Australian survivors of clergy abuse hold placards outside Melbourne County Court on March 13 to hear the sentencing of Cardinal George Pell, who was found guilty of historical child sex crimes. (Photo by William West/AFP)
Half a century ago, the bishops’ conference of the United States commissioned an interdisciplinary study of the priesthood in that country. Key parts of it were led by two priests who at the time were celebrities in the Catholic community, Andrew Greeley the sociologist and Eugene Kennedy the psychologist. (Disclosure: as a seminarian I was office assistant to Kennedy in the early stages of the study.)
The results of their work, especially the psychological part, showed a large majority of American priests to be dissatisfied as well as emotionally underdeveloped and therefore unable to develop healthy relationships. Their training and insertion into the clerical culture, which in many cases started as young as age 13, froze them into a perpetual adolescence.
Instead of taking the studies to heart and working to improve the situation, as one would hope, the bishops, as one would expect, ignored the results of their own study. Greeley, noted for his pugnacity, responded, “Honesty compels me to say that I believe the present leadership in the Church to be morally, intellectually and religiously bankrupt.”
Now everyone realizes how right Greeley was, as abuse and cover-ups by bishops around the world become headlines. Behind those headlines is the situation of which the social scientists led by Greeley and Kennedy warned. And the entire Catholic Church is suffering because of bishops’ failure to act then.
It is well attested that sexual and other forms of abuse are really about the misuse or abuse of power rather than sex. For a believer, that should be no surprise. When the devil tempted Jesus with power, the tempter declared that power was his and his to distribute. And Jesus did not dispute that.
When immature boys, no matter their age, abuse power, they often become bullies. And bullies usually victimize weaker boys. That, and not homosexuality, is probably what underlies the striking frequency of the abuse of boys by clergy. Research has shown that sexual abuse by clergy is not caused by homosexuality. Nor, for that matter, celibacy. The schoolyard moves into the sacristy when emotionally immature men are in charge there.
It is worth noting that since changes in priestly formation instituted after Vatican II, the cases of sexual abuse by priests and bishops have lessened. Most cases of abuse and cover-up, whether against children or young adults such as seminarians, have been perpetrated by those trained before the council or in unreformed systems that have held on to “the good old days.” So, though the recommendations of the researchers in the 1960s were not instituted fully, even their partial implementation has made a difference.
However, not all immature clergy abuse boys or girls or even young men. The bigger number, only recently getting the notice that the abuse of children has overshadowed, is the abuse of women by priests and bishops. That is not limited to clergy, of course. The #MeToo movement and its offshoots are making us aware that the abuse of women is the more common form of abuse among all kinds of immature males.
And females. Little boys grow up and too often merely become big boys. Little girls seem better able to grow up and become women. But not all do. In the context of the Church, the fuse that will lead to the explosion based in novitiates, convents and schools, orphanages and other institutions run by sisters is smoldering. The abuse of girls, other women and boys by sisters is the powder keg.
The first thing we learn from all this is that the current crisis for the Catholic Church is not going to end any time soon. It has only just begun. There are more and bigger explosive exposures ahead.
It will take generations for the dust of those explosions to settle and for the Church to recover. Those who have compared the current situation to the Reformation 500 years ago from which we are still recovering are right.
What are we to do? Well, an increasing number of people have decided to walk away from the Church. That number will grow with each exposé, and who can blame them?
What of those who decide to stay? Our responses to the situation must be the same actions that we perform in the sacrament of Penance: contrition, confession and conversion.
Contrition begins with sympathetic and humble honesty shown toward victims of the Church leadership’s failure to protect them and even more in its inflicting immature predators upon them in the first place.
Confession consists in being proactive rather than reactive in rooting out the problem. Even now, the work of Church leaders is being performed by the media and legal systems. The more that happens, the worse things will be. This includes cooperating with civil requirements without being forced by threat of legal action or bad publicity.
Conversion will take the form of implementing significant changes in the shape of clerical and religious life and involving more lay people as well as clergy and professionals in the actual running of the Church.
Then, over the course of the generations through which healing may take place, we must pray for the courage and faith to follow the medicinal guidance of the Holy Spirit with the conviction that though the disease is critical, it need not be chronic.
William Grimm is a New York-born priest active in Tokyo. He has also served in Cambodia and Hong Kong and is the publisher of ucanews.com