Why Changes in Reporting Won’t Fix the Catholic Church’s Sexual Abuse Problem

It’s long past time to move the needle on outrage over the heinous crimes committed and covered up by Catholic clergy. Haven’t we asked enough victims to publicly recount their experiences of terror and humiliation at the hands of Catholic priests? Haven’t we heard enough of the salacious details of religiously inspired rape, sodomy, and sadomasochism? Haven’t we spent enough time hearing the canned responses of Catholic spokespeople, full of empty platitudes and repeated requests that we “pray for the priests,” as Msgr. Robert Ritchie, rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, did just a Sunday ago?

We know what has to be done and so do they. Yet, since 1992, when, as a Ms. contributor, I witnessed the Brooklyn diocese transfer back to his home parish in the Philippines a priest I had just interviewed—one among six priests who had taken a teenage girl to an LA hotel room they had rented by the hour—we’ve seen three popes fail miserably and disgracefully to fully come to terms with this crisis. Pope Francis issued his three-page mea culpa nearly a week after the release of a scathing Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on 300 priest in 6 dioceses (including my own, in Scranton) who had abused at least 1,000 children. Full of biblical exhortations, it called for a “communal conversion,” but it placed responsibility for the sins of the father on all Catholics, inviting “the entire holy faithful People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting.”  

At the same time, Pope Francis committed to none of the concrete recommendations that have been made over the decades. We have no commitment from church leaders to fight to extend statutes of limitations on child sex abuse instead of lobbying against them; to end the muzzling of survivors with non-disclosure agreements; to demand the resignations of any bishops who covered up these crimes; to invite parishioners to help select their bishops; to remove all known and suspected child sexual abusers from the priesthood; to open archives on clergy sex abuse without court fights; to establish mandatory reporting to authorities outside the Church; and to willingly provide justice, healing, and compensation to victims.

Abuse is the consequence not cause of criminality

All of that will help. But the sad fact is that it will not be enough. That’s because the Catholic clergy’s sexual crimes against children, as well as sexual exploitation of vulnerable adults—in and out of the seminary, men and women, homosexual and heterosexual, leading to abortions and scores of fatherless children—are a consequence, not a cause, of the church’s criminality.

The proximate cause of that criminality is the persistence of an elite, closed, all-male system, a secret society of sorts, that condones, indeed, demands, lying about the reality of one’s sexual life at all costs. The church requires this complicity in the interest of maintaining the public fiction of a celibate priesthood made up of male models of spiritual integrity, entitled by their extraordinary virtue to absolute power.

The abuse of that power begins in Rome, filters down to diocesan offices, leaks into rectories and priests’ residences, and too often ends in priests’ bedrooms, backseats, and beach houses; in parishioners’ living rooms, children’s bedrooms and even children’s hospital wards, with the sexual molestation of the most faithful Catholics. The ultimate irony is that once those Catholics grow up, their own healthy and responsible sexuality will be ruthlessly judged by these very same abusive church leaders.

If celibacy remains mandatory, foundational to clerical power—if the church continues to forbid priests to be sexual in mature ways that include commitment, responsibility, and respect—then secrecy over lapses in celibacy will remain mandatory, as will the cover-ups.

Those who act out sexually will continue to do so within a rigid power structure that has its own self-serving rules and consequences; a power structure that’s been allowed to operate outside the laws of civil society worldwide. The church’s powerbrokers step into the civil arena only when seeking to use their power to influence laws for their own benefit, as with their relentless advocacy for restricting statutes of limitations on child sex abuse, and their opposition to women’s access to reproductive health care.

Until this church comes to terms with its deeply misogynistic intermingling of ancient attitudes towards sex and patriarchal power, and embraces healthy expressions of sexuality among an inclusive clergy and the faithful, little will change. The men who run the church are, after all, just men. To imagine that they will somehow, in the years ahead, all abide by mandatory celibacy and be pillars of sexual “purity” is unrealistic and dangerous.

We have seen what the fallout has been for children and vulnerable adults, for all who became victims of clerical power run amok, of clerical sexual violence, sexual deviance, or of a mangled human need for physical connection.

The hierarchy is made of men, and those men are not gods

I saw that unmet need up close and personal at St. Ann’s, the church of my childhood. One weekend, when I was a young woman just moved to New York, I returned to Scranton to visit my mother. I felt sad and guilty about my estrangement from the Church, born of the pain of my sexual humiliation as a young girl at the hands of a powerful confessor, our pastor, who denounced me as a “slut” and a “tramp.”

But on that day, I had a tremendous longing to receive the Eucharist. I knew that, in order to do that, I would have to go to confession. With great trepidation, I headed for the monastery rectory one gray autumn morning where I was then ushered into the confessional. When the screen slid open, in came the priest with alcohol on his breath. Still, I began my confession. Almost immediately, the priest interrupted me: “How old are you?” he asked. I said I was 24. Then he asked “Are you single or married?” Upon learning that I was single he said “Come with me into my parlor to complete your confession.”

I was stunned. But like a good Catholic girl, I followed him. He pointed me to the couch. I sat. He lowered himself beside me, sitting way to close, and draped his arm around my shoulders. He leaned into me as he spoke, slurring his words, and pleading for my address in Manhattan—which I felt I had no choice but to give him. Then he urged me to confess, which I tried to do in such an obscene circumstance. I stammered. He muttered an absolution before I managed to wriggle myself out from under his dangling arm, stood and left. 

I will never forget how I felt when I opened that rectory door to the bright sunshine. While the experience shocked me, it was also life-changing.I learned that day that the hierarchy is made of men, and that those men are not gods.

Looking back, I see something else. While that priest’s behavior was exploitative—and another young woman, perhaps even younger, might have been far more compromised than I was—today I can see the loneliness in that man. This is not to excuse any of the heinous crimes committed by Catholic clergy. Of course not. But it is to say that this Church must finally come to terms with the perversion in its very structure.

All those who lead the work of Christ must be healthy, whole, and allowed to thrive as human as well as spiritual beings. They must be women, men, gay, straight, trans, young, old. They must reflect the reformers’ vision of “the priesthood of all believers.” To Pope Francis, I say:  This is the communal work that must be done. This is the place to begin.