Crisis in the Catholic
By Mario Seiglie May 2002
News of the sexual abuse of children by priests can no longer be covered up, and has serious implications for the Catholic Church in the United States and elsewhere.
Recent revelations have rocked the foundations of the Catholic Church. The news of sexual scandals in the Roman Church has filled the headlines and airwaves around the world. Numerous priests have been indicted for sexually abusing minors and many have ended in jail. These disclosures have weakened the American Catholic Church morally, financially and institutionally.
The U.S. Catholic Church isn't alone in the crisis. Numerous priests in Ireland, Australia, Poland, France and England have also been forced to resign or are facing prison sentences. "Scandals involving priests molesting children," says The Los Angeles Times, "have hit parishes across America-and indeed, around the world-in recent decades. Thousands of adults have come forward to say they were abused as children and many priests have been sent to jail' ("Reports of Priest's Abuse Enrage Boston Catholics," Feb. 9, 2002, p. 1).
Just in the United States, between 2,000 and 3,000 priests have been implicated for allegedly abusing children, and as of this writing, 60 clerics have been defrocked. The Catholic Church has reportedly paid more than $1 billion to the victims.
"The crisis gathers steam day after day," says Time magazine, "with perhaps 2,000 priests accused of abuse across the country and hot lines jamming with more victims' calls... Since the first big abuse scandal broke at a Louisiana trial in 1985 ... an estimated $1 billion or more [has been paid by the Catholic Church]" ("Can the Church Be Saved?" April 1, 2002, p. 30).
Tom Economus, who heads the organization, "The Linkup- Survivors of Clergy Abuse," himself a victim of priest sexual abuse, puts the figures even higher. He reports, "In the Roman Catholic Church there are over 800 priests [who] have been removed from ministry as a result of allegations against them... One noted expert claims that there are over 5,000 priests with some type of allegation against them. If this is true, then there are at least 1,000,000 direct victims of clergy sexual abuse and between 4-6 million indirect victims in the U.S." ("Catholic Pedophile Priests: The Effects on U.S. Society," TheLinkup.com Web site).
Although sexual abuse of minors is not confined to clerics of the Catholic Church, the sheer numbers of lawsuits against priests and the appalling number of children victimized place this scandal in a category of its own.
The start of the recent scandal
In January 2002, a particularly scandalous case involving a Boston priest who was accused of abusing children over a 30-year span triggered a national outcry. "The scandal erupted in January in Boston," writes The Los Angeles Times, "when it was reported that a priest who had allegedly molested more than 140 children had been transferred by superiors from parish to parish" ("Mahony's Accuser Describes History of Mental Problems," April 7, 2002, p. 28). The priest was found guilty, sentenced to nine years in jail, and the Boston archdiocese agreed to pay up to $30 million to 86 of the victims.
As a result of this case, many other victims of clerical abuse began talking to the civil authorities or the press. Just in the Boston area, Catholic officials were forced to turn in the names of another 88 priests who were accused of sexual misconduct with minors over the last 20 or more years. Now, an additional 400 complaints of sexual abuse in the area have turned up. Thomas Groome, a Boston College professor and a prominent Catholic, said, "This is our September 11."
Pressure from insurance companies
Recently, the Boston archdiocese said it had settled so many child sexual abuse claims against it that a multimillion-dollar insurance fund was running dry. Insurance companies have threatened to cancel their coverage for such cases and this has prompted the Catholic leadership to step up its efforts to stem the tide of lawsuits.
In Ireland, the Catholic Church has sought an agreement with the government in an attempt to mitigate the legal damages, a somewhat similar situation to what tobacco companies have tried to do to protect themselves from lawsuits in the United States.
"In hopes of deterring class-action lawsuits," reports The Los Angeles Times, "the church in January  negotiated a compensation deal with the [Irish] government. Under the deal, thousands of people who were abused in church-run schools and orphanages from the 1950s onward would be eligible for hefty payments, but only if they dropped their own lawsuits. The church pledged to contribute about $110 million, mostly in property, to a government-run compensation board. The total pay-out is projected to run four times that" ("Irish Lawyer to Investigate Alleged Sex Abuse by Catholic Clergy," April 5, 2002, p. 25).
An unintentional result of the current scandal has been to reveal the vast wealth of the Catholic Church, since it has been paying huge sums of money to the victims for decades, even though many of the funds are tied to confidentiality clauses.
"The fierce scrutiny that is piercing the Church's veil of secrecy over sex is also beginning to reveal the largely hidden state of its finances. As the institution's legal and moral crisis builds, so too do the threats to its economic foundation - a foundation already under enormous strain. Cases filed to date 'are just the tip of the iceberg, and it will be a multibillion-dollar problem before it ends,' says Roderick MacLeish Jr., a Boston attorney who has represented more than 100 victims in the past decade" ("The Economic Strain on the Church," Business Week, April 15, 2002, p. 5).
The problem of celibacy
At the heart of the problem is the age-old issue of priestly celibacy, a mandatory practice of abstaining from marriage for all Catholic clerics that was adopted in A.D. 1139 at the Second Lateran Council.
Although Catholic Church leaders deny there is a direct connection between celibacy and priest sexual abuse of minors, serious studies done by priests or former priests claim there is a direct correlation.
Richard Sipe, a psychotherapist and a retired Benedictine monk who later married, conducted a 25-year study on the celibate practice of priests. He concluded back in 1995, "The Roman Catholic priesthood is in crisis. It is obvious that the crisis is sexual... The situation is far deeper and broader than most believers would like to admit, but a surprising number of church officials are aware of its true scope" (Sex, Priests, and Power, 1995, p. 6).
How profound is the sexual crisis in the Roman Church? "In 1976," adds Richard Sipe, "I was convinced that I had enough data to estimate that at any one time 6% of Catholic priests in the United States were having sex with minors. Since 1985 1 have reviewed an additional 1,800 accusations by adults who claim that as children they were sexually abused by priests. I also have seen the histories of nearly 500 priests who are known to have abused. This further study convinces me that the celibate/sexual system as it exists fosters and produces, and will continue to produce, at a relatively stable rate, priests who sexually abuse minors..." (ibid., p. 27).
Although the news of child molestation by priests takes the headlines, the sexual problems among the Catholic clergy are far more rampant. "The sexual abuse of minors is only part of the problem" notes Sipe. "Four times as many priests involve themselves sexually with adult women, and twice the number of priests involve themselves with adult men" (ibid., p. 45).
Other experts who have studied the problem feel that Sipe's figures may be conservative and that the problem is not limited to the American priesthood. Gary Wills, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, writes, "The Jesuit sociologist Joseph Ficher credited an account of over 30% of German priests having affairs with women. Andrew Greeley says that 25% of priests under 35 are gay, half of them sexually active. Jason Berry reports seminarians telling him Greeley's numbers should be doubled [up to 50 percent]" (Papal Sin, Structures of Deceit, 2000, p. 186).
Increasing number of homosexual priests
These figures highlight a growing trend as more homosexuals join the ranks of the Catholic priesthood.
"In some cases," Gary Wills notes, "there have been reports of predominantly gay seminaries and homosexual climates within them that became so pronounced that heterosexual seminarians felt uncomfortable and ultimately left. Gays themselves register the change. In a survey of 101 gay priests, those ordained before 1960 remember their seminary as having been 51 % gay. Those ordained after 1981 say their seminaries were 70% gay. The existence of such surveys is itself a sign of the altered condition of gays in the priesthood. Greater tolerance has made it possible to learn more about the existence and attitudes of gay priests, whose internal network was almost invisible to outsiders until recent decades...
"In fact, the admission of married men and women to the priesthood-which is bound to come anyway-may well come for the wrong reason, not because women and the community deserve this, but because of panic at the perception that the priesthood is becoming predominantly gay" (ibid., pp. 194-195).
Wills adds, "Almost all the priests who left in the massive hemorrhage of the 1970s and 1980s left to marry. The homosexual priests stayed, which meant that their proportion of the whole went up even when their absolute numbers stayed the same. And now even that absolute number is rising. Many observers suspect that John Paul's real legacy to his church is a gay priesthood" (ibid., p. 290).
Barriers that inhibit reporting
Why have reports of scandals been largely confined to the English-speaking world?
Much has to do with the more closed societies of the developing nations. Reporting such sexual abuse there is far more difficult than in the United States or Europe. "I should note here that in African, Latin, and South American cultures the 'priest's woman' and even married bishops seem to be taken for granted" (ibid., p, 72).
"The whole world has a problem," according to Notre Dame Professor Robert Pelton, "but it gets brought into sharper perspective in the so-called First World. In Latin America, it's more difficult to challenge the Catholic Church, and so many people will say they're more worried about their next meal and these types of concerns" ("U.S. View of Scandal Not Shared by World," The Boston Globe, April 8, 2002, p. 1).
The Boston Globe article goes on to say, "A Providence College psychology professor, the Rev. Joseph J. Guido, conducted a survey of superiors of an unspecified Catholic religious order and found that 83 percent of the North Americans were aware of an accusation of abuse against one of their priests, compared with 43 percent in Central America and the Caribbean and one-third in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America.
"'Research suggests ... that the sexual abuse of children is a problem for the church everywhere,' Guido wrote in the current issue of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly. 'However,' he wrote, 'outside North America the religious order superiors were more likely to be aware of sexual misconduct by priests with adults, rather than children. In several parts of the English-speaking world, clergy sexual abuse scandals have erupted over the last two decades, costing the church hundreds of millions of dollars and immeasurable goodwill."'
Problem can no longer be covered up
Why did it take so long to uncover what was going on?
"The Roman Catholic Church," explains Time magazine, "is a stem hierarchy that has always kept its deliberations secret, policed itself and issued orders from the top. An obedient priest moves up in power by keeping his head down, winning rewards for bureaucratic skills and strict orthodoxy... If allegations came to diocese attention, the bishop, a power unto himself who often operated as if ordination gave him a share of the Pope's infallibility, acted as prosecutor, judge, and sentencer. Desperate to retain even sinful men, as the number of priests shrank alarmingly, and ever putting the image of the Church first, bishops refined the system. Convince the family that publicity would harm the faith. Don't report to the police; don't warn the parish... And if a victim finally sued, the strategy was to admit nothing, buy silence, settle out of court and seal the deal with a confidentiality contract" ("Can the Church Be Saved?" April 1, 2002, p. 3 1).
Presently, the four-month-long sexual scandal has been so serious that the pope ordered all U.S. cardinals to appear before him in an attempt to stem the swelling tide of bad publicity. In a follow--up statement to the meetings, the pontiff said, "The abuse of the young is a grave symptom of a crisis affecting not only the Church but society as a whole. It is a deep-seated crisis of sexual morality, even of human relationships, and its prime victims are the family and the young. In addressing the problem of abuse with clarity and determination, the Church will help society to understand and deal with the crisis in its midst."
"The church stopped short of developing a 'zero tolerance' policy for priests accused of sexual transgressions. The American church leaders said they would recommend a special process to defrock any priest who has become 'notorious and is guilty of the serial, predatory sexual abuse of minors.' In cases that are 'not notorious' they would leave it up to the local bishop to decide if such a priest is a threat to children and should be defrocked" (Associated Press, April 24, 2002).
At the very least, this crisis will force the American segment of the Catholic Church to take stricter measures with errant priests and provide better, more open, cooperation with authorities to deal with violations of civil law. Both will be significant changes in the heretofore cloistered world of the Catholic hierarchy. wnp