Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but underneath are ravenous wolves.
These words of the Gospel of Matthew ring in my heart in light of recent reports on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. We’ve been dealing with this publicly for over 16 years, and still have yet to reach the bottom. It seems that Jesus’ stark warning is more true than we’d like to think.
The allegations, credible accusations, and testimony reveal an overwhelming darkness. It’s no wonder the Bishops have been so flat-footed in their response. I don’t believe that every single bishop is involved in a cover-up or conspiracy. I imagine that they must have been completely overwhelmed when confronted with these realities. The bishops made mistakes and erred in their various individual responses, but I don’t believe that very many of them would willingly or knowingly put children at risk for the sake of reputation. It was a terrible judgement error with dire consequences. What’s clear is that we need to do something drastic. We need thorough investigations in every diocese to get to a resolution.
It’s estimated that that about 5% of priests during the period investigated committed these horrific acts. Previous research and discoveries show that the rate of pedophilia roughly mirrors the general population. It’s not that the priesthood is particularly predatory, but rather it’s shocking that people would be so depraved as to abuse their positions of trust and moral authority.
Some may be quick to point to priestly celibacy as the issue. Others, homosexuality. More recently, many news articles have superimposed the American political division onto the Church. Of course, the terrible state of Catholic publications and journalism hasn’t helped in mustering a coherent and logical response. These conclusions are a distraction; people trying to take advantage of the situation to push a particular agenda.
When looking at predators in general, they come from both genders, all ages, and from all professions. They’re preachers, police officers, politicians, school teachers, vagrants, professionals, blue collar workers, friends, relatives, neighbors. They’re single, divorced, and married; predators are predators whether they have a wedding ring on their finger or not. The common link is their mental illness that drives them to sexually prey on children.
These abuses complicate the life and ministry of our priests. The vast majority of these men live the calling that they profess. Part of the power of the priesthood is the personal connection to the congregation. My children love our parish priest and, through their interactions with him, know that they are welcome and belong in the Catholic Church. Parents need to be naturally guarded when it comes to their kids, but it’s possible to be a responsible parent and still have your children develop rich relationships. We need to keep a close watch on our children and not put them, or any adult, in a potentially compromising situation.
As I consider what’s next for individual Catholics, I think the words of Peter in the Gospel of John are just what we need:
Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.
It seems that every idea floated out there involves me sabotaging my own faith life. Abandoning the Church is not the answer. We need to shine an overwhelmingly bright light and confront this, now. We need to work through the criminal, civil, and canonical justice systems to resolve these matters. We need to continue to remove from the priesthood any man who has even just one substantiated allegation against him. We need to build robust systems to weed out the bad apples in the Program for Priestly Formation, and continue a healthy regimen of emotional fitness for priests in active ministry. The answer is to redouble our efforts to continue the constant work of renewal and reform.
It’s important to keep focused on the real issue. Predators have infiltrated the priesthood as they have infiltrated every segment of our culture. We need to root them out with extreme prejudice and not let the 5% destroy the multitude of good works that the Church carries out every day.