It’s been 16 years since the Boston Globe wrote about pedophilia in the Catholic Church. I think many of us Catholics hoped this event, painful as it was, would force us to confront this horrible reality and allow us to move forward. Unfortunately even today we continue to uncover this terrible cancer and recognize that we haven’t fully exposed the extent of the sin and the pain of the victims.
I’m Catholic and call it survivor’s guilt but the priests I knew as a child were good priests. I was an altar boy and that allowed me a “peek behind the curtain” to learn about the lives of these celibate men. Most Catholics looked at priests and nuns with a reverence that elevated them above the rest of us, and much of this rested on the belief that priests, brothers, and nuns were celibate. The idea that this group chose celibacy over marriage made them more pure and gave us the belief that they were “above sexuality.” Virtually all Catholics mistakenly believed that priests and nuns didn’t have sexual feelings.
As a former seminarian and a former priest I can tell you that how this belief isn’t true. I’m an ex priest who left active ministry to get married.
When the Boston Globe and other outlets began to publish the now famous Spotlight articles I wasn’t surprised but I was deeply saddened. Much has been written about pedophile priests and the bishops who protected them and I have no need to rehash all of it here. Suffice it to say that on those occasions when someone reported a priest to the bishop, they were mostly ignored. When confronted the bishops would claim ignorance of the problem.
So what went wrong? Well, almost everything went wrong, but I’m going to write about these specific things:
- Bishops Saw Pedophilia As a Sin, Not a Crime: When confronted by a priest who was abusing children they saw these as problems to be solved, not crimes to be reported. I knew of one priest who, after several parish transfers, was finally sent for treatment. When he told the psychologist about the abuse, the psychologist told him he was required to report this to the police. Baffled, the priest said that he came seeking help, not arrest. But the psychologist told him that he broke the law and someone had to protect the children he abused.
- Pedophile Priests Saw Themselves As Above the Law: When asked why they didn’t come forward, many of the abused children told authorities the pedophile priest warned them against speaking out and even threatened them. These children were told that nobody would believe them and some were even told that speaking out would be a sin. Those priests who were confronted claimed to be offended and outraged. Partly they denied the charges, but there was also an undercurrent of “how dare you accuse me. Don’t you know who I am?”
- The Church Dramatically Underestimated the Long Term Damage the Priests Caused to Children: I remember hearing that the way forward was to pay off the families and keep this secret “for the protection of the child.” They refused to believe that the abuse led directly to years of depression, substance abuse, and even suicide. While the Church was able to pretend this didn’t happen, the children didn’t.
- The Process Where Priests Were Selected and Trained Was Flawed: When a man contacts a diocese or religious order to inquire about becoming a priest, it’s a long process. Until the 1970s it was not uncommon for a boy to enter the seminary in high school. Many of those who sought the priesthood were good men, but some never appeared to socialize well with their peer group. They were often aloof, quiet, and detached. Today many of us would see them as creepy but at the time they were thought to be pious. Once ordained, they often gravitated toward activities that allowed them access to children. Time and again we’ve heard stories of a priest who showered attention on a boy whose father was absent. Today we look to men who are mature, transparent, and serious about the work of ministry.
So where do we go from here? Because of the bravery of journalists and (more importantly) the bravery of those who were abused by priests, we have reason to hope. Important changes have been made.
We no longer allow priests unfettered access to our children. We would never imagine allowing a child to spend time alone in the home of a bachelor neighbor but in generations past we thought nothing of a child being alone with a priest. In large part this results from what we’ve learned.
The formation of priests has changed dramatically. When someone applies to seminary he undergoes a battery of psychological tests and I hope these tests can weed out potential pedophiles. In addition to that, those who were previously thought to be “pious” because of their inability to relate to other adults are now seen as red flags. I had a conversation with a vocation director who refused to recommend someone who wanted to be a priest. This candidate felt he was called by God to be a priest but showed virtually no proof of this. He had no spiritual director, the priests in his church didn’t know him, he participated in no ministries (e.g. he wasn’t a lector or a CCD teacher; he wasn’t a Eucharistic Minister or belonged to any organization in the church. In other words, nobody could vouch for him). His only response was that he felt God called him to be a priest. I think this vocation director served us well by not allowing him to apply to seminary. I’m not claiming this man was a pedophile but we can all agree that he would not have made a good priest.
I began this essay by talking about being Catholic and asking the question, “Now what do I do?” Let’s face it: it’s not easy being Catholic. And it’s even harder when we learn about institutional evil. But at the end of the day the Catholic Church that gave us pedophile priests also gave us St. Paul, St. Francis, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and my grandparents.
We are living in a dark chapter in the Church’s history, but not its last. At the end of the day I’m still Catholic because, despite all that’s happened, we are stronger than pedophile priests and the bishops who covered for them. I’m still Catholic because I believe that God’s love and God’s willingness to forgive dwarfs our ability to sin.