Michael Coren is author of Epiphany: A Christian’s Change of Heart and Mind Over Same-Sex Marriage.
After two years of research, a grand jury report based on what is likely the most comprehensive investigation in U.S. history into Roman Catholic Church child abuse has been released. Internal documents from six Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania reveal that more than “300 predator priests have been credibly accused” of sexually abusing more than 1,000 children. One victim was a girl of 18 months, one underage girl was raped by a priest, who then arranged her abortion. A boy was made to stand naked in a crucifix position and the priest who photographed him then shared the images with other clergy on church property. One abuser, who left the church after numerous abuse complaints, was given a reference by the diocese to work at Disney World.
In one case, a priest groomed children by telling them that the Virgin Mary had to “bite off the cord” and ”lick” Jesus clean; another abused five young sisters from the same family and collected their urine, pubic hair and menstrual blood; one priest raped a girl who was in hospital after minor surgery.
The grand jury stated, “We believe that the real number of children whose records were lost or who were afraid ever to come forward is in the thousands. Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades. Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted. Until that changes, we think it is too early to close the book on the Catholic Church sex scandal.”
This comes after two weeks of international scandal involving the church and abuse. Former Australian archbishop Philip Wilson was convicted of concealing child sex abuse and given a one-year sentence, to be served at home because of ill health. He is the most senior Catholic cleric to be convicted. Then Britain’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse found that two of Britain’s most prestigious private Catholic schools “prioritized monks and their own reputations over the protection of children” when over several decades children as young as 7 were sexually abused.
Frankly, it will not be the last we discover of such horrors. The church has reacted of course, but always slowly, usually reluctantly and often incorrectly. It still treats offenders leniently, still covers up when it thinks it can and still refuses to address the major causes of abuse. One horribly regrettable response, for example, has been to try to link sexual abuse with homosexuality. It’s probably more difficult for a celibate gay man to enter a seminary under the allegedly progressive Pope Francis than it was under his more conservative predecessors. It’s not only an odious fallacy, but also a painful digression.
In fact, there are three genuine issues. First is enforced celibacy. Men denied sex do not become abusers, but abusers do look for places where they can disguise their crimes. There are a large number of gay priests – estimates are between 25 per cent and 50 per cent – and these men, some in relationships and some not, have to live a lie. Abusers exploit this culture of obfuscation to hide their crimes. A solution would be to ordain married men and to allow gay clergy to be open and honest.
Second is the extraordinary patriarchy that exists within the church. Women are not ordained, have very little influence and are excluded from decisions. While the presence of women doesn’t make abuse impossible, it certainly reduces the likelihood. The vast majority of abusers in any situation are men; women are more often survivors and have greater empathy and sensitivity to the issue, and they inject a gender balance that makes an abusive context more difficult to maintain.
Third is the rigid sense of authority that permeates the church, even under more liberal-minded pontiffs. This is still a clerical church, and until it is democratized, closed circles of secrecy will be formed whenever leadership is challenged.
The reality, however, is that the church will almost certainly continue to regard loving same-sex relationships as sinful, will never ordain women, and as Roman Catholicism is based on absolute central authority, will not genuinely empower the laity.
Abuse exists everywhere there is a power imbalance, and the church is not unique. But unless we admit that child sexual abuse within Roman Catholicism is due to systemic problems rather than human failing, the obscenity will not stop. Prayers simply aren’t enough.