|Joan Chittister: From Where I Stand|
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."
A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Joan Chittister is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer on topics of justice, peace, human rights, women's issues, and contemporary spirituality in the Church and in society. She presently serves as the co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the United Nations, facilitating a worldwide network of women peace builders, especially in the Middle East. A speech communications theorist, Sister Joan's most recent books include The Way We Were (Orbis) and Called to Question (Sheed & Ward), a First Place CPA 2005 award winner. She is founder and executive director of Benetvision, a resource and research center for contemporary spirituality in Erie.
* The Web link to Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, is provided as a service to our readers.
Four strikes and you're . . . missing the point
The church has endeavored more than once, however poorly, to solve the problem of sexual abuse of minors by priests. And now it's trying again.
But maybe a little history is in order.
First, in the era before pedophilia was even a word, let alone a syndrome, bishops moved pedophile priests away from what was then called "an occasion of sin" -- a single circumstance which, with prayer and penance, could be curbed.
Only later did it become public that bishops were doing it time after time. Worse, most simply failed to launch any kind of credible investigation. More ignored the victims entirely. The goal was simply to get the man out of town happen what may to the children and families involved, in the first parish -- or in the second.
We call that reprehensible now. And it is. But years ago, bishops say, they had other problems to consider, as well.
Moving a man was the best they could do, bishops figured, to save the priesthood and to save the church. Bishops were simply not free to deactivate a priest for any matter whatsoever, let alone expose him publicly in the hope of saving others from his crimes in the future. Priests, the church taught, had an "indelible mark on their soul." Clearly, "once a priest, always a priest."
Removing a priest from active ministry for any reason could take years of ecclesiastical court proceedings and, even then, the behavior in question would more likely be labeled "sin," not "crime."
In fact, when the problem, after years of public investigation, was finally unmasked, Rome still called it an "American problem" that had been grossly exaggerated, simply one more example of anti-Catholicism.
It is for those blatant violations of what had become civil law and for the cover-ups instigated by bishops to "save the church from scandal" that dioceses are now paying out hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation monies.
Point: Attempt number one failed.
Second, to avoid "grave scandal" -- to protect the image of the church -- the church often paid money to a victim's family to buy their silence in much the same way they had also, over time, paid to raise a priest's illegitimate children. This time, however, it wasn't consenting adults who were involved. Failed love affairs were not at issue here. This was about the molestation and victimization, the assault and exploitation, the stalking and seduction of powerless children.
During the same period, state welfare agencies and child protection lawyers lobbied the state for child protection laws and got them.
In 1974, when the legal system and civil society itself became conscious of the responsibility of the state to prosecute crimes against children, failing to report one become criminal. And even then only for some professionals, not all. Only recently, in at least 39 states, and as a result of the child abuse cases in the Catholic church, have clergy been added to the list of those required to report such cases.
Point: Attempt number two -- protecting the image of the church rather than protecting the people, the children, of the church -- failed. Badly. For everybody involved.
Third, bishops -- at great expense, they will tell us -- routinely sent priests away for psychological treatment to newly burgeoning sex abuse clinics, some of them organized specifically for clergymen and replete with spiritual formation programs.
This new endeavor was certainly sincere. But these emerging programs, after a series of standard psychological treatment protocols, on little longitudinal data and with undue professional certainty, far too often routinely pronounced such men "cured" and sent them back to ministry with far too little caution on the side of the center and far too little oversight on the side of the diocese.
Now, failing to report child abuse and moving priests from one place to another in order to resolve the problem had become a crime, a criminal cover-up that no amount of treatment could excuse. As the old adage teaches only too clearly, even in benign circumstances: "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me."
Point: Attempt number three failed, too.
So, now the church is trying again.
Attempt number four of a series of strategies designed to eliminate pedophilia from the priesthood now scapegoats homosexuals, declaring them as a class unfit matter for seminary education and, by implication, therefore, for ordination. (See Ban on gays subject to seminary practice, National Catholic Reporter Dec. 9, 2005.)
Despite all experience, information and scientific data to the contrary -- that homosexuality and pedophilia are not the same thing, that as many heterosexuals are pedophiles as are homosexuals, that pedophiles are attracted to children, not necessarily to a given sex, that not all the priest-pedophiles have been identified as homosexual -- the church is making homosexuality the problem rather than a person's psychosexual development or mental health or basic inability to remain celibate in a celibate state of life.
There is a caveat, of course: If a person who is "essentially disordered" is celibate for three years before applying to a seminary they may be considered.
Question: How will the seminary authorities know? And does the three-year ban also apply to heterosexuals? And if not, why not? And even if it does, how can they be sure that heterosexuals, too, are capable of being celibate, are not pedophiles? And how did celibacy get to be about homosexuality in the first place? I always thought it was about an unmarried priesthood and a chaste one under any circumstances? Are we now accusing homosexuals of unbridled lust when researchers tell us, 54 percent of all males think about sex at least once a day and male college students at least seven times a day?
But if that is the case, beware: This wholesale attack on the integrity of homosexuals, attempt number four, will fail, too.
Comments or questions about this column may be sent to: Sr. Joan Chittister, c/o NCR web coordinator. Put "Chittister" in the subject line. E-mails with attachments are automatically deleted.
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