American bishops will need our prayers

Posted: Jun 13, 2002 12:00 AM
As the American bishops meet this week in Dallas, the prayers of every faithful Catholic and most Americans of good will go out to them. Three large issues are raised by what we have learned.

The first is how should church policy deal with acts of pedophilia and the sexual use of minor teens by Catholic clergy? The second question: Why are so many Catholic clerics accused disproportionately of sexual abuse of boys (including teens), and what can we do in priestly formation to prevent it?

The third question is: How do we respond to the revelations of systemic sexual corruption in church leaders, including the apparent existence of an active gay priestly subculture of unknown but clearly not insubstantial proportions?

Unfortunately the American Catholic leadership seems ready to face only the first of these questions. Pedophilia and statutory rape are not just sins; they are crimes. Catholic bishops are apparently prepared to exercise zero tolerance toward pedophilia -- past and present -- and a one-strike policy for past sexual use of a minor adolescent.

The priest who, say, once fell in love with a teen-ager years ago and has since demonstrated manly self-control, can continue to serve. A priest who has ever been sexually attracted to children will be defrocked, if American bishops have their way. Abuses that are less than full sexual use (inappropriate language, or touching, or a romantically charged relationship) fall into a gray zone requiring judgment.

On the second question Catholics wonder about -- why so many boys? -- the bishops throw a few broad fig leaves in the direction of improved screening of candidates for the priesthood. But screening for what? Holiness, says Father Richard John Neuhaus. Psychological maturity, suggest others.

The idea of altering clerical celibacy has apparently been dropped. Good thing. Pedophiles seek out positions that allow them access to children, including marriage. In a 1995 study in the journal Child Abuse and Neglect, almost half of all child sex offenders (overwhelmingly male) had married.

There appears to be no consensus among the bishops on screening out men with same-sex attractions, despite the increasingly powerful evidence that same-sex culture in seminaries is driving normal men away from vocations.

For Catholics, the last question, of sexual corruption, is the most serious. By corruption I do not mean merely sin, but the redirection of church institutions from teaching the faith to protecting individuals and their erotic attachments.

When an archbishop confesses diverting a half-million dollars to pay off an old flame, that is (whether he realized it or not) corruption. When a seminarian comes to the head of the seminary with anguished complaints that two clerics have abused him, and the priest responds by taking him to bed, that is corruption.

Reports from ex-seminarians in Michael S. Rose's new book, "Goodbye, Good Men," indicate that in many U.S. seminaries, same-sex relationships are not only common, they are practically mandatory. Tolerance of (if not participation in) such sinful relations is required of new candidates for the priesthood. Many priests with same-sex attractions are no longer holy men committed to celibacy but activists committed to changing church teachings on sexuality.

And in the long run, corruption is an even greater threat to the institutional interests of the Catholic Church than America's litigation jackpot. (The main reason sex abuse by Catholic clergy is front-page news is not that Catholic priests misbehave more often, but that the Catholic Church is a big, sitting target for lawsuits. Question: Why should Catholic children lose their schools, or parishoners their church buildings, because some priest in another parish a hundred miles away commits even the most horrible crime? Do synagogues, temples and congregations in America face the same risk?)

Corruption is dangerous not only to the salvation of souls but also to the institutional defense of the church. For in a democracy, protection of the church rests ultimately on a zealous, large, engaged Catholic laity deeply committed to the faith -- even when it clashes with contemporary mores. If the bishops cannot count on that kind of backup anymore, who do they have to blame?