Looking at the Scandals– A Church Historian’s Perspective

Looking at the Scandals– A Church Historian’s Perspective February 18, 2019

St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582), one of the great Church reformers.

This past Friday, my home diocese of Brooklyn released the names of 108 men accused of sexual abuse through the years. Two were stationed in my home parish, at the same time, when I was young. One was eventually sent to Canada, for health reasons, we were told. The other was simply reassigned. Both were laicized, and one has passed away. Personally, I’ve been struggling with my feelings on this. I have a great love both for my diocese and the Brooklyn presbyterate, but you can’t defend the indefensible.  

Let me make it clear– this is not a problem confined to Brooklyn, but applies to every diocese in the country. Nor is it a problem confined to one faith tradition. It’s also true of schools and secular institutions dedicated to the care of the young. It’s not just a Catholic problem– it’s a human problem. But as Catholics, the sex abuse crisis has affected us deeply, and we need to talk about that.

Victims live with shame. Although I wasn’t subject to clerical abuse, at thirteen I was molested by a neighbor I trusted. It only happened once, but once was enough to generate shame, self-doubt, anger, fear, and resentment. In 1981, you still couldn’t talk openly about this. You just carried it around inside and hoped nobody found out. So I do have some idea of what victims of priestly abuse have experienced. Thank God I talked to a high school counselor who helped me see it wasn’t my fault, and that nothing was “wrong” with me. 

From the 1930’s through the early 1960’s, many large dioceses ordained 30-35 men a year on average. The overwhelming majority turned out to be good, loving men, on call 24/7 for the people they served. But the fact is some men should never have been ordained. Some acted out their sexuality in a way harmful to others, especially the young. They relied on the fact that nobody would believe a priest could do something so vile.

Not to make excuses, but you have to keep two things in mind. First, for earlier generations,  Catholic and non-Catholic, sex itself was just a taboo subject. You didn’t talk about it under any circumstances. Second, the priest was a revered figure.  The idea of a priest sexually abusing youth was disgusting, unthinkable, and unmentionable. It was almost impolite. Some even considered it a lie made up by anti-Catholics to discredit the Church.

The John Jay Report mainly looked at the period from 1966 to 1984, but any historian will tell you that this problem wasn’t a product of the sixties. Instances of sexual abuse appear throughout Church history. They go as far back as the Bible; think of the Old Testament story of Susanna and the elders. Sexual scandals also played an undeniable part in bringing about the Reformation. Historian Eamon Duffy writes:

The Renaissance papacy evokes images of a Hollywood spectacular, all decadence and drag. Contemporaries viewed Renaissance Rome as we now view Nixon’s Washington, a city of expense-account whores and political graft, where everything and everyone had a price, where nothing and nobody could be trusted. The popes themselves seemed to set the tone.

What saved the Church? People working to reform it from within. Despite scandal and schism, the century following the Reformation saw some of history’s greatest saints: Ignatius Loyola, Teresa of Avila, Francis De Sales, and Vincent De Paul, to name just a few. Blessed (soon to be Saint) John Henry Newman considered this “one of the great arguments for Christianity.” Father James Kent Stone, a nineteenth century American priest, once wrote: “Yes, there have been scandals… if we look for them. But there have been saints and martyrs… of whom the world knows nothing. And there are saints still.”

Nobody in their right mind, thank God, believes any more that scandals are a tool used to discredit the Church. And thank God we have more information today on the nature of abuse and abusers, so we can take positive action to ensure such things never happen again. And let’s hope that church leaders of all faiths have learned from all this to be more accountable for their actions, both public and private.

I thank God for the great priests I’ve known— and that’s the majority. As my friend Gene McKenna used to say, “I think most Catholic priests are what they say they are.” But priests, deacons and religious can’t do it alone. Maybe the scandals are a wake-up call to the laity to more fully live out their vocation in particular, of becoming saints, repairing a broken Church, and building up the Kingdom of God on earth. Together we can all make a difference. If reform in the Church is to happen, it has come from the People of God, and that means everybody. 

(The drawing of St. Teresa of Avila is by Pat McNamara.) 

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