By James Drane
Not since the period of The Reformation (16th century) has the Vatican been publicly scolded by a secular institution for immorality. Allowing priests who abused children to continue to function in the ministry was the reason given by an office inside the United Nations for a public scolding. This was obviously immoral and following the accusation of immorality came an order for the Vatican to remove all priests who are even suspected of abuse. Then came the U.N. office’s criticism of church teachings on homosexuality, abortion and contraception.
The U.N. committee ordered the Vatican to open its files on church authorities who had concealed these crimes so they can also be held accountable to secular legal authorities. The fact that the Vatican had not made all these crimes public was the committee’s reason for a public scolding. Added to this, the U.N. committee lambasted “the practice of offenders mobility”; i.e. the transfer of priest child abusers from parish to parish and country to country. There was, however, no mention of this crime in schools, homes and other institutions. The fact that lay review boards have been set up in most U.S. dioceses to handle sex abuse cases was also not mentioned.
This unusual public scolding of the Vatican followed a meeting in Geneva of Vatican officials and U.N. committee members. At that meeting there was not a satisfactory response to the U.N. committee’s demands to make public all the scandalous data on clergy abuse. The Vatican did not have a response to the public scolding, except to say that it would examine the U.N. report.
A background explanation of all that is going on is needed. This would have to start with some explanation of the meaning of scandal, and the important place that avoiding scandal has had in the long history of the Catholic church. The English word scandal comes from a similar Greek word which means an objective act which offends and shocks. Scandal in English also means a subjective reaction to something shameful that is made public. Church moral teachings for centuries understood scandal as an immorality that had to be avoided at all costs, especially by church leaders. The scriptural source of this moral teaching is in the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 17, Verses 1 and 2, “Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Scandals will inevitably arise, but woe to him through whom they come. He would be better off thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck than giving scandal to one of these little ones.’”
In every institution, community and church, there is an inner culture, a way of thinking and acting. In the inner culture of the Catholic church, there is a culture of scandal avoidance. There is nothing worse than scandal. No moral obligation is stronger than the obligation to avoid scandal. Immoral behavior with children is a serious sin, but making public the sin would cause scandal, and they thought, incite others to sin and make things even worse. The behavior of Catholic church authorities cannot be understood without taking into consideration this strong sense of the need to avoid scandal.
The woman who did the U.N. scolding of the Vatican was focused on the terrible harm done to a child by sexual abuse. The church authorities whom she was scolding did not understand this terribly harmful behavior. They saw it only as a sin and they were trying to avoid what they thought was even worse harm. They sent the offenders for retreats and to do penance, thinking that this would solve the problem. Church authorities who did this should admit their errors and their ignorance of contemporary psychiatric pathology.
Church authorities, however, were not the only ones who did not understand the psychiatric pathology of child sexual abuse. Sigmund Freud recognized it as an expression of psychological immaturity, but he didn’t give the topic much more attention. Later, it was given the name pedophilia, but the term did not appear even in many 19th and 20th century psychiatric textbooks. When finally it did appear, it was listed as a paraphilia, i.e. a preference for unusual sexual practices. It was listed alongside two other paraphilia; exhibitionism (flashing) and voyeurism (peeking). As anyone can see, pedophilia was not well understood even in the psychiatric world for most of medical history.
Bishops could have learned that besides being sinners, priest abusers were suffering from a psychiatric pathology. Consensual sexual acts with a mature woman for such people would not even be imaginable. Church authorities finally have learned about this psychiatric pathology and are paying for their mistakes.
Today, there are policies in place to turn pedophile priests over to legal authorities and to expel them from the priesthood. For the head of the U.N. committee, however, learning and changing is not enough. She seems to want to take over church teachings on moral issues as well as church administration.
Maybe Pope Francis will have to do some time in jail to make up for the errors committed in the past by others. Until then, the Vatican is in for scolding that is not likely to stop.
James Drane, Ph.D., is the Russell Roth Professor of Bioethics at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.