Tuesday, February 24, 2009

On Priest Sexual Abuse

I was born and raised a Catholic in the strictest sense. I attended Catholic grade school, high-school and college, I served as an altar boy in my parish for ten years, and, after college, I worked as a volunteer with the Catholic missions in Africa, living in a Jesuit community. I have thus experienced Catholicism from every conceivable point of view: as a birthright, as a family practice, as a participant in worship services, in the form of education, and living in close association with priests and nuns. When the clergy sexual abuse scandals broke over the Church and the nation, they came as little surprise to me.

Abuse of children was part of the institutional fabric of Catholicism as I experienced it. We children in Catholic schools, from the earliest age, were subjected to systematic abuse, intimidation and mistreatment by both nuns and priests; an abuse that was not only accepted by our parents, but was, in fact, reverenced by them, and boasted of by the perpetrators. The nuns and priests who raised us in loco parentis (that is, in the place of our parents) believed they had a God-sanctioned right to engage in the cruelest, most degrading and hurtful forms of psychological abuse and physical mistreatment on almost a daily basis.

I will not enumerate here the many examples of such abuse to which I was witness as a child, and of which I was, myself, the victim. Suffice it to say that brow-beatings and actual physical beatings were commonplace in the schools which I attended. Intensifying the effects of this abuse was the use of spiritual inducements and threats by the clerics to whose care our parents entrusted us. They did not scruple to rationalize their mistreatment of children on the grounds that they were enacting God’s will, nor did they shrink from terrifying us with the prospect of eternal damnation to unspeakable agony if we did not submit to their control. No child should be subjected to such righteous terrorism.

That many of the nuns and priests with whom I came into contact were deeply disturbed people who sought refuge and legitimization in the clergy is now beyond question in my mind. Most of the nuns who taught me were self-loathing women whose hatred of their own gender, and terror of sexuality, had driven them to hide themselves in locked convents and beneath yards of black muslin. The priests, as I came to know them, were frustrated, lonely men, often suffering from severe sexual confusion, whose lack of faith and purpose in their lives deepened as they aged, driving them to such destructive behaviors as alcoholism and sexual perversion.

In saying this, I wish to point out that the sexual abuse scandals with which we have become familiar are only one aspect (albeit the worst) of a systematic attitude of abuse toward children which has characterized the Catholic Church in my experience. This is not to say that there are not many fine, well-intentioned and devout men and women serving the Church; but I wish to express here my firm conviction that sexual abuse among Catholic clergy is far more widespread than either we suspect or the Church will ever acknowledge.

If, for example, the Boston Archdiocese admits to 400 abusive priests, that is only because it knows of 400 more, suspects 400 beyond that, and remains unaware of another 400. I am thus prepared to state that, in my opinion, the sexual abuse problem within the Church is three or four times greater than that which has so far come to the fore. Indeed, I will say that sexual misconduct among priests is common, and not the rare exception, and that it is being covered up by men – bishops and cardinals – who are guilty of it themselves.

Guilt on the part of the hierarchy is only the first of three reasons which I perceive for the strident, almost hysterical, attempts by the Church to cover up the abuse scandal. The second is, of course, financial. Knowing the true extent of the abuse, Catholic leaders understand that the lawsuits provoked by it may well bankrupt the Church. In my own view, this would actually be a boon to Catholicism, which for centuries has sacrificed its spiritual birthright on the altar of wealth. An impoverished Catholic Church might be forced back on its spiritual roots, and rediscover the meaning which the religion has lost. It may, as a result of bankruptcy, become once again a mystical body ministering to the spiritual needs of its members, rather than a sprawling fiscal and worldly empire awash in its own hypocrisy and greed.

The third reason for the cover-up is much more subtle, and, to Church leaders, much more dangerous. The Roman Church, uniquely among Christian cults, claims for its priests the miraculous power to transform the bread and wine of the Mass into the physical body and blood of Christ. This miraculous ability, called transubstantiation, is the essence of the liturgy, and so, lies at the heart of the Church itself.

Now the Church finds itself in the untenable position of having to admit that those same consecrated hands of priests, which it claims perform the miracle of the Eucharist, are also capable of raping little children. Those blessed fingers, which daily bring God to Earth and hold his physical body, may have, just the night before, violated the body of a child. To prevent this idea reaching the public consciousness, the Church will, and has, gone to every length imaginable to suppress and minimize the clergy abuse scandal. For, just as the resultant lawsuits threaten to strip the Church of its wealth, an awareness of this contradiction threatens to strip it of its soul.

It is simply impossible for any right-thinking Catholic, no matter how fervent, to sustain in his mind the idea that the miraculous power of the Mass can co-exist with the commission of child rape. It is impossible to maintain faith in the Eucharist when its sacred miracle can be performed by a man who sexually molests children.

In short: No one can believe that a child rapist can possess miraculous spiritual power. Yet this is precisely what the Church maintains when it declares, as it does: Once a priest, always a priest. To which I respond: Once a child molester, always a child molester. The two cannot be the same person: he is either one or the other; either a priest possessed of miraculous power, or a monster of the worst sort imaginable. But to the Church, they are the same thing. And this, Church leaders cannot allow the public to contemplate.

This damning contradiction is the true threat which Church leaders perceive in the priest abuse scandals. Not even bankruptcy menaces so much as this, since money may be recovered in one way or another. But the spiritual core of the Church once lost, the entire edifice crumbles into dust. And so, the Church will transfer priests from parish to parish, spreading the infection of molestation to unsuspecting children in city after city, it will shield and conceal guilty monsters, it will refuse to admit their crimes, refuse to turn over their personnel records to the authorities, hide behind claims of protected status and statutes of limitations, and offer the most cynical and self-serving settlements to the victims, in hopes, above all, of covering up, not just the abuse, but the untenable theological contradiction exposed by the abuse.

This contradiction strikes at the very core of the Catholic faith, which must be lost forever in the hearts of Catholics who love and cherish the health and safety of innocent children more than they do that of their guilty Church.