A Crisis of Potentially Epidemic Proportions

Posted: Mar 28, 2002 12:00 AM
These days the word “catastrophic” is overused almost to the point of cliché, but it is wholly appropriate in reference to the spreading scandal of sexual abuse now ravaging the U.S. Catholic church. That’s “sexual abuse,” such as: molestation, pedophilia, pederasty and homosexuality — usually with the young. And adult liaisons, both heterosexual and homosexual, in violation of not only Rome but also biblical stricture. Though sexual abuse has been going on and covered up for years (more than 1,000 settled cases in the past two decades), the scandal broke big time in Boston in January. It has led to the dismissal of at least 30 priests in 10 states. Hear The New York Times, on March 17 and 23: “For weeks now, across the country, church leaders have been acknowledging their failure to take action against priests accused of sexually molesting children.” And: “Already, the scandal has traumatized the church’s faithful, demoralized the clergy, and threatened the hard-won moral authority of its bishops.” One poll finds a majority of American Catholics believing that the church hierarchy has covered up the scandal. Informed of sexual deviancy by outraged parents or jilted lovers, key Catholic leaders have not assisted in criminal prosecution of accused priests or reassigned them to remote monasteries, but instead have kept them on or rotated them to other dioceses — where they have reverted to their malignant behavior. One former seminary student, invoking a federal racketeering statute, has accused all American Catholic bishops of conspiring to cover up the scandal. Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State, adds some perspective. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, he notes (1) that the pattern of incident and cover-up began in the 1970s, when “the clergy suffered a dreadful hemorrhage of priests. ... Facing a personnel crisis, bishops had to lower their standards for the priests and seminarians that remained. This meant some relaxation of [traditional] discipline when confronting what were then seen as sexual peccadilloes, especially where homosexuality was concerned.” (2) “Most priests of gay orientation probably succeeded in keeping their vows of chastity, but enough misbehaved to account for the majority of abuse cases that have come to light in recent months. Virtually all these cases involve sex between men and older teen-agers rather than pedophilia: If we are looking for a one-word description of most of the acts, we should properly be speaking of ‘homosexuality.’” (3) The Catholics are not alone; this is not “exclusively a Catholic evil. ... Cases of clerical misconduct with minors appear regularly in virtually every denomination and faith-tradition.” And… (4) The scandal “suggests some grim lessons for the future of the American clergy. Current scandals will almost certainly make the priesthood an even less attractive option for potential recruits, causing the already desperate priest shortage to deteriorate. .... [Yet] this is not a celibacy problem with frustrated priests being driven to perversion and molestation. It is, in the end, a fundamental cultural conflict, the outcome of which will script the future shape of American Catholicism.” The past 50 years in U.S. mainline church history, a period of Protestant struggle for more lay membership, have seen a number of developing trends — all in the name of making the denominations more with-it, modern and relevant. These trends have included (a) neutering hymnals, (b) replacing liturgies of linguistic grace and magic with liturgies containing all the grace and magic of NCAA basketball pairings, and (c) endlessly extending the number of political questions eliciting leftist clerical posturing to such things as — now — abortion, the adamantly homeless, global warming and North Slope drilling. Along the way, churches have dropped their standards of right and wrong. They used to stand as behavioral yardsticks. In this hour of galloping relativism and situational ethics, they too often are squishy standards to lean on — what with the toleration and encouragement by some clergy of alternative sexual preferences and same-sex marriage. Today, we find an exploding epidemic of homosexuality and deviant sexual behavior in the Catholic priesthood — the U.S. Catholic Church long being the largest and perceptually the most upright of the mainline denominations. As these dubious trends, for the most part, have failed to fill emptying pews in mainline Protestant churches, so now the Catholic Church — with its expanding sex scandal and corresponding code of silence — likely will see a catastrophic undermining of its moral authority and a lay rush for the exits. The pope, one of the planet’s most esteemed humans, understands what tolerating the intolerable means: He sees the scandal casting “a dark shadow of suspicion over all the other fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty.” Potentially, it is a crisis of colossal proportions. What does this do to the Catholic community of faithful? What caring Catholic parent now can easily entrust his or her (boy) child to a suspect priesthood? What serious Catholic parishioner now can easily respect or trust (let alone fund) the word — the moral teaching — of a suspect priesthood numerous members of which have themselves vilely violated some of the church’s most adamant moral lessons? Blend in a conspiracy of silence among church leaders, a cover-up dwarfing Watergate and Enron, and the U.S. Catholic Church — home to just 6 percent of Catholics worldwide — may face a future rather different from its monolithic past. Talk about catastrophe. The guilty clergy have caused damage far greater than mere mockery. Alas, they have delivered unto their church a grievous self-inflicted wound from which it may never recover.