The news broke across the world in 2002 — the Catholic Church was not nearly as full of saints as we thought.
Of Course, this wasn’t the first time anyone had heard of the sexual abuse rampant in the church. There were stirrings as far back as the 1950s— whispers about this scandal or that — but no one did much until the big break in 2002, and the little that was done then wasn’t nearly enough to prevent the next wave from crashing in 2019.
Why has it taken the Catholic Church, and us, so long to get on top of the abuse that lurks behind the white walls and confessional screens? Because we are more than happy to assign clergy the labels of “celibate” and to describe them as “married to god” instead of acknowledging that their vows don’t erase the — sometimes repulsive — human in them.
We wanted to see white steeples, an angelic Mary, and a perfect lamb, so that’s all we saw. Then the oh-so-attractive mask was blown off its face by the laser vision of the #metoo movement and the whole world was horrified… again.
What were those reforms back in 2002?
Beginning in 2002, the church began an organization-wide reform to ensure that it was a safe place for children. They’ve created new ways to report suspicious behavior, new policies on who to report to, training programs for adults and children alike, hotlines, recovery groups, therapy… you name anything and they’ve got it. For the victim at least.
The church has spent millions of dollars on protecting the victims, and on catching the perpetrators. It has spent nearly all it can spend on making sure people who are hurt can recover, and making sure an offender doesn’t have the chance to offend again.
A quick google search offers up the following list of reforms that have been enacted across the church, to ensure that churches are the safe places they claim to be.
1. Safe Environment training is taking place in 193 dioceses/eparchies of the country. Over 2 million adults have been trained to recognize the behavior of offenders and what to do about it.
2. Over 5 million children have been equipped with the skills to help them protect themselves from abuse.
3. Background checks are conducted on Church personnel who have contact with children.
4. All diocese/eparchies have Codes of Conduct spelling out what is acceptable behavior.
5. All dioceses/eparchies have Victim Assistance Coordinators, assuring victims that they will be heard.
6. All dioceses/eparchies have Safe Environment Coordinators who assure the ongoing compliance with the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
7. Bishops are meeting with victims.
8. Dioceses/eparchies have Healing Masses, retreats for victim/survivors and other reconciliation events.
9. There is a Zero Tolerance policy on abusers since 2002...
10. Dioceses/eparchies require intensive background screening as well as psychological testing for those wishing to enter the seminary.
11. Annual compliance audits are undertaken throughout the country in each year by independent auditors to assure that the USCCB Charter and Norms are being followed by the Dioceses/eparchies.
12. The John Jay College of Criminal Justice was commissioned to complete a study of the nature and scope of the problem of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States.
In all, 12 reforms. Each one enforced across the Catholic Church to ensure our rights, and the rights of our children, aren’t being violated.
So… have these reforms helped?
3,900 cases, a low estimate, and yet it means that for every stitched up and scarred soul the Church sends out, it creates nearly two more gaping wounds.
They keep everyone alert, make it easier for victims to come forward with accusations, and harder to protect the offenders after those accusations flow in. They’ve helped victims find peace and move on with their lives. They have done all they can to repair the wounds they created.
But on the other hand, the church certainly hasn’t come close to eradication their issue. In the years from 2004 to 2014, the number of “credible” sexual abuse cases reported has racked up to 3,900. And in the wake of the all the hubbub around them, this number just keeps ticking up.
Our reforms have brought us in at the low estimate of 3,900 new cases every 10 years. For every stitched up and scarred soul the Church sends out, it creates nearly two more gaping wounds every day.
The churches reforms are only there to shoot the lion after it has ravaged the lamb. Or to try desperately to suture the gaping wounds. But it still can’t seem to catch the lion before it has done the damage.
Have they enacted any preventative reforms?
In their list, they have three preventative reforms — posted codes of conduct, background checks of all church personnel, and additional psychological screening of men wishing to enter the seminary.
These preventative efforts have probably prevented some number of abuse cases, they certainly help attack repeat cases — which is no small issue — but they haven’t found a way to stop the first offense.
And because they can’t figure it out, they paste rules on the white walls as if everyone was unaware of what appropriate behavior was. As if the past clergy didn’t know that child molestation was just as inappropriate for them as it was for the rest of the world. As if they were ignorant of their mistakes.
Or they perform background checks and psychological screenings on their clergy. A practice that certainly may prevent pedophiles and people with a history of abusive characteristics out of the church. But, how many pedophiles dream to become clergymen in the first place? Maybe there are some, but not nearly as many as there are abuse cases coming out. So where do the predators come from?
The church. Part of the job of a clergy member is to deny themselves every earthly desire, forgo their own needs for those of others and to ultimately marry themselves to God and his message.
But being married to God is no joke. It takes a Herculean effort of faith and love to even consider the option of a profession in the clergy. But making the promise is the easiest thing any ordained man will do for the rest of his life. From that point on, he has to keep that promise.
He has to keep the promise of unwavering dedication to a God who sometimes — even for the strongest of believers — just doesn’t seem to be there. He has to keep a promise to forego all earthly pleasures in exchange for bringing as many people into the fold of Jesus love as possible.
That isn’t an effort to scoff at, it is one to admire, and to offer great respect to. But it is also a sacrifice to be wary of.
These men made a decision with their minds, and maybe even with their hearts, but their bodies are much later to catch up. Their bodies still have the same desires that the rest of the people in the world does, and no number of holy promises will change that.
In the church, the easiest targets to satisfy that craving just happen to be children and so the beast is made.
To be Clear.
I am not excusing the clergy, nor am I calling for us to offer our understanding to their “difficult” position.
What they did was inexcusable, it was repulsive, and any man facing appropriated allegations of sexual assault should be derobed and allowed only to enter to church as a parishioner seeking forgiveness, and never again as a clergy dealing it out or pretending to be a human approximation of God’s perfect love.
These men are not about to get off on the “I’m only human” excuse.
But we do need to find a reason for the offenses, not to explain the abuse away, but to address the issue and prevent the abuse in the first place. Right now, the root cause is not addressed by any of the measures taken by the church — or our society at large.
What is the root cause? It isn’t undercover pedophiles infiltrating the ordained. It isn’t ignorance of appropriate behavior. In the church, alcohol and blaming the victim based on their provoking attire is out — not that those were reasons anyways.
Instead, the church needs to acknowledge that sometimes no man — holy or otherwise — is stronger than his impulses. We assume that there is a way to sniff out the abusers before they become ordained. That they go into the ministry already stinking of assault. But the church isn’t a magnet for pedophiles and pervs. It isn’t a place where people go because it gives them access to children for their perverted cravings. It isn’t a madhouse. At least not at the beginning. The background checks make sure of that.
But somehow, when we can’t smell the stench of “potential abuser.” We trust them to a stupid level. Instead of recognizing the amount of temptation that may come with celibacy every single day and the amount of strength it may take to maintain that promise, we send clergy — alone — to take care of our children, and to help heal the victims of sexual abuse.
Instead of trying to minimize the opportunities clergy would have to abuse parishioners, we send them alone into houses and children alone into churches and give their cravings perfect opportunities again and again to snatch the innocence of the children in front of them.
But instead of accommodating for the issue and taking countermeasures — ensuring no clergy member is alone with a parishioner, creating an accountability structure — we ignore the sacrifices that come with the job and the potential dangers of that sacrifice.
We pretend that as long as someone is sincere enough to make the vow, they are sincere enough to keep it. But every day we are proved wrong — twice — and we still haven’t learned.
The sacrifice the clergy choose to make is a tough one and ignoring it certainly isn’t the answer. Instead, we could deal to be a little more active about supporting people in keeping the promises that bind them to those sacrifices.
Maybe we find ways for clergy to speak to each other and lift each other up when they are struggling sexually — before the issue mounts to the point of an offense. Maybe we could stop sending Bishops — alone — to visit the sexually assaulted — as if the sexual assault in the church were isolated to one group of clergy. Maybe we can stop denying the sacrifices these men have made for us and find ways to give back to them before they become so worn down and broken that they hurt our children.
At which point they become the monsters they have already made of themselves in their mind. The ones that have stolen from our children what wasn’t theirs to take. The ones who may be forgiven, but should never be given a pass from justice. And the ones that maybe — just maybe — may have been preventable.