The Pillar has a detailed story on the accusations of sexual misconduct against Fr. Frank Pavone in the years prior to his laicization, and it’s worth a read for reasons which require no opinion on whether the allegations are true or false.
[Update 2/8/23: There’s now a second report of a different woman’s allegations, with details once again relevant to what follows here.]
What you’ll find in the article is a detailed description of inappropriate boundary-violations that carefully skirted flagrant sexual activity, but are clearly not an appropriate level of intimacy between a priest and, well, anybody. Father does not need to comb your hair. Nope. Just doesn’t.
In terms of takeaways for preventing sexual abuse and sexual coercion, the narrative provides a look at how grooming the victim takes place. It happens one careful pushing of limits at a time, arranged with a level of plausible deniability should there be pushback.
Quite a while ago I laid out some scenarios that illustrate how normal things kids report from school or youth group differ from grooming and molestation:
One of the goals of a skilled sexual predator is to operate for as long as possible in the zone where it’s still possible to explain away the molestation.
If someone is intentionally engaging in this kind of molestation, it isn’t an accident.
And here is a really neat trick you can use to sidestep any predator’s efforts: Create a culture of maintaining the boundaries of modesty.
In “Whom does Modesty Serve?” I asserted that modesty is not for self-defense from predators, and I stand by that assertion:
Just because modesty has to do with sex, willful acts of impurity have to do with sex, and acts of sexual violence have to do with sex, does not make the three interchangeable. They are each distinct. Modesty is about the quest for purity; the other two are about actively seeking out some form of impure behavior.
However: The habit of behaving modestly, including carefully respecting boundaries of physical and emotional intimacy, makes it much more difficult for a predator to slip in his accidental little “I was just . . .” excuses for his grooming behavior.
Call it a side benefit.
There’s just no call for a priest to be visiting a female’s hotel room in the wee hours and unescorted, unless she’s literally dying and in that case (a) leave the door propped open, (b) call 911, and (c) hello she was not dying. Everyone with common sense knows this.
As it happens, the same common sense we use to avoid the real temptation to unchastity also, if we make that common sense a widely adopted norm, makes it harder for groomers to be like, “Oh yeah, I was just stopping by to say hi. In the middle of the night. When you were going to bed. In your hotel room. With nobody around.”
That side benefit of thwarting the predators only works, however, if there is a firmly established norm of avoiding such situations. The kinds of behaviors described in The Pillar’s article would sound massive sirens in a workplace where appropriate boundaries were habitually respected.
Modesty and Intimacy
Finally, I want to talk about the genuine need for intimacy that all humans experience. One of the unfortunate side effects of an earlier era’s prudish avoidance of the word “sex” is that the terms “intimacy” and “love” became code-words for sexual contact. It becomes very difficult to say, “Everyone needs intimacy,” without immediately causing all minds to fall into the gutter and assume we’re talking pedophilia and so forth.
But that isn’t true.
Emotional intimacy can happen between husband and wife, yes, but it is also to be found, without any sexual aspect at all, between close friends and (in a completely different way) between parent and child.
Modesty suggests that we avoid creating deep, emotionally intimate bonds with people we are potentially sexually attracted to but with whom we should not have a sexual relationship, as a service to ourselves in preventing temptation.
Likewise, non-sexual physical touch is a human need, and while the details vary from culture to culture, it is rightly experienced among close friends and relatives who have no sexual relationship whatsoever. (And of course between husband and wife as well, in addition to their properly-ordered sexual relationship.)
Modesty both suggests cultural standards of appropriate boundaries in physical contact and creates enough space that we can hope to avoid succumbing to our worst weaknesses.
In protecting the priesthood, as in protecting the sacredness of marriage, we don’t have to consign priests to a life of loneliness and desolation. But we do have to insist, as a Catholic culture, that priests practice the same self-denial that faithfully married and faithfully celibate lay Catholics also practice: We have to be selective about who we form intimate relationships with, including denying ourselves too much intimacy with people who are potentially sexually attractive to us.
If we were all perfectly holy, this self-denial would not be needed. We wouldn’t be showing up in the confessional resolving once again to avoid near occasions of sin. But we aren’t perfectly holy, so we create habits and practices to lead ourselves away from temptation.
Artwork: San Hugo en el refectorio, Francisco de Zurbarán, painting in the public domain, photo CC 4.0.