Sunday, September 12, 2010

The Sixth Challenge: The Scandal of Sexual Abuse

by Michael Bayly

Continuing with our special Countdown to Synod 2010 series . . .

In Church: Living Communion, Paul Lakeland begins his examination of the sixth challenge for contemporary Catholics by insightfully and compassionately discussing the roots of the clergy sexual abuse crisis:

[A]s far as we can tell the seeds of this problem lie in the 1950s . . . [a time when] the social hierarchy of a clerical/lay Church was taken for granted, and the career structure of the clerical state itself was firmly in place. . . . Fifty years ago many young men entered seminary at the age of fourteen, and most were ordained before they were twenty-five years old, having never lived as adults in contact with laity of either sex, not even their siblings or parents. While it would be hard to argue convincingly that such a seclusion creates abusers, it is equally hard to deny tat it is not the best possible context in which to grow into personal spiritual and sexual maturity. Celibacy, for far too many f these men, was a refuge from their own sexuality and not – as it should be – a way of expressing it. Emerging from the seminary in their early twenties, the newly minted priests were thrown into parish life and often, because of their youth, assigned to responsibilities with the young people of the parish. Suddenly their selfhood as sexual beings was something they had to come to terms with in ways they had mostly not encountered before, and the wonder is that most of them negotiated this difficult transition successfully. Sadly, as we now know, many did not, and the tensions and fears and frustrations of the life of a young priest led them into inappropriate and sometimes frankly criminal behavior. The people they victimized will always remain the Church’s primary responsibility, if only because for decades they were ignored or treated as if they were the problem. But, the classic pedophiles aside, abusing priests should also be seen as victims, this time as victims of a clerical system that signally failed to select and prepare its seminarians appropriately, or to provide young clergy with an adequate affective support system for a lifetime of celibate commitment. (pp. 95-96)

Lakeland contends that it seems not so much the self-deception of abusing priests that angered the laity the most but the self-deception of generations of complacent clerical leaders. “The ire of the Church has mostly been vented upon the bishops,” he writes. (p. 97) He suggests a number of reasons for this, the major one being that very few bishops have been called to account for failing to recognize and act on the problem.

Accordingly, Lakeland states that “not a few Catholics think that the fundamental problem is systemic rather than psychological.” In other words, he writes, “the issue with bishops, as with abusers, is not their individual human weaknesses but a system that ignores and even encourages them.” (p. 97)

This system is labeled as “clericalism” by Lakeland, and is defined as “the social system or subculture that has grown up around the clergy, which has over the years separated them from many of the normal dynamics of ordinary life and kept the weaker among them from ever growing up.” (p.97)

Lakeland also observes that:

When things go wrong in any closed system, be it the clergy or the police or the legal system or Wall Street or Washington, the reform of the system cannot safely be left in the hands of those who caused the problems. Most often in secular society we find a way to conduct independent inquiry and to try to fix the problems. In the Church as presently constituted, this is quite impossible. (p. 97)

A “mostly passive laity over the last century,” has, according to Lakeland, contributed to the climate in which the clergy sex abuse scandal could grow and flourish.

Until fifty years ago most Catholic laity were not well educated and had a habit of almost automatic deference to the priesthood . . . Today laypeople in the Church are neither poorly educated nor likely not to speak up for their rights and responsibilities in secular society. In consequence, their responsibilities to speak in the Church are clear, and failure to do so is a contributing factor, if not to the abuse itself, then at least to the conditions that made it possible and to the continuation of a system in which it will be hard to eradicate it entirely. (p. 99)

Lakeland acknowledges that there are “many structural changes that the Church must consider if the sexual abuse scandal is to be a thing of the past.” (p. 99) Yet he is adamant that the “single most important move that we can make is to do whatever it takes to permeate the Church with the virtue of accountability.” (p. 100)

Accountability is such a simple idea, one with which every member of a family or worker in a company of whatever size is familiar. The health of the family or company requires that all members recognize their responsibility to and for one another, that they act with honor and self-discipline in the best interests of the group, and that they own their failures. If this does not happen the family falls apart or at best limps along, the company fires you or closes down. In an institution like the Church, the accountability we need must work a little like the way it does in the family and must have some characteristics of institutional accountability. As in a family, it must transcend structures, but like the institution, it must have them. It requires a sense of ownership and pride that comes from knowing you count. But it also needs open two-way structures through which the sense of ownership is realized and supported. (p. 100)

All of this will require certain changes within the Church – changes that Lakeland identifies and addresses in chapter three of Church: Living Communion.

Next: The Seventh Challenge: Ecumenism.

See also the previous PCV posts
The First Challenge: Identity and Commitment
The Second Challenge: Ministry - Ordained and Lay
The Third Challenge: The Roles of Women in the Church
The Fourth Challenge: Church Teaching and Individual Conscience
The Fifth Challenge: The Religious Formation of the Young

Theologian and author Paul Lakeland will be the keynote speaker at the Catholic Coalition for Church reform's September 18 Synod of the Baptized: "Claiming Our Place at the Table." For more information about this event and to register, click here.

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