The issue of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy has been festering now for about two decades. It shows no signs of going away. The issue is based on real facts, more of which keep coming out. At the same time, the issue is fanned by a secular media culture which relishes it with a good deal of Schadenfreude. An animus against the Catholic Church is one of rather few prejudices deemed acceptable in politically correct circles. Be this as it may, the crisis has escalated recently, calling for further reflection about what it is and what its implications are, not just for Catholics but for religion in contemporary society in general.
In July of this year Enda Kenny, the Irish Prime Minister (whose title is commonly given in Gaelic which hardly anyone can pronounce), made an unprecedented attack on the Vatican in a speech in parliament. This followed the publication of a judicial inquiry into clergy abuse in the diocese of Cloyne, which accused the local bishop of having given false information to the government and described the Vatican itself as having been “entirely unhelpful” to the inquiry. Kenny used stronger language. He said that the Cloyne inquiry “exposes an attempt by the Holy See to frustrate an inquiry in a sovereign, democratic republic as little as three years ago. . . . And in doing so, the Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day.” This from the leader of a state whose 1937 constitution, while guaranteeing freedom of religion, stated the “special position of the Holy Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church”! That position had indeed been paramount from the beginning of the independent Irish state—in political influence (on such matters as divorce, abortion and contraception), in education, and in the institutions of the welfare system.
The crisis in Ireland began in the 1990s with a series of prosecutions against priests for the sexual abuse of minors. There followed a government report on the cruel treatment of children in state-supported institutions, most if not all run by priests and nuns—institutions containing not only orphans, but young unwed mothers, juvenile delinquents and children from allegedly dysfunctional families. The details were shocking. Brutal physical punishments, sexual molestation and rape were found to be common. More recently there was a series of television documentaries showing not only the role of clergy in many of these abuses, but also widespread efforts at coverup by the hierarchy. The Church in Ireland and the Vatican did try to react constructively to this avalanche of bad news. The Irish bishops issued strong rules against child abuse by the clergy and in Catholic-run institutions. In 2010 Pope Benedict XVI summoned all Irish bishops to Rome in order to discuss the crisis. He subsequently released a letter to the Catholics of Ireland, expressing sorrow over the harm that had been done. What has happened since suggests that none of this was enough to stem a massive loss of confidence in the Church in what had been the most Catholic country in Western Europe.
It gets worse, and not only in Ireland. Early in September 2011 an international organization, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court in The Hague, calling for the prosecution of Pope Benedict XVI and three other high Vatican officials (including the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) for crimes against humanity. The complaint charges these individuals of “direct and superior responsibility for the crimes against humanity of rape and other sexual violence committed around the world.” Pam Spees, a lawyer associated with SNAP, said in a separate statement: “Crimes against tens of thousands of victims, most of them children, are being covered up by officials at the highest level of the Vatican. . . . In this case, all roads really lead to Rome.” Representatives of SNAP from the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the United States came to The Hague to lodge the complaint, submitting 20,000 pages of supporting material. Given its statutes, it is very unlikely that the ICC will accept the case. But just the fact itself of charging the Pope with a crime against humanity represents yet another escalating step in this crisis.
The above incidents involve attacks against the Catholic Church from the outside. But the crisis extends inside as well. In August 2011 a so-called Priests’ Initiative, supported by more than 300 Catholic priests in Austria, openly stated their intention to disobey the Church on a series of matters—the ordination of women to the priesthood, the right of priests to carry out their vocation even if they are married and have children, the admission to communion of divorced people who have remarried, and the right of lay people to preach and lead services. This open rebellion by priests against the hierarchy is unprecedented, not only in Austria but in most other countries. Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, has threatened the rebellious priests with excommunication. If he proceeds with this, a significant schism may occur and spread beyond the borders of Austria.
What is one to make of this gathering storm? Looking at it empirically, it raises a number of interesting questions.
Is the sexual abuse crisis based on facts? Needless to say, I have not read the 20,000 pages deposited on the doorstep of the ICC. But there is little doubt that a large number of Catholic priests have committed acts of sexual abuse against minors, and that Church authorities in many places have been reluctant to act on them. At the same time, a degree of skepticism is indicated: Many of the acts in question took place years or even decades ago, which makes it very difficult to determine the facts. Many of the accusers have strong material incentives to go after an institution believed to have “deep pockets.” (The “pockets” have become much less deep as a result of financial settlements with the accusers.) And, as mentioned before, there has been a media frenzy in this matter. This does not mean that every serious charge should not be investigated for possible criminal prosecution, but there should be no rush to judgment which violates due process for the accused. (This has happened before in cases of alleged child abuse, in cases having nothing to do with Catholic clergy.)
Is this type of sexual behavior peculiar to Catholic priests? Certainly not. There has been a comparably escalating crisis involving alleged sexual abuse by teachers of pupils at the Odenwald School in Germany, an elite progressive institution with not a whiff of Catholicism. However, compared with Protestant clergy (the most plausible group for the purpose of comparison), more Catholic clergy have been abusers.
Has most of the behavior been homosexual in character? Yes. But an important point: There is no evidence that homosexuals are more inclined to be pedophiles than heterosexuals. The causes of the predominance of homosexuals among pedophile priests are likely to be sought in their priesthood rather than their homosexuality. The most likely reason, I tend to think, is that Catholic priesthood has created an exclusively male subculture, which attracts homosexuals and which socializes into homosexuality individuals who would otherwise not be so inclined.
Is celibacy a factor? Very probably yes, for the reason just mentioned. It is interesting how liberal and conservative Catholics have explained the crisis. Liberals have attributed it to the allegedly repressive and misogynist ethics of traditional Catholicism; doing away with celibacy would thus go a long way toward solving the problem (they would also, of course, be in favor of ordaining women). Conservatives have argued that the problem is not celibacy but fidelity to the vows of ordination, which is put under great pressure because of the culture of permissiveness engendered by the sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. Based on their respective explanations, liberals argue for a loosening of hierarchical control, conservatives for its tightening. But it seems to me that the two explanations are not contradictory: Celibacy necessarily creates severe frustrations, which are more difficult to manage in a society that flaunts sexual freedom.
How can the Church overcome the crisis? A conservative papacy, at least since John XXIII, has tried to contain the explosive (and unintended) consequences of the Second Vatican Council. This has not been easy. Once the aggiornamento “opened the windows” to the modern world, it has been difficult to control what flies in. The attraction of the new sexual freedom is powerful. The Church could indeed hunker down in a Catholic counterculture, but such a fortress is very difficult to maintain. The forces of pluralism keep beating against the cognitive defenses of the fortress. Sociologically speaking, what is required is a balance between compromise and resistance. Ultimately the theological self-understanding of the Church will have to decide where compromise is possible and where resistance is called for.
The crisis has led to far-reaching reflection among Catholics about the situation of their faith in the contemporary world. The larger context of this reflection is different in highly secularized Europe, much less secularized America, and a Global South marked by robust supernaturalism. Outside observers, however sympathetic, cannot be part of the needed theological enterprise. They will wish the Catholic Church well, especially in view of its significant contributions to human rights and democracy in recent decades.