Sexual Abuse in the Church: Lessons from the Roman Catholic Scandal

A 300 page report concerning the sexual abuse of minors by Roman Catholic clergy done by researchers at John Jay College of Criminal Justice was recently released.   Some of its findings were summarized in a Religious News Service article by David Gibson, Causes of Catholic Abuse Scandal Pinpointed by Study.

Being a member of the OCA’s Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisory Committee, I’ve read some of these articles with interest.  There were two excerpts from the article I thought particularly relevant for Orthodox in this country.

1)    “The John Jay researchers take pains to credit the hierarchy for making important strides in combating child abuse — an assertion victim advocates will strenuously dispute — and they point out that society as a whole was only slowly coming to understand the nature of child abuse as U.S. dioceses were swamped with cases.

At the same time, however, researchers note the bishops’ abysmal track record in so many tragic instances, and say church leadership was reflexively defensive and self-protective — behavior that fits a well-defined pattern of crisis management in large institutions.

Indeed, the authors convincingly argue that the clerical culture that fostered and concealed deviance by priests is remarkably similar to the law enforcement culture that allows police brutality. The church, like the police, is a hierarchical organization that operates in a decentralized way, with each department (or diocese) an authority unto itself and not inclined to open itself to oversight.”

2)     “The doctrine of the undiluted authority of the bishop, combined with the hierarchy’s track record as a group of crisis managers concerned with protecting the institution, may be the central problem for the bishops revealed by the sex abuse crisis.

That’s certainly the main challenge put forth by authors of the new John Jay report, who argue that the American Catholic hierarchy must finally adopt uniform, secure policies characterized by genuine transparency and true accountability, especially for bishops.

Taking that difficult step is the only way the bishops can begin to show that the hierarchy is different from Wall Street financiers or a protective police bureaucracy. It’s also perhaps the quickest way for the bishops to restore the Catholic Church’s credibility as a compelling witness to the faith rather than just another suspect institution.”

A list of other blogs I’ve posted on church sexual misconduct with links to them can be found at Blogs on Church Sexual Misconduct.

Sexual Abuse in the Church: The Converging of Church and State

While the pedophile scandal of the Roman Church has grabbed the headlines regarding clergy sexual abuse, some studies (see the NEWSWEEK article, http://www.newsweek.com/2010/04/07/mean-men.html)  indicate that about the same percentage of males in the general population are involved in sexual abuse as are the percentage of Catholic priests who have been involved in such abuse.  Insurers who handle church policies do not see much difference between denominations in the percentage of pastors involved in sexual abuse.  Sexual abuse and pedophilia are human problems within the entire population, not just problems of clergy or of one particular religious organization.

And it is the case that sometimes a church leader does openly confront these problems within the church.   Such is the story reported by Maureen Dowd’s op-ed article in the 4 June 2011 NY TIMES  An Archbishop Burns, While Rome Fiddles.

The story is of importance for all churches, including the Orthodox Church which is not somehow supernaturally free of sin or of clergy who are willing to commit crimes.  It takes strong church leaders, sometimes just one, to turn around a church’s attitude toward sexual abuse by clergy.  It is a hard battle to fight, partly because of mistaken ideas by some people as to who the abusers are or what an abuser is like.  Dowd speaking about the Irish bishop of Dublin Martin writes:

The pedophiles, he said, “have an ability to take the young children into their grips and make it impossible for them to talk. They look for the vulnerable and make them worse. You see that a lot of these men were driven not by faith but by hormones.

“One of the things that annoys me is when I see a priest get convicted, the newspapers try to get the most devilish photographs of them. The trouble is that child sexual abusers don’t look like devils. They look like charmers. If pedophiles had horns on their noses, no one would go near them.”

In a church where officials still put more energy into protecting their arcane prerogatives than protecting children, Martin has become a hero merely by stating the obvious.

“In the case of serial pedophiles, what should have happened from the very beginning, people should have said, look, stop, these people are real dangers,” he said. “They have to be brought out, they have to be prosecuted and so on.”

The fact that church members have turned to the secular authorities and civil courts for help in dealing with clergy sexual abuse causes some to doubt the good faith of the victims.  But the reality is there is a frustration with how the church handles allegations: there is often a knee-jerk denial of the allegations, and then a rushing to the defense of the accused clergy, something witnessed in the Orthodox Church in Canada recently.

There may be some good in this initial reaction – it may mean that the numbers of victims are few and that is why many can’t believe the allegations.  So an immediate denial is certainly a better sign than a rush of people coming forward with evidence that they suspected the clergyperson all along but had failed to report it.

However, there also needs to be among church leaders a realistic assessment of the facts of life – pedophilia occurs in the population as a whole; that it occurs among people in the church has to be admitted and taken seriously.   Churches must be willing to investigate every allegation brought to their attention.  And it is advisable to victims to take their complaints to civil authorities – let them investigate the complaint and let them decide if some action needs to be taken.

I have just finished reading a book on Constantine the Great, the Roman Emperor who granted toleration to Christianity in the 4th Century and then embraced the faith himself, and am in the process of reading a second book on the same man (I read Paul Stephenson’s CONSTANTINE: ROMAN EMPEROR, CHRISTIAN VICTOR, and am now reading Peter Leithart’s DEFENDING CONSTANTINE).  One of the things that happened as soon as the Roman Empire quit persecuting Christians and gave them legal status in the empire is that the Christians took their internal disputes to the state and even appealed to Constantine directly (while he was still a pagan) when they felt they could get no resolution to their complaints through the church.  The Donatist controversy is the perfect example of Christians disputing over bad behavior by clergy.  While Constantine tried to get the Christians to settle their disputes through church investigations and by the decisions of bishops, when all else failed he intervened with the force of the state.  Constantine’s concern as expressed in his decrees to the disputing Christians was that if the church did not live up to its own standards of holiness and concord God might punish the empire and Constantine himself.

We no longer live in a time when the state fears the anger of God over disputes within the church (the separation of church and state apparently is considered a good defense before God for the state not involving itself in church disputes).  However, as with Constantine, the secular state does have an interest in protecting its citizens, especially its children.  If the church fails to take appropriate action against clergy involved in sexual abuse of its members especially children, then the state is going to take an interest in its citizens and take whatever actions it deems appropriate to protect its citizens and children from a church that won’t do the same.

The state recognizes that some of its citizens may also claim membership in a church, and may feel themselves part of a kingdom not of this world.  But the state also recognizes these people live in the world and are part of a nation which is concerned about their welfare in this lifetime.  The state sometimes does a better job at honoring the dual citizenship of its denizens than the church does.

For the Church, including the Orthodox Church, the time is at hand for us to take seriously any claims of sexual abuse by the clergy, especially allegations involving the abuse of children.  It is time for open investigations to be done, to completely and fully cooperate with civil investigating authorities, and to take firm and decisive action against clergy who are guilty of sexual abuse, and also against any in supervisory roles (including bishops) who fail to take seriously allegations and who endanger children by failing to investigate allegations and by failing to take disciplinary actions against those involved in abuse.

A list of other blogs I’ve posted on church sexual misconduct with links to them can be found at Blogs on Church Sexual Misconduct.