A couple weeks back, a Franciscan friar on his television show made a terrible misstatement, suggesting that in many cases of priestly sexual abuse, the priests were themselves emotionally struggling and the adolescent victims “seducers.” He was rightly criticized, but what’s more disturbing is the continuing ignorance surrounding this crisis. Sexual abuse and exploitation is almost never an event that follows a valiant but failed struggle within the heart of an otherwise decent person. Rather, it is almost always the methodical and predatory act of a hunter.
As I’ve discussed before, the two most prevalent theories about the abuse crisis were both dead wrong. The anti-Catholic view that celibacy and the priestly life are turning young men into predators is complete bunk. Equally foolish, and still stressed by many hardline conservative Catholics, is the idea that the abuse crisis is the inevitable result of the liberalization of the Church, and tolerance for things like homosexuality both within and without the vocations. The argument is that a “homosexual culture” within the priesthood exacerbates the problem. This is beyond foolish, of course; it’s deeply offensive in that it falsely conflates same-sex attraction with the urge to hurt and exploit children or any weaker person.
Neither the Roman Catholic Church nor any other religious institution, (and there are many aside from the Church who have similar issues) is manufacturing predators. Instead it’s attracting them, unknowingly. A cover, a steady stream of victims, and an institution willing to protect them are the three things predators have sought from the Church and other religious institutions since time immemorial.
So while it’s tempting to gain an advantage for one’s view of the faith (or a view hostile to the faith) by claiming a solution to child endangerment, it’s a fruitless endeavor. If liberalization were the issue, then the parish I grew up in should have been a terrible place for kids. Christ the Redeemer, a parish my parents helped to found, was staffed in the 70′s by friars who were paragons of post Vatican II liberalization. There were guitars and brown robes, and a teen Bible called “The Way.” There was tolerance for other faiths, and other ways of living and thinking.
What there wasn’t, at least in my experience, was child abuse. Of course I can’t say that categorically. But I can say that despite researching the issue, I know of no complaints from that parish. I can also say I was in close contact on a weekly basis with our priests from the age of five through my teens. I was alone with both parish and visiting priests as an alter server, donning the alb for mass as they donned vestments. My parents were close with them. I never had a bad moment. I knew they were imperfect, of course. Although it was hidden from me as a small child, there were priests I knew who struggled with alcoholism, and probably with celibacy. I knew they were human; at least one or two probably would have identified as homosexual but for their vows.
My point is not that the hippyish, folksy way the Friars of the Atonement did things then was the best expression of Catholicism. It worked for some, it didn’t for others, and I’m hardly the authority on how it jived with larger doctrinal concerns. My point is that a liberal environment, tolerant and less authoritarian, is not an incubator for predatory behavior. In fact, the opposite is what we often see when child abuse occurs within any religious community. In environments that are more authoritarian, where religious leaders have more power and where the community is insular and isolated from outsiders, predators thrive. Not because they are made there. Because they are attracted there.
It’s the attraction to a favorable environment that must cease by changing that environment. That’s the only chance the Church or any other institution has to protect the children it claims; predators can almost never be screened out. The Church is unfairly attacked for producing predators because of its traditions and demands. But the draw toward intolerance and the emerging call from within for a smaller but more militant, doctrinal Church will not protect its children either.