UCA News
Jesuit Father Myron J. Pereira, based in Mumbai, has spent more than five decades as an academic, journalist, editor and writer of fiction. He contributes regularly to UCA News on religious and socio-cultural topics.
Sexual abuse: sin, crime and sickness
So enmeshed is the Catholic Church in a culture of denial that no public discussion can even be contemplated on this issue
August 07, 2023 03:51 AM GMT

September 04, 2023 04:52 AM GMT

There are at least three ways in which Catholics look at wrongdoing, and each of these corresponds to the dominant attitude in society.

In this article, I will explore briefly these three different ways, and ask readers which way corresponds to their present mindset.

I will use the pedophile crisis as a common example.

To commit a sin

In traditional, medieval societies where religion is the determining factor, to do wrong is to break God’s law, to offend God, or more simply, to commit a sin.

Catholic moral theology of yesteryear went into contortions trying to define when sin was ‘mortal’, ‘venial,’ or just an occasional failing.

A mortal sin shattered the state of grace in one’s soul, kept one from validly receiving the sacraments, and could only be absolved by a priest in the sacrament of confession.

A penitent who died with an unforgiven mortal sin on his soul deserved eternal hellfire.

Generations of Catholics have been brought up thus, and even though they may live in a modern, secular world, their attitudes have been so thoroughly ‘sacramentalized’ — that is, they’ve been indoctrinated with piety based on repetition, anxiety and intercession — that the thought of an unforgiven mortal sin on their consciences is the cause of great unease and depression.

This is especially so with regard to sexual sin. Less so with regard to sins of theft or against justice.

To commit a crime

But as society grows more secularized, it is the public courts of law, and not the Church which decides on wrongful behavior, for wrongdoing is seen not so much as a sin against God, but as an offense against society — that is, as a crime.

The greater the crime, the more severe the sanctions, or punishment — capital punishment, often with torture, was at one end; simple imprisonment was at the other.

One major issue which has arisen in legal jurisprudence, however, is the culpability of the wrongdoer.

Is wrongdoing a sickness?

Ever since Freud, men and women have wondered about the validity of their ‘free choices.’ In this, the modern sciences have played their role, particularly sociology and psychology.

As the culpability (and so, moral responsibility) of the criminal is called into question, wrongdoing today is being seen more as an illness (of mind, of emotions, of temperament) than as a conscious and deliberate choice to do wrong.

The wrongdoer is therefore given rehabilitative treatment, and failing this, is sometimes sequestered for life.

 Let’s apply the above grid to cases of pedophilia among the Catholic clergy.

Cases of sexual exploitation

For a very long time in the Catholic Church, sexual offenses were primarily seen as offenses against God (for example, the breaking of one’s sacred vows, etc.) and so requiring contrition, confession and repentance.

They were not seen as offenses against young people, and as such, as crimes to be reported to and acted upon by a secular authority (the police, for example). In this, the whole social dimension was absent. One reason why the Church has been so neglectful of the victims.

In fact, it was considered below one’s dignity for a “consecrated person” such as a priest, to submit himself to the police, or to the laws of the state. A priest was “above” all that.

This is why so many pedophile priests used to make several rounds of confession to various priest confessors in rotation, all the while protected by the seal of anonymity. Not only did they not recognize their wrongdoing as a crime, but only as a sin against God — many didn’t even see it as a sickness that required professional help.

So enmeshed is the Catholic Church in a culture of denial where sex is concerned, that no public discussion can even be contemplated on this issue. It is simply forbidden by the church government.

After all, open discussion on sexuality and celibacy would utterly destroy the image of ‘angelic purity’ and the ‘consecrated life’ that generations of churchmen and women have created for themselves, a veritable “structure of deceit” in the words of church historian Garry Wills.

What we’ve written about pedophilia among the clergy will also apply, conditions being present, to the sexual exploitation of women — young women, married women, religious sisters — by the clergy in the Church.

We are slowly recovering from the tragic cases of Jean Vanier, Franco Mulackal and Marko Rupnik — all men who wielded great spiritual power and political influence, which they are accused of misusing in their dealings with women.

This is a vast subterranean cesspool that has never been acknowledged by the church government, much less handled with transparency, competence and justice.

Will the recent upsurge of public opinion in favor of the sexual protection of women impinge upon the mindsets of Catholics too?  It remains to be seen.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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6 Comments on this Story
Firstly congratulations to the writer for at least raising the issue and placing it in perspective. He has placed three scenarios before us seeking answers, though not profferring any of his own. Let me attempt to do so. 1. SIN. Of course it is a sinful act because it causes pain and harm to another. I also agree with the writer about how the spectre of he'll has consolidated the sceptre (crozier) of the Church. 2. CRIME. Of course it is a crime and incurs not just punishment but also retributive justice. 3.PSYCHOLOGICAL STATE. This is the tricky one. Christianity believes strongly in Free Will. As you sow so shall you reap. Yes there could be instances of social or psychological conditioning that could incline one to sin and crime. But that is neither a justification nor an excuse.If one consumes stimulants or watches porn and then commits a sexual crime he cannot claim "temporary insanity ". It is a pre meditated act.i could write reams on this, but let this much suffice.
what is sin: sin is something that one does that harms others or oneself. gambling: according to the church is not considered a sin. why? because the church institutions own clubs that are gambling dens which reap the ill gotten gains from addicts. so is gambling a sin? yes it is a sin if one is an addict and causes harm to ones family/robs his boss of monies/harms his own physical-mental-emotional health! sex: is sex a sin? NO! unless one is an addict or it leads to rape/paedophilia. the church has a PROBLEM WITH ANYTHING TO DO WITH SEX! somehow it assumes that it knows best (though priests are expected to be eunuchs), good enough to lecture unmarried couple and married couples what is best for them, according to GOD'S PLAN!! even the prayers the faithful catholics recite....virgin mary, st joseph...her most chaste spouse, are meant to equate sex with sin. paedohilia: in the church is a PROBLEM, where sick men took shelter to hide their inclinations from their families and then took advantage of their positons of power/prestige to inflict pain/sufferings on INNOCENT children. the supervisors in-charge of these paedophiles were either paedophiles themselves or sought to cover the incidences by getting the paedophile priests transferred, resulting in more children getting raped. it was all an IN-HOUSE DECISION/SOLUTION, WITH NO CONSEQUENCES. women who were raped by priests (sexually frustrated) were made to be blamed as adulteresses/prostitutes. the so called 'poor priests fell for their guile and sinned'. no consequences for the priests except to get him transferred. what about the children fathered by priests? the CHURCH DOES NOT WANT TO KNOW OR ADMIT THAT ITS MINISTERS ARE GUILTY! SO WHAT SORT OF CATHOLIC GOVT (VATICAN) DOES THE CHURCH THINK IT CAN FOOL? WHERE THEIR MINISTERS' ACTIONS ARE NOT A RESPONISIBLITY OF THE CATHOLIC GOVT? SHAME!
There are undoubtedly many things wrong in the functioning of the Catholic Church, but this is the first time that I have found it being accused of running gambling dens! Has John Mascarenhas got any evidence of the same, at least in India?
Mascarenhas also indicates that the Church is soft on clerical sexual abuse. That is a common perception that is contrary to church teaching. For example on 24.10.2019 Cardinal Beniamino Stella, Prefect of the Congregatio Pro Clericis, wrote to then Abp (now Cardinal) Filipe Neri Ferrao, President of the CCBI that "when a priest has minor children whom he has fathered it is an automatic reason for dispensation ... as he must fulfill his natural obligations as a father towards his child. It is not enough to give money to financially support the child". I have quoted this letter in the Bp William of Mysore case.
Further, on 7.5.2019 Pope Francis issued the Apostolic letter "Vos Estis Lux Mundi' regarding offences against the sixth commandment by clerics and religious, including acts against "vulnerable persons" or under the influence of stimulants. Again on 1.6.2021 Pope Francis issued "Pascite gregem Dei" on reforms in Canon Law for stricter penal sanctions including against various sexual offences by clerics. Nevertheless there is a huge dichotomy between orthodoxy and orthopraxis. The struggle for justice and truth must continue.
Mascarenhas also claims that the Church doesn't consider gambling a sin, so let me quote from the official Catechism of the Catholic Church: Games of chance and wagers become morally unacceptable when they deprive someone of what is necessary to provide for his needs and those of others. The passion for gambling risks becoming an enslavement. Unfair wagers and cheating at games constitute grave matter (CCC 2413).
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia
UCA News Catholic Dioceses in Asia