Meadville Tribune

May 27, 2012

Priest scandal, bishop scandal ... and Church reform

James Drane
Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — For Catholics who remained faithful throughout the pedophile priest scandal, this has been a dark and painful period. Every new revelation of abuse, every testimony by victims of a life ruined, is like another punch in the jaw or kick in the gut. The pain continues and we can expect an added shock. This time it will be a bishop scandal.

The awful things done by emotionally compromised pedophile priests raised all kinds of questions. Pedophilia, however, is a pathology not even well-understood in psychiatry. The word pedophile did not even appear in much of early 20th-century psychiatric literature. When it finally made it into the textbooks and dictionaries, it was called a paraphilia and listed with disorders like exhibitionism and voyeurism.

Freud recognized pedophilia as a sexual deviation. He thought that most male pedophiles were weak and impotent. He also emphasized what he thought was the seductive role of children. Little to no attention, however, was paid to the damage done to the children involved in this secretive and repetitive pathological behavior.

If understanding of pedophilic behavior was weak in psychiatry, imagine the level of understanding that existed in the church hierarchy. For bishops, the concept of sin alone was used to understand the acts of pedophile priests. For this reason, many bishops thought that confessing the sin, followed by a serious penance like a retreat, would solve the problem. After confession and penance, a pedophile priest would be considered forgiven and could then be returned to parish work. Like every sin which was confessed, a priest’s pedophile behavior had to be kept secret.

Because neither priests nor bishops had wives or children, they were ignorant of the lifelong injury of this sexual misconduct on children. They didn’t see its tragic consequences. Instances of pedophilia go back far in human history, but it was a case in Lafayette, La., in the 1980s that gave the problem of pedophile priests widespread media attention. The Vatican saw pedophilia as an American problem, and American bishops saw it as a sin that had to be kept secret. Consequently the problem grew.

By 2002, American bishops agreed to do certain things to control what by then had become a widespread public scandal. They adopted a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People — a list of things that they were going to do. They agreed to report accusations of child abuse to secular civil authorities and not keep everything within the church’s legal system. They also agreed not to readmit proven abusers to the ministry.

The norms adopted by the bishops have had a positive effect, but they don’t go far enough. They have improved the church’s handling of abusive priests, but they did nothing about the church’s handling of bishops who allowed pedophile priests to remain in the ministry and repeat their crimes. The bishops are partly responsible for what happened to many children. The new church norms handle the pedophile priest issue, but do nothing to handle the problem of enabling bishops. Bishops should be accountable to the people in their dioceses, but they know few of these people personally and their main concern and accountability is to the pope and the Vatican who appointed them and will promote them if they show proper loyalty.

Associated with the priest scandal there are bishop scandals. In the Kansas City and Philadelphia dioceses, bishops and a cardinal ignored the norms of their own charter. They acted more like secular CEOs under pressure from an investigation. The late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua and his bishops destroyed records. They responded to a civil investigation by lying and covering up their actions. This is another scandal which adds to the harm done by pedophile priests, and the harm done by the bishops’ disciplining of Catholic sisters and Girl Scouts. If all this were not enough, now bishops are suing the federal government for providing women with birth control. These behaviors of bishops are hurting all Catholics struggling to keep their faith in today’s secular world, and in the face of continuing church scandals.

Why do some bishops act like CEOs and powerful political figures? Because there is a culture that exists at the top of all institutions and organizations. In the church hierarchy there is an added culture influenced by a drip-down sense of infallibility. There is a canon law (church law) which applies to priests and bishops and says that if their acts or omissions cause injury to another, the actor has committed a crime. Canon Law 1389 is that church law, but the Vatican would have to be prosecutor of the crime. That won’t happen.

More likely to happen will be the prosecution, conviction and sentencing of some bishops in civil law for violations of state and federal legislation. The next shocking church news may come with the image of a bishop in prison garb instead of the usual vestments from Roman culture.

Catholics with the strength to stay faithful despite these scandals will be able to contribute to a needed church reformation. Five hundred years since the Protestant Reformation, a Catholic Reformation will force bishops to pay attention to ordinary members of the church. Ordinary Catholics will have a needed influence on the church’s political structure and have a role in exercising church authority. Under the influence of lay Catholics with real authority, the church will become less accusing and criticizing and more a public image of Jesus.

The greatest tragedy in this period of church history will be all those ordinary Catholics who ran away rather than take part in history.

Drane is Russell B. Roth professor of bioethics at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.