should be for those in church authority to call the police and have it investigated, and yes priests should go to jail along with bishops and cardinals who can be convicted in a court of law of obstructing justice, and yes to priests being removed from any contact with minors by church authorities at the first credible report of such a problem (and stop the practice of passing them off to another parish or diocese), and yes the statute of limitations laws should be changed so that victims finally able to voice their pain can get justice – which of course is a secular change, but one the church lawyers have been fighting for fear of more lawsuits – and yes to more compensation of victims, whatever that means to the divestment of church properties.
And you are on to something in suggesting that individual parishes are where “church” happens, and that they could (and in my view, already do) a better job of presenting a church of love, compassion, justice and mercy without having to worry about a hierarchy or corruption at the top. That is how many of us Catholics experience our “church” in one another, and in the sacraments, and we laugh it off when one of the bishops asks that we not be so overt in our acceptance of LBGTQ people in our church and our communion.
The great majority of Catholics do not experience their priests as predators (because the great majority are not), and I would say we are bewildered and angry and not sure what to do when we hear again not only how much of it goes on and how depraved it is, but also how our “leaders” cover it up again and again.
As for Pope Francis, it is all on the line with him now in how he responds to this. Things are better than they were in 2002 when the Boston Globe issued its Spotlight report, in that after that there were measures put in place at the parish and diocesan levels, such as background checks on church volunteers to prevent such abuse, and the bishops committing to act swiftly to remove offending priests, including reporting them to the police. It is my reading that the cases exposed in the Pennsylvania AG investigation were mostly before 2002. Reports of abuse are down since then, it is reported. Yet things are by no means okay right now. There are lingering questions about the degree to which all bishops are abiding by the 2002 reforms, and church lawyers are still fighting the expansion of statutes of limitations.
The real reckoning must come at the level of the hierarchy, where Pope Francis needs to be demanding the resignation of people like Cardinal Wuerl of Washington, to use just one example now that credible evidence exists of his past behavior to cover up abuse.
Then also the church must get serious about no longer requiring celibacy as a condition of being a priest, allowing a married man (and for that matter, a married woman) to be a priest, and of course welcoming women into the priesthood. It is a big agenda.
In the meantime, for me this is not about numbers or prevalence. This is about creating a beloved community with others. I go to church to praise God and be with people who know that the church is not God (not an idol to be protected), only God is God, and God calls them to go out into the world to heal the sick, tend to immigrant families, advocate for peace, fight for the rights of LBGTQ+ persons, provide relief to some of the most desperate people in the world all across the globe, seek to end the violence in Baltimore streets, make affordable housing possible, fight the climate crisis and support our church with a lot of hard work to put on great chicken and crab fundraising dinners. Then they come back into church to take communion with one another and say these words before communion, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed,” which echo the words of the Roman centurion (the enemy, the occupier) who asked Christ to come heal his servant (“my servant will be healed’), but believed on what he had heard that Jesus had the authority to do that without coming to his house. I worship and pray with humble people who do good in the world and break bread with one another in a spirit of God’s healing love that crosses boundaries and leads us beyond the brokenness of the world. It’s all about love for us.
I pray to Jesus to bring that healing to the church I have never stopped loving, even though I detest some of its institutional ways and behaviors.
Articles about the work of Richard Sipe