by Mary Rice Hasson
Modern popes describe the Church as an “expert in humanity.” So why has this “expert in humanity” so often failed to grasp the human failings at the heart of the clergy sexual abuse crisis? It’s not because the Church has failed to “initiate processes,” as Pope Francis says, or to define and share “best practices,” as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has done. (Crux describes the Commission’s “signature success” as its work helping bishops’ conferences around the world adopt best practices.) And Pope Francis kicked off this week’s Vatican meeting on clerical sexual abuse in a global perspective with “21 points” full of concrete proposals.
The abuse crisis remains an open, bleeding wound in the side of the Church because the Church’s leadership continues to misdiagnose the problem. Restoring the hierarchy’s credibility—and the Church’s moral authority—starts with a reality check: the Church has a sexual abuse crisis, not (for example) an embezzlement crisis or a clericalism crisis or a management crisis. This is a crisis of faith, fidelity, and sexual integrity. It can’t be fixed with narrowly tailored prescriptions for better governance and procedures.
Misdiagnoses can be deadly. Surgeons are masterful at stitching up wounds—but the bleeding won’t stop, and the patient will die, if the correct cause of the bleeding is not diagnosed first. Writing in La Civiltà Cattolica a few days before the start of the Vatican meeting he is chairing, Fr. Federico Lombardi, SJ, made a similar point, saying that the meeting’s success—and the restoration of the Church’s credibility —requires “the discernment of the roots of evil in order to effectively combat and extirpate these roots.”
But is the Vatican on the right track? In a December 2018 piece for La Civiltà Cattholica, Lombardi chronicles the “recent history of the issue of sexual abuse in the Church, the different phases it has been through, and the ways the recent popes have responded.” He traces the history in the U.S., including the McCarrick case, the efforts to revise canonical norms (especially under Pope Benedict XVI), the work of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the tangible results from new Vatican offices created to educate and assist countries in developing and implementing new guidelines, and new juridical and pastoral documents issued by Pope Francis, addressing bishops’ transgressions and the global nature of the crisis.
According to Lombardi, Pope Francis envisions the Church taking a more expansive, global role in the protection of minors, “well beyond the ‘internal’ questions of its institutions, to stretch beyond confessional barriers to the widest horizons, to promote protection in the world of today with all its problems…” (Quite a goal for a Church that has yet to get its own house in order.)
Considered objectively, these efforts are good and necessary. But the bird’s eye view reveals a Church in reactive mode, responding incrementally, still unwilling to see the problem for what it is. This is the direct result of defining the problem by a category of victims instead of “the roots of the evil.”
The inadequacy of the focus on minors
Like a laser beam focused on a single tumor, the Vatican has stubbornly insisted that clergy sexual abuse of minors is a stand-alone problem, and it has been the only topic under discussion at this week’s abuse summit. But metastatic cancer has never been cured by targeting just one tumor. This arbitrary line-drawing relegates everything but the abuse of minors to the perimeter—the sexual abuse of seminarians, vulnerable adults (with impaired reason), religious sisters, and adult women, as well as the problem of clergy “consensual” sexual activity with adults—as if the evil at work could be counted on to respect the Vatican’s neat and tidy categories.
Those involved in planning the February summit claimed that getting the abuse-of-minors problem fixed would have spillover effects in addressing other forms of sexual abuse and misconduct. That remains to be seen (as the abuse-of-minors scandal remains to be fully addressed). But it’s worth asking if the Church’s “minors only” approach has been unduly influenced by the views of outside experts on child abuse. For within the secular professions the bright line that separates a minor from an adult imposes its own secular pseudo-morality: on the minor’s side of the age divide, sex with adults is abuse; on the adult side of the line, sex with any adult (male or female), of any kind (no matter how kinky) is “morally” neutral, assuming it is consensual.
This blinkered view—conceptualising the problem by the identity of the victim—prevents the Vatican from identifying the roots of the problem and the best remedies for resolving it.
One glaring exemplar of the Vatican’s wrong-headed approach is Theodore McCarrick. In 2017, the allegation that McCarrick had abused a minor finally triggered the right alarm bells at the Vatican. Because the identity of the victim—a minor —finally fell within the Vatican’s carefully circumscribed boundaries, it was time for resolute action. But McCarrick was suspected to be a bad actor for years before allegations surfaced that he had abused a minor. Not for him the bright line between “minors” and those victims on the perimeter. (I’m willing to bet that his behavior was not unique, in that respect, among abusers. After all, these men by definition don’t abide by others’ boundaries very well.)
The widely-circulated rumours of McCarrick’s homosexual harassment and abuse of seminarians should have triggered a thorough investigation and a resolute response from the Vatican. Why didn’t they? Were seminarians the wrong victim class? Did a priest sexually pursuing other adult males merit a special carve-out, an exception, in spite of the Church’s teaching on homosexual behavior—and McCarrick’s vow of celibacy? Didn’t anyone in the hierarchy worry that McCarrick’s sexual habits with adults would undermine his priestly and episcopal missions? These questions are likely to go unanswered. And the hierarchy’s influential friends remain on message that the abuse crisis is mainly a problem of minors. Thus when news broke that McCarrick had been laicized, Fr. James Martin, SJ, was immediately on script, tweeting about McCarrick’s abuse of minors—and ignoring his abuse of seminarians.
Sexual integrity and fidelity
If Church leaders fail to acknowledge that the roots of this crisis—failures of faith, fidelity, and sexual integrity—are common to all forms of sexual abuse and misconduct, then this crisis is nowhere near over. The sexual abuse of minors is truly evil. When children are abused, our hearts rightly cry out for justice because of the horror of it all. But the toxic climate of sexual self-indulgence, secrecy, and lack of integrity that enables the sexual victimization of little boys and girls also enables the sexual victimization of teenagers (predominately male), seminarians, religious sisters, and adult women. It fuels the sexual exploitation of “consensual” partners as well.
Applying the secular language of “consenting adults” to clergy sexual activity with adults is, we should note, another import from secular scripts—and it has no place in a discussion of Catholic morality. Those who are reluctant to condemn clergy “consensual” sexual activity ignore the truth that all non-marital sexual activity involves using another person for personal gratification. It is inherently exploitative. (One has to wonder whether bishops who seem to shrug at clergy sexual activity with adults, distinguishing it as “consensual” sexual activity, implicitly accept the secular standard of “consent” as the only appropriate criteria for judging the morality of sexual activity between adults.)
A clerical culture that winks at—and covers for—clergy sexual activity with adults creates a culture where sexual secrets are the norm and there is room for sexual vice of all sorts. It becomes a culture of infidelity, corrosive of personal integrity. Pastors or bishops who turn a blind eye to priests habitually viewing pornography, using “gay hookup” apps on their smart phones, or sexually harassing younger priests or seminarians practice a false mercy: Sins that go unnamed often vanish—in the mind of the sinner at least. A sinner who has grown comfortable in serious sexual sin will minimize, rename, or even valorize his sin in order to keep it—that’s true of all of us. But when a priest or bishop resolves the conflict between his sins and the Church’s teachings by fashioning his own alternative morality, his pastoral ministry also suffers, further harming the Body of Christ.
So how can the Church begin to restore its credibility? Members of the hierarchy must lead by example, recommitting themselves to sexual integrity, fidelity to the Church’s teachings, and humble service to the Church. If our bishops lack the will to live out the Church’s teachings on sexuality in their own lives, to preach the Church’s vision of integral sexuality and the moral norms that flow from it, and to demand integrity and accountability from their priests and brother bishops, then all the “best practices” in the world will not fix what ails us.
Mary Rice Hasson, who holds the J.D. from the University of Notre Dame, is the director of the Catholic Women’s Forum at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she is also the Kate O’Beirne Fellow in Catholic Studies. She and her husband Seamus, founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, have seven children.