A Damaged Church in Need of Repairby Fr. William J. Byron, S.J.
Sin, sickness, and crime are part of the clergy sex-abuse scandals rocking the Catholic world. So are secrecy, arrogance, hypocrisy, and the violation of trust. Innocent victims have suffered spiritual and psychological damage. We have a damaged church in need of repair; much of the damage was done decades ago.
Restitution, in the sense of making injured persons “whole,” is an obligation to be met by church officials who are wise enough to reject false accusations and humble enough to admit past mistakes. Reparation, in the sense of doing penance for sin, is a duty to be met by all of us. With regard to both restitution and reparation, it must be said that although only some are guilty, all are responsible. We are all in this together.
Sin calls for contrition, penance, and a firm purpose of amendment. Sickness, in the form of pedophilia and other sexual disorders, requires treatment. Crime calls for detection, conviction, and just punishment.
We have to be willing to forgive the sinner, compassionate enough to treat the ill and wise enough to know that the sexual disorder known as pedophilia is an illness that bars the pedophile forever from all unsupervised contact with children. They cannot be cured of that disorder; they must, however, do everything possible to control it. Clear criminal behavior has to be reported to civic authorities as soon as it becomes known. Prison and public disgrace are part of the price that will, in most cases, have to be paid.
A concerned Catholic mother asked me recently whether three is a connection between pedophilia and homosexuality. There is none. There are hetero- and homosexual, married and unmarried, pedophiles; their victims are pre-pubescent males and females. Most of the cases of clergy sexual misconduct relate to inappropriate sexual contact with adults, male or female, although many notorious cases involve predatory homosexual activity with post-pubescent boys and young men. Every case is shameful and regrettable, and patently unjust.
The church is most alive in its parishes. The parishes live on the trust they place in their priests. Violations of that trust have put the church in critical condition. The thousands of good and completely trustworthy priests now at work in parishes can bring us out of this crisis. The church chooses her priests from men called to celibacy. Celibacy is not the cause of the present crisis. Recommitment to celibacy will be part of the solution.
If “for God, all things are posssible” (Mt. 19:26), there may someday be alternatives to an all-celibate, all-male Catholic priesthood. But we have a crisis on our hands right now. This raises for all of us the question of prayer and fasting. It also points to the need for much more careful screening of the men applying to seminaries and presenting themselves for ordination. Their sexual histories must be known; their commitment to celibacy must be unequivocal.
Respected Catholics are urging other Catholics to protest by not contributing to diocesan collections. I think this is unwise. Refusing to contribute means not making your personal protest known. Those who want to protest should designate their gifts to move through the diocese to a nearby Carmelite or Trappist monastery from where prayer and fasting energize the whole church. Or designate the contribution for the poor as a means of registering a protest against secrecy or perceived mismanagement on the part of diocesan authorities. Yes, donors will have to trust that their designation will be honored, but they will not have withheld support from a wounded community in need of their prayers, fasting, and financial assistance.