On Aug. 19, priests at the parish with which I celebrate the Eucharist spoke about the latest exposures in the ongoing story of sexual abuse by clergy. Here is what I said:
In next week's Gospel reading, people scandalized by Jesus' words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood leave him. Today, we must face the fact that many people scandalized by the deeds of some of Jesus' followers are leaving him, or at least his church. The past week brought news about 70 years of sexual abuse of children by clergy in several American dioceses — 1,000 cases by some 300 priests. The churches of Australia and Ireland have been deeply wounded, perhaps nearly fatally, by their history of abuse and cover-up. In other news, an American cardinal resigned his position after a flood of reports of his abuse of children and young adults throughout his career. An added shock in his case was that his abuse was common knowledge even in Rome, yet Pope John Paul II
, who became notorious for his refusal to trust reports of sexual abuse, made him a cardinal. It is a slight comfort to know that most of the abuse reported in the U.S. was perpetrated either before Vatican II
or by priests and bishops trained before that council.
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After the council, the introduction of psychological testing and training for seminary candidates, a renewed theology that stressed that priests are servants of the People of God and a decline in the number of priests all led to some improvement, though not a total end to abuse. But, even if the number of abuse cases has been declining, the mindset that underlies them remains. I am not talking about the sickness of some ordained men. Priests are human. Let me repeat that because I know that for some of you that may be news. Priests are human. Not superhuman, no less but no more special than any of you children of God. Though I haven't kept count, in the 41 years since my ordination, I am sure I have used as much toilet paper as any other man my age. Priests are not exempt from any of the physical or psychological ills that afflict others. What makes abuse by priests different, besides the fact that we are supposed to be trustworthy, is that most abusers are not part of a system that protects them and even provides them with new opportunities for abuse. The problem is not primarily the sexual abuse of children and adolescents by clergy and other church workers. Abuse is heinous regardless of who perpetrates it, and it must be dealt with by society as a whole. What makes the church situation worse is that the Catholic Church has nurtured a sense of impunity on the part of the sick perpetrators as well as bishops and other superiors who moved abusers from place to place, refused to cooperate with civil society in confronting the problem and further abused victims by refusing to believe them or maligning them as money-grubbing enemies of the church. No, the real scandal in all this is the disease in the church known as clericalism. It is the false belief that priests are a special kind of human being exempt from the usual rules. They may be social rules like picking up restaurant checks from time to time, or legal and moral rules, including those dealing with the abuse of children (or women). There are many clergy as well as lay people who believe that nonsense. One good result of this scandal is that it may break the hold of clericalism on the church. In order to protect the status and reputation of clergy, bishops covered up the sins of their priests as well as their own. And the cover-up goes as far as the Vatican. There is still a law on the books there that says a bishop will be excommunicated for reporting abusive clergy to the civil authorities. In short, our leaders have cared more about their status, reputation, comfort and protection than they have cared for the People of God. When the abuse of children by clergy first became news in the U.S. and other English-speaking countries, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos
of Colombia, then head of the Vatican's department in charge of clergy, claimed that abuse was limited to the English-speaking parts of the world. Clearly, a red hat does not overcome the ignorance, prejudice and (to give its true name) stupidity of the head and heart under it. It has not been the English language's ancient abandonment of grammatical gender that caused abuse in the English-speaking world, but it was a commitment to law and individual rights protected by media watchdogs in those societies that finally shone a spotlight on the scandal. The late cardinal's Spanish-speaking church in Latin America is now feeling the hot beam of that spotlight, which is beginning to shine on Asia
as well. Asia has the ingredients for disaster: a strong clerical culture reinforced by cultural deference to authority, and too many bishops who are more concerned with saving face for the church (usually seen as themselves) than with truth or justice. Those Asian churches where the clerical culture is strong among clergy and laity — India, Korea and the Philippines come immediately to mind — and where the rights of women and children are violated with impunity are probably on the verge of scandals that can only be headed off by immediate, honest and effective responses. I doubt that anything will be done. Of course, the reason for acting should not be for the sake of heading off scandal. Doing that would itself be scandalous. We, all of us, must act for the simple reason that it is right and just to do so. And you have a role to play in that. Examine yourselves and see how much of your attitudes and actions reinforce a sense of clergy privilege and being special. Ask yourself if you put priests on a pedestal and if you like having them there. To what extent are you responsible for the sin of clericalism? Keep an eye on priests and bishops. Do we talk more of God and Christ or of the church? When we talk of the church, do we talk of all of us, the pilgrim People of God, or of the institution and its leaders? When we speak, do we merely mouth the word servant or do you actually see us in service? When we talk of sacrament, do we talk of the vocation of the priestly People of God to offer praise to the Father, our vocation embodied in certain men appointed for that service, or do we talk of how special priests are? If we talk of the institution, do we talk of structures that assist us on our journey to God or do we talk of authority, power and position? Listen well and then decide if you should listen any further, or ignore, dispute or run, not walk, away. And if that running takes you away from the church, know that Christ is still with you, perhaps running as well. Father William Grimm, MM, is the publisher of ucanews.com and is based in Tokyo.