• U.S.

They Still Don’t Get It

5 minute read
Andrew Sullivan

The Roman Catholic Church holds as an important doctrine that sexuality, though a gift from God, is fraught with moral danger. There is also only one legitimate form of sexual expression–a married heterosexual relationship, always open to the possibility of procreation. So the nature of sex is inescapably bound up with the creation of new life, and any attempt to get around that nature, any variation upon it, is a violation of what God intends. The church therefore condemns masturbation for the same reason that it condemns homosexual sex and contraception. And Catholic doctrine also bars divorce, because it violates the integrity of marriage, which, by definition, can happen only once in a lifetime.

This position has integrity, even though it can seem at times cruel and alien to much of human experience. Most of us know that the force of sexuality, perhaps the most powerful in human life, regularly breaks through such narrow boundaries. But the church insists that its prohibitions are not intended to isolate or wound the divorced, or homosexuals or teenagers in love. Its doctrinal rigidity is maintained out of compassion and besides, the church has no other choice than to uphold the truth, however painful for those caught in humanity’s crooked timber.

I suppose it is partly this context that makes the pedophile-priest scandal in Boston so offensive to so many. In the past month, it has been revealed that more than 70 priests in the archdiocese of Boston–out of a total of less than 700–have been accused of the sexual abuse of children. That’s 1 in 10. Worse, when evidence of these crimes has come to light, the church hierarchy has done everything in its power to hush it up, pay secret damages to the victims and, in many cases, do nothing but reassign pedophile priests to other parishes, where they can commit abuse again. In one of the worst cases, that of the Rev. John Geoghan, the church hierarchy had responded to clear evidence of his depravity by moving the now defrocked priest around for almost two decades–as he continued his pattern of molestation of minors. Last week he was sentenced to nine to 10 years for indecent assault and battery.

How can a church that preaches the impermissibility of so many forms of consensual, adult sex simultaneously tolerate, ignore or cover up the sexual abuse of children by its own priests? Pedophilia is not a failing; it is not some imperfect but victimless expression of sexuality among consenting adults. It is a crime. To my mind, the violation of a child’s innocence, the betrayal of a priestly trust, the rape of a minor’s very body provide about as good a definition of evil as one can find. Yet a church that regularly condemns and judges so many of its congregants for comparatively minor sexual variations on the married heterosexual norm permits and covers up far worse offenses among its own.

And they still don’t get it. Yes, Cardinal Law has formally apologized. But his reckoning was carefully parsed. “In retrospect,” Law said in his formal statement, the “response of the archdiocese to the grave evil…was flawed and inadequate.” In retrospect? By what conceivable moral argument could ignoring child abuse be deemed at any time acceptable? “In retrospect,” he also said, he had put children in danger, “albeit unintentionally.” How can a church demand moral responsibility of its members if its leaders cannot do so when unmitigated evil is standing right in front of them?

This is not a liberal or conservative issue. Sure, liberal Catholics see the scandal as another indicator of the sexual dysfunction at the heart of the church. And they have a point. Celibacy is an onerous burden that can easily distort a person’s psyche. Moreover, many sexually conflicted men gravitate to the priesthood precisely because it promises to put a straitjacket on their compulsions and confusions. Alas, that straitjacket can often come undone. The absence of women in the higher reaches of the church further distorts the atmosphere; and the presence of large numbers of gay priests–forced to preach against their very identity and fight against their own need for love–only intensifies the psychological pressure of the priesthood. But conservatives are just as outraged. The abuse of children rightly provokes horror among traditional Catholics, and they have been admirably reluctant to close ranks behind the corrupted hierarchy. Besides, the most devout and trusting have often been the most victimized. “After he molested me, he would bless me,” a former altar boy, abused in the Los Angeles diocese, recently told the Los Angeles Times. “It’s very confusing. I was in the center of my mother’s life–the church–and she thought I was doing constructive things by being with the priest. After we did these things, he’d put his hand on my head and make the sign of the cross.”

This isn’t a failing of the church; it’s an attack upon its integrity–by its own clergy. Until this evil is rooted out–and until the culpable bishops and cardinals who tolerated it resign–it will surely be hard for American Catholics to trust or love their church again.

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