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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Pope Benedict XVI

Hardly a day goes by without another rash of (Catholic Church) sex abuse cases flooding the news. It’s a disquieting development. The large number of cases recently reported from Ireland was bad enough, but then came Germany and Brazil.

I feel sorry for Pope Benedict XVI. He no sooner gets through apologizing to one group (the people of Ireland), before another case erupts. A recent New York Times report on the situation gave extensive coverage to the Pope’s apology to the people of Ireland, but then seem to ask the question: Can’t the pope do anything but apologize?

To me it seemed like The Times was suggesting that the Pope do something melodramatic, like “solidify” his apology with an offer to sell half the Vatican and then give the money to the families of the abused teenagers, or go out personally as an apostolic vigilante to help “arrest” other offending priests. Perhaps The Times wanted the pope to publicly flagellate himself after a Mass at St. Peter’s.

Verbal apologies, it seems to me, don’t mean much to people these days. When Tiger Woods apologized to his fans and business partners for his reckless personal behavior (an apology to his wife would have been sufficient) his fan rating went down. “It wasn’t enough,” many people said. “We want more.” Well, what did people want Tiger to do-- chop off a hand or undergo castration to prove that he was truly sorry?

I wish the editors of The Times had come out and said what they want the pope to do rather than complain that he isn’t doing enough. After all, the sex abuse cases we are hearing about now happened 20, 30 and 40 years ago, well before this pontiff’s reign, and years before Catholic seminaries had classes in human sexuality or psychological testing prior to admission. The vast majority of abuser priests in the news today were admitted to the seminary immediately after high school. This was the age when the Church cultivated young vocations by canvassing parochial schools and encouraging 7th and 8th grade boys to become priests.

I know this to be the case because I was there. In my own Catholic grade school in Chester County not a month went by when the nuns didn’t invite members of different religious orders to “lecture” the boys. The idea was to get us to sign up after the 8th grade. The push-- the pressure—to sign up was tremendous. In fact, I was set to enroll but because I couldn’t decide which order to join, I procrastinated and eventually lost interest.

In those days, one simply entered the seminary after grammar school without any experience in intimate human relationships. Today’s average seminarian is in his late 20s or 30s, an age when the applicant has probably experienced something of “life.”

In contrast to other cities in the United States, Philadelphia has done a pretty good job handling clergy sex abuse cases. The Archdiocesan Website even has a Web page devoted to lists of priests who have been accused and removed from duty. Another thing: Catholics in the riverwards, as far as I can tell, seem to have a healthy perspective on the scandal. They have not deserted their parishes because of a few bad apples, and they certainly don’t go around calling out to random priests they see on the street—“Hey, you abuser, you!” such as I have witnessed in New York City.

The world was a different place 20, 30 or 40 years ago, meaning that the way the Church handled priests accused of abuse—by moving them from parish to parish after a therapeutic slap on the wrist and forced solitary prayer—was not considered abnormal treatment. Serious study on sexual abuse did not begin until the early 1980s, but before that few knew that slapping an abuser on the wrist, or telling him to take a month-long cold shower, would not do the trick. In today’s world, of course, we know that abusers suffer from a chronic condition similar to drug addiction, and that “one stop” treatments do not work.

It might help to remember that 40 years ago it was a common practice for psychotherapists to have sexual affairs with their patients, something that is considered highly unethical today. Today such behavior would be grounds for a suspension of the psychotherapist’s license. But 40 years ago, few people cared.
While all clergy abusers, both Catholic and non-Catholic, need to be dealt with fairly, the media also has responsibilities. First, it needs to bone up on the definition of pedophile and ephebophile. The term ‘pedophile’ priest is in most cases inaccurate, since pedophile strictly means a prepubescent child, while ephebophile refers to teenagers. The vast majority of abuser priests were involved with teenagers, so they are not strictly speaking, pedophiles.

Happily, I suspect that we have seen the last wave of clergy abuse cases now emerging from Germany and Brazil. But this “quieting down” won’t be because the Latin Rite will abolish celibacy or anything like that—after all, married men, in the secular world, constitute the bulk of molesters—but it will be because there’s been a closer look at seminarians and less of a PR drive to sign up just “any” boy who wants to wear a Roman collar.

Thom Nickels

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