Beyond Clerical Sexual Abuse


The problem of clerical sexual abuse has to be addressed: justice and compassion for the victims, pastoral guidelines to limit it as much as possible in the future, due process and compassion for the perpetrators, and so forth. But the Church, which is galvanized by the problem, should have the courage to look what lies beyond it.

There are two fundamental issues, one more interior and psychological, the other more exterior and community oriented. The first deals with clerical sexual abuse as a symptom of problems of psycho-sexual maturity among priests and religious which, in turn, is symptomatic of the institutional Church’s inability to deal with a whole series of interconnected issues in this area: birth control, and the critical question of world population, mandatory celibacy for priests, married priests, women priests and the role of women in the Church, homosexuality in the clergy and in religious life, etc., all the way to developing a genuine theology and spirituality of married life. These problems have a common root in the inability of the male-dominated institutional Church to be genuinely able to relate to women. This is a problem they share with men in general, as can be seen from the high rate of divorce, the incidence of domestic violence, and so forth. Clearly this is not a problem that will be simply solved by ordaining married men. Men, whether vowed to a life of celibacy or not, face one of the greatest challenges of their lives in relating to the women around them, and to their own feelings. In the institutional Church these basic male problems take on their own particular color. A resistance to the feminine, whether inside or out, is cloaked in religious language and the real issues are not dealt with. The Church cannot be objective about psycho-sexual issues and the problems they lead to because it cannot be objective about women and the feelings men have about them. It is not unreasonable to imagine that women, and married couples, know something about these issues, and could help the Church grow in these areas.

The other fundamental problem is that we have a clerical-dominated Church which is identified with the hierarchy rather than with the entire Christian community, especially the vast majority of Christians who are married people and their families. The old pyramid of pope, curia, bishops, priests, religious, and last and definitely least, lay people, breeds problems for everyone. Power is hoarded at the top, leaving most people feeling powerless. What is needed is a new kind of community that starts with each Christian who takes responsibility to grow in his or her Christian life as much as possible, and goes on from there to be centered on the Christian family and small communities.

What stands in the way of such a change? On the one side it is the old clerical institution, itself, which although it has made a mess of things, guards its supposed power jealously. On the other side it is the laity conditioned to a passivity that leaves them believing that they have to wait for Father’s permission before they exercise their own creativity in renewing the Christian community.

What should be done? The Church as a whole needs to come together and talk about these fundamental issues and other ones, as well. Each individual, each family, each circle of friends or small community, each parish or diocese should take the sorry spectacle of clerical sexual abuse as a wake-up call that they cannot leave the responsibility for the health of the Christian community in someone else’s hands.

You can find an additional discussion board devoted to this topic at

A Priest Responds

Thank you for your provocative thoughts on the sexual abuse problem in the Church. You make some good points and I'm inclined to agree with you.

Your premise that the Church is male-dominated is certainly true, although I suppose the hierarchy would deny that. The psycho-sexual development of priests is also very much of a problem, particularly with those who went to the seminary in high school or right out of high school. I also think the majority of priests lean toward homosexuality because of the male domination. Whether they are born homosexuals and are attracted to a male only milieu or if they actually turn toward homosexuality as they progress through the seminary and priesthood. I do not think there are many of these men acting out their homosexuality. However, there seems to be a lot involved in the present scandal. Whether these are homosexual or pedophiles depends on one's definition of what constitutes a pedophile.

Bishop Weigand of Sacramento was quoted in an article recently in the Sacramento Bee wherein he stated that pedophiles prey on kids under 12 and he said (which I'm sure is true) that most of the other abuse cases are older adolescents (however, he did not label them homosexuals.) I would be inclined to label them as such, however.

Could it be possible that a lack of sexual experience before they go to the seminary could be a cause of some of the "acting-out?" That is all part of their psycho-sexual immaturity perhaps.

Getting back to the women issue, I think you have hit on something important. I definitely relate better with men than I do women and I agree with your point about most married men have extreme difficulty relating with women. I've done enough marriage counseling to know that there are few marriages made in heaven. I do think the Church needs to grow in the male-female area too.

I can understand your suggestion that the Christian life should be centered on small communities and the family. This would be a terrible threat to the hierarchy, and probably something they would not even discuss since they are so power-centered. They would also ask how can the sacraments be administered in such a setting? That may not be important for some, but it would for others. Maybe some sort of a compromise could be reached.

Your suggestion that the Church should talk about these issues is a good one, but I know that it would meet with great resistance. Perhaps the present scandal would be the wake-up call it needs, but I can see our bishop rejecting the idea. So would many of the others.

It is good to read of your willingness to look for a new approach to clericalism, the hierarchical "lock" or whatever one chooses to call it. It is almost mind-boggling to visualize a church that could focus on something besides their own self-perpetuating power. The bishops consider themselves omnipotent; they answer to the pope, not the people. This needs to change! Maybe the sexual crisis will be the thing that will move this discussion off dead center. Do we dare envision a church that has to answer to the people? Or a democracy!

One can't help but think some of the Protestant churches were thinking this way at the time of the Reformation. They broke the clerical model.. Perhaps they went too far and the Catholic Church went too far the other way.

A Response from Philip St. Romain

There is a much larger social issue underlying the problems in the Catholic Church, but the way we've structured ourselves as Church frustrates our ability to deal with it, and, as you noted, actually attracts some pretty unhealthy people into that leadership layer of the institution.

For my opening remarks, I'd like to acknowledge that after working in the institutional Church for many years with several religious orders and in several dioceses, the reality is that most of the people involved in institutional leadership are very good people. It's a shame that they're all being tainted somehow by the current scandals, but that's part of the reality.

I'd also like to note that there's very little about the current scandals which have bearing on Catholic teaching concerning the Christian mysteries, the spiritual journey, etc. But there again, the current scandal has caused many to wonder whether the Church can be trusted in this matters. This part is just plain tragic!

Seeing Cardinal Law persist in his notion that the Boston Archdiocese is better served with him as leader than without makes my blood boil, especially considering how I was twice fired from jobs in the Church for the most petty of reasons when I was doing good work and receiving pay raises and excellent evaluations from my directors. And that's the primary problem in the Church, imho: we have essentially a two-tiered organization, with the leadership level having no accountability whatsoever to the people whom they're supposed to serve, and a deeply conditioned passivity among the laity concerning this matter.

There is no reason why things need be this way. In doing spiritual direction with several Protestant ministers, I've been most impressed at how their communities are involved in the processes of calling their ministers, evaluating them, and even sending them on their way when they need to do so. Prospective pastors interview several times with a call committee and even give a homily to the congregation to show their preaching ability (can you imagine priests being asked to do so?). In short, there is a discernment process in choosing one's leaders, and this includes the choice of elders and even bishops. Some might protest that this circumvents the prophetic possibility of a minister, but it doesn't at all. It only highlights the importance of prophetic ministers bringing their people along through education and dialogue instead of clobbering them with the word of justice from on high. We Catholics have much to learn from the Protestants concerning how to organize a process of leadership in the Church.

Another problem with the two-tiered system is that it doesn't really allow for any kind of evaluation of the sensus fidelium--the sense of the faithful concerning matters of faith and morals. The proper role of the magisterium (Bishops, Pope) is to clarify what the Church actually believes, not tell us what we should believe. What has passed for reviewing the sensus fidelium in recent times has little connection with the beliefs and experiences of lay people. One exception was the Birth Control Commission in the early 60's, which interviewed over 3,000 married couples concerning their experience in living out the Church's teaching on this matter. The hard-core traditional bishops and theologians on the Commission, who had been assigned to insure that the traditional teaching would be left intact, experienced a change of heart when they entered into this dialogue and voted 35-4 to allow for a change in the teaching. Pope Paul VI essentially went with the minority report, however, which noted that the perception of the Church's strong leadership would be weakened by changing the teaching. The two-tiered system was thus reinforced and has only gotten sicker since. No bishop is chosen who doesn't agree with Paul VI or JP II's re-frames on this teaching, and on other teachings which might in some way threaten the existence of the male, celibate priesthood.

What to do about this situation? I don't really know. The first step is always to call something by name, and I'm glad we can do our little piece here. We need to say that Catholicism is sick because of this two-tiered system, and we need to say why. Phil

The Editor

There are two basic and not contradictory approaches we can take to the issue of clerical pedophilia. In the first, we look at the incidents of pedophilia among the clergy, and compare it to that in other helping professions; we look at the advice psychologists were giving out and compare that with what the bishops were doing, and so forth, in order to see the specific problem in a wider societal context. This kind of approach is valid, but it should not be advanced solely as a policy of damage control and containment, and it can’t ignore the evidence that already exists that we may not be dealing simply with a problem of pedophilia, but ephebophilia, that is, an attraction to young adolescents, in this case, adolescent males, thus raising the possibility that what is going on here can be seen in terms of arrested and thwarted heterosexual development.

The second approach is the one I have taken above, and deals with the wider clerical culture in which the problem is embedded, and which may even be giving rise to this and other sex and gender issues. Then we need to look at the whole spectrum of these kinds of issues ranging from birth control to homosexuality among the clergy, to divorce and the American annulment phenomenon, and ask ourselves why the institutional Church seems to do so poorly confronting them.

Addressing these issues is not going to be easy. We are immediately going to confront the other fundament aspect of the problem, a male clerical dominated Church where kind, open and informed discussions of these issues is not the norm, and the exclusion of lay people is. The birth control fiasco is a well-documented example of what could have been a wonderful collaborative effort derailed.

What can be done? A first step could be to have in every parish a forum in which these issues could be talked about, a place where the lay people and clergy could meet for frank discussions about the problems that afflict their Church and what to do about them. If the clerical institution would have problems doing this, the Catholic laity would have its own issues: a long history of passivity that leaves them with the sense that they have to wait on the hierarchy before anything can be done, a lack of education about their own faith despite their expertize in many other fields, the possibility of them advancing ill-conceived theological ideas, -though this can happen among the clergy as well - and so forth. What I have in mind is a genuine council open to the whole parish that allows the insights, inspiration and creativity of the whole community to come forth. Who can say what talents lie buried in this community until they are given the opportunity to come out? What kind of topics could these forums address? Possibilities are: What is behind the crisis of clerical sexual abuse, and what can we learn from it? What are the best pastoral responses to the high failure rate of Catholic marriages, and what do we do about divorced Catholics who have remarried? Is it possible to find a way out of the impasse in the Church about birth control? And so forth.

These kinds of discussions would require a great deal of good will and self-control on everyone’s part, but perhaps they could be the beginning of a church-wide renewal that starts from the most fundamental units of the Christian community and percolates upward.

Now it is your turn to contribute to this discussion. Send us your questions and comments: