In the Vineyard :: December 4, 2015 :: Volume 15, Issue 23

Sexual and Spiritual Abuse by the Clergy: The Wound That Will Not Heal (continued)

As terrible and hypocritical as sexual molestation of children and adults by Catholic clerics is, the harsh and scandalous truth is that it has been a known evil since the first years of the Christian way of life. The earliest known written evidence is found in the Didache, commonly known as the “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” which dates from the end of the first century. The command was unambiguous: “You will not corrupt boys, you will not have illicit sex.” (Aaron Milavec, Editor, The Didache, Liturgical Press, 2003).

The birth of canon law, the Church’s system of regulations, is generally considered to have been at the Synod of Elvira in southern Spain in the year 309. The bishops assembled there passed 81 canons or laws. One of these (c. 71) condemned any man who had sex with a young boys and another (c. 18) said that any cleric who was a sexual offender was to be denied communion even at the time of death.

Throughout the ensuing centuries of Catholic history, sexual violation by clerics continued to be considered a most serious crime by Church authorities. The Church’s own archives reveal a succession of official documents issued by popes, bishops and even general councils that condemn the sexual molestation of young people by clerics and which attempt to eliminate the practice by means of various punishments imposed on the offenders.

In spite of this history, Catholics in our era have reacted with shock and disbelief at the revelations of widespread sexual abuse by clerics of all ranks. Although this was publicly known and acknowledged by Church leadership in some periods of history, for the past two centuries at least, it had been a deeply buried secret. This secrecy was shattered in the mid 1980s in the United States. A civil lawsuit against an archdiocese and a diocese was filed by one of many victims of a priest in 1983. Although this case did not receive a great deal of publicity, another that was revealed in the diocese of Lafayette in Louisiana burst through the wall of secrecy with a force that began a radical change in the Catholic bishops’ response that has still not ended.

For the first time in the history of the Catholic Church, which has seen several revelations of widespread illicit sexual behavior by clerics, the hierarchy has not been able to control and subdue the problem. Why has this been so? There are two fundamental reasons that explain the drastic change. The first relates to the nature of the crime itself. Historically the focus has been on the psychosexually disturbed clerics, mostly priests, who have committed the sexual crimes. This changed in 1985 when Jason Berry, an American author, wrote a series of articles about the case in Louisiana that focused not so much on the behavior of the accused priest but on what is commonly estimated to be a far more grievous crime, the negligent response and cover-up by the bishops and the refusal by the Vatican to appreciate what is, in reality, the worst problem to face the Catholic Church in a thousand years.

The second and most important reason is all around us as we gather here in Poznan. It is the men and women who have survived the violation of their bodies and souls by clerics and have banded together to face the power, wealth, influence and culture of the Catholic Church to demand not only recognition but [also] justice for the crimes committed against them, and accountability from those who allowed these crimes to happen.      
Over the past three tumultuous decades, the People of God and the societies in which they live have learned that the scourge of sexual abuse of the young is not an “American Problem” as the late Pope John Paul II tried to claim. It is a reality that exists wherever the Catholic Church has been established, which means that it can be found in every country on the planet with the possible exceptions of Greenland and the Antarctic. The reason survivors [come] forward in country after country is directly related to the main reason priests were able to violate and rape them and the reason many remained locked in prisons of guilt and shame for years and even decades: fear! Fear of the power of the priest and fear of the wrath of the god whose place he claimed in their lives. 

As survivors, their families and their supporting allies supported one another and a history-changing phenomenon took place. They began to not only question the mythological and magical image of the priest so deeply implanted in Catholic culture, but [also] to reject it. The fear and its associated guilt and shame have been turned inside out and become a source of strength. The survivors learned that while they may not have the wealth, influence, and expected deference enjoyed by the hierarchy, they have one thing they lack, and that is the truth.

The profound damage that sexual violation does to the body, the psyche, and the emotions is known and accepted by the scientific and legal world and by signifi-cant numbers of the population in general. Yet we still are subjected to the assertions of supposedly well-educated members of the clergy and hierarchy that they only recently realized the harm done to victims or, even more astounding, the feigned ignorance of the legal ramifications of sexual abuse of minors.

In 2003 the bishop of a large American diocese stated from the pulpit that he only learned in 1988 that it was a crime in both civil and canon law. And this past May, 12 years later, an American archbishop, when asked by an attorney if he knew at the time he was an auxiliary bishop that it was a crime for an adult to engage in sex with a child, replied: “I’m not sure I knew it was a crime or not. I understand today it’s a crime.”
The attempts at minimizing sexual violation by claiming ignorance or by other erroneous assertions contribute to a dimension of damage that is experienced by victims of priests, and that is the spiritual damage. A well-known and highly experienced American psychologist referred to it as soul murder and so it is.

The physical and psychological harm may be attributable in great part to the actual assault by the cleric, but the spiritual damage is rooted in the perverted and unchristian response by members of the clergy and hierarchy and, sadly, often by members of the laity. This response is in turn the result of the Church’s own teaching about itself and about the status of the clergy. 

The priest has been presented as one who is above the layperson by reason of a ritual called ordination. He is entitled to complete trust and obedience and must never be insulted or harmed in any way because of his privileged stature in the eyes of the almighty. The official Church attempts to explain this exceptional status with gibberish that challenges rational comprehension: his soul is ontologically changed at the moment of ordination or he is intimately conjoined with Jesus Christ. This type of magical thinking has enabled priests to seduce and violate the vulnerable and it has somehow twisted the common sense of otherwise intelligent adults into thinking that giving a pass to such criminal behavior is somehow “good for the Church.”

The confounding and contradictory response of the clerical world is grounded in the doctrine that the visible, institutional Church was founded by God to be a hierarchical monarchy. This structure is essential to the eternal salvation most Catholics hope for and consequently it must be preserved and protected at all costs, even at the expense of the most vulnerable. The essential pillars without which it could not exist are the bishops, whose decisions are always presumed to be for the benefit of the Church.

The compulsion to protect the Church’s governmental system no matter what the cost in persons or money runs up against a formidable obstacle in the words of Jesus: “But whosoever shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6) (It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. Luke 17:2)

Why have these unequivocal words of Christ not influenced the Church’s leader-ship as it has committed itself to the protection of the institutional Church’s image rather than the protection of those obviously favored by Christ? The answer is summed up in one word: power. This power is not the force of the gospel infused in the Church as People of God but the controlling force limited to and imagined by the clerical culture, which erroneously identifies itself with the Church. At its best it is a power than can enhance the mission to follow the word and example of Jesus, and at its worst it is so narcissistic and self-serving that it acts only as a destructive force. This destructive and self-serving expression of the Church’s power is at the foundation of the terrible phenomenon of the sexual violation
of the young and the vulnerable.

Contrary to the defensive claims of far too many in the hierarchy, the “problem” of sexual molestation has not gone away. The bishops’ imagined leadership has not enabled the institutional Church to turn the corner. The enlightenment of Church and society about this evil is due to one thing only and that is the bravery, the persistence, and the conviction of the survivors. The often-heard claim that the Catholic Church has done more to protect children than any other religious or secular institution tells only a fraction of the true story. Without exception, every advance, every program, policy, and protocol created by the official Church to protect children has been the result of force imposed by the civil courts, by the secular media, by the outrage of the laity, but especially by the unwavering insistence of the survivors. Without the interaction of these forces nothing would have changed.

The attention by the bishops to the children of the future has not been a successful distraction from the rest of the story. Our present era of revelation and response reaches back more than a quarter of a century. In spite of the glaring reality of the real cause of the scandal and the ultimate reason for the costs reaching billions of dollars (or Euros), the Vatican still has not demanded accountability of the members of the hierarchy who have been responsible for the unsuccessful cover-up.

The other dimension of the real story has been the scandalous absence of a true commitment to the compassionate care of those whose lives have been damaged by sexual violation and spiritual abuse. The victims, the survivors, are still considered by many in the clerical world to be the enemy. Evidence is not difficult to find.  Within the past year, Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, retired archbishop of Santiago, Chile, in an email to his successor, referred to Juan Carlos Cruz, the courageous survivor who is a leader for other survivors in his country, as a “serpent.”

Men and women from country after country are banishing their fear of the Church and stepping up to challenge every level of the hierarchy, from parish priests to popes.  Yet the sexual violation of the young and the vulnerable and the corresponding spiritual devastation will continue to be the wound that will not heal.

It will not heal until the dark side of the Church that created it experiences a radical change at its core. This is slowly but surely happening because the victims of the Church’s worst crime, once powerless and hopeless, have transformed their fear and weakness into an unparalleled power, and it is this power, not the anachronistic images of a long dead medieval world, that will change the Church from a crumbling monarchy to the People of God.


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