How ought we respond to
sexual abuse in the Church?

How ought we respond to sexual abuse in the Church?

January’s edition of Quadrant has an interesting article by a lapsed Catholic about the clerical abuse scandal: ‘Father Scapegoat,’ by Joe Dolce.

(That link will take you to the article in its entirety, which surprises me. I thought you’d have to buy the magazine! It’s worth subscribing to Quadrant. It’s good for the life of the mind — your own specifically, and Australia’s more broadly.)

Anyway, Joe Dolce’s missive teems with insights. His recollection of prurience in the confessional is mortifying, and thankfully alien to my own experience. His perception of the Catholic priesthood’s “unique spiritual cul-de-sac” is enlightening. And his exposition of the sexual abuse of children in contemporary society is horrifying.

The article makes excellent reading, and I recommend it to everyone.

But I take issue with Dolce’s critique of the Church’s media response. I agree with him that the press has engaged in an irrational and dishonest campaign against the Church. I get what people mean when they suggest “the Church should thank the media.” Without external pressure, internal reform seldom occurs. It’s impossible to thank the media though, when its anti-Catholic prejudice blinds it to abuse occurring elsewhere, and hinders responsible debate about where popular culture has gone wrong.

The pedophile priest, Dolce writes, has become the scapegoat. All our guilt and blame is projected onto him (and the Catholic Church by association and implication), and everyone else is absolved. Dolce cites a slew of studies which demonstrate that the problem is much larger than the Church. And he wonders why more Catholics don’t speak up and refute media distortions.

I think there are a few answers to that. I think some Catholics are so mortified by the scandal, that they now tune out of the media coverage, and hope for the day the storm passes. And I think many Catholics are mortified by the hierarchy’s inadequate response to victims, and are loathe to defend the Church’s record on this issue, even in the face of media mendacity.

And then there is Dolce’s appeal to a martyr complex:

Unfortunately, there is also a historical proclivity amongst some Catholic clergy—an almost suicidal romantic yearning—for martyrdom, in the spirit of the martyrdom of Jesus. The contemporary Catholic saint Maximilian Kolbe once said that he looked forward to being sent to “heathen” Japan where if priests were fortunate they might be martyred for their beliefs. To me, that is passive and cowardly. Real martyrdom would be more along the path of the social activist, the path that Jesus actually walked, speaking out against the lie and taking whatever consequences.

Dolce’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. His outside view affords him refreshing insights into the popular perception of the celibate priest. But it prevents him from understanding an authentically faithful response to the Gospel.

Just such an account is provided, however, by Fr Ron Rolheiser’s ‘On Carrying A Scandal Biblically.’ (A survivor of sexual abuse read this article and recommended it to me. They quibbled over minor points, but from their perspective the sum of it is excellent.)

Rolheiser suggests that the Church’s response to the sexual abuse scandal should be focused exclusively on healing:

To carry this scandal biblically means too that healing, not self-protection and security, must be our real preoccupation. Sometimes for bishops, provincials, religious superiors, and church officials there’s a real (and understandable) danger of losing perspective in the face of accusations of sexual abuse. Many times, in fact, we have lost perspective.

In the vortex this crisis, what has to be our primary preoccupation? To protect the innocent and to bring about healing and reconciliation. Everything else (worries about security, lawsuits, and the like) must come afterwards.

Rolheiser echoes Dolce’s claim that the pedophile priest, even the Church, has become a scapegoat. But where Dolce sees an outrageous injustice which must be put right, Rolheiser sees an outrageous injustice and prophetic opportunity:

Right now priests represent less than one per-cent of the overall problem of sexual abuse, but we’re on the front pages of the newspapers and the issue is very much focused on us. Psychologically this is painful, but biblically this is not a bad thing: The fact that priests and the church have been scapegoated right now is not necessarily bad. If our being scapegoated helps society by bringing the issue of sexual abuse and its devastation of the human soul more into the open, than we are precisely offering ourselves as “food for the life of the world”, and we, like Jesus in his crucifixion, are helping to “take away the sins of the world.”

. . This is not a distraction to the life of the church, it’s perhaps the major thing that we need to do right now for the world and our culture. There are very few things that we are doing as Christian communities today that are more important than helping the world deal with this issue. If the price tag is that we are humiliated on the front pages of the newspapers and that the Anglican, United, and Roman Catholic Churches of Canada end up financially bankrupt, so be it. Crucifixions are never easy and they exact real blood! It might well be worth it in the long run if we can help our world come to grips with this.

I can see why the world might call this a martyr complex. But it strikes me as profoundly supernatural in its outlook. Which is another way of saying that far from being passive and cowardly, it is good and true.