Why the church has got it wrong on sex priests

Ideas

Why the church has got it wrong on sex priests

Hypocrisy, not repression, causes Catholic sex scandals, writes a member of the Church

Tim Stanley
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose resignation has been accepted by Pope Francis following allegations of sexual abuse, including one involving an 11-year-old boy.
Cardinal sins Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, whose resignation has been accepted by Pope Francis following allegations of sexual abuse, including one involving an 11-year-old boy.
Image: Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi

Theodore McCarrick was an archbishop and a cardinal, one of the most powerful men in the American Catholic Church. He helped write church policies designed to protect young people from sexual abuse. He is now accused of abusing children.

McCarrick has resigned as a cardinal and been ordered by the pope to conduct a “life of prayer and penance”, a sign that the church may think he’s guilty.

Catholics have confronted sex scandals many times in the past decades, but the old focus was on individual priests, usually low the food chain, who the hierarchy were happy to paint as isolated offenders. This time everyone is under scrutiny, and the secular authorities are not only interested in abusers but who protected them and who failed to report them.

The second,
far better way Catholics can address the abuse crisis is to ask how often such treachery occurs in the church,
and why.

The shame is worldwide. On August 9, Britain's independent inquiry will release a report on events at two schools associated with the Catholic Church in England. I predict reputations will be utterly destroyed.

For the church in general, I can see things going one of two ways. First, there’ll be a demand to reform church teaching. I’m a convert to Catholicism and I’ve lost count of the number of people who have told me (most of them Catholics) that the problem is priests aren’t allowed to marry, that our theology is dangerously repressive.

This is daft. It implies that paedophilia is a force of circumstances, forgets that many paedophiles are married, and overlooks the presence of paedophilia in organisations that have no rules about marriage: the Scouts, schools, etc.

Anglicans permit marriage and yet this didn’t prevent the crimes of Bishop Peter Ball, a man who, like McCarrick, was regarded as holy. Looking at both men’s secret lives, however, one finds scant evidence of the influence of Christianity – plenty for the lack of it. If guilty, McCarrick not only broke the laws of civil society, he defied the teachings of Christ.

The second, far better way Catholics can address the abuse crisis is to ask how often such treachery occurs in the church, and why.

McCarrick’s story isn’t just about sex allegations. One of the details of his case I can't get over is that he had access to a beach house. Apparently, the church in New Jersey bought it at his request in 1984, and that’s where he would take seminarians for food and beer and where, allegedly, he would invite someone to share his bed, urging the unfortunate nominee to consider his future career.

It sounds like the alleged modus operandi of Harvey Weinstein, and the eagle-eyed can spot not just one sin allegedly committed by the bishop, but several: manipulation, vanity, abuse of power.

McCarrick is the first cardinal to resign since 1927. The fact that it’s so comparatively hard to bring down a cardinal illustrates the pecking order in a church founded on hierarchy.

One reason many lay Catholics are so angry about the McCarrick affair is that we all know a lowly priest who has been accused of something and immediately suspended and sent into exile – only to be cleared a few months later and returned to ministry, confused and damaged, without so much as a “sorry”.

It’s one rule for the parish priest, another rule for the princes of the church.

So there’s another sin to tally: hypocrisy.

Pope Francis talks about it a lot. He has criticised the “rigidity” of some Catholics, the tendency to value outward appearance over getting on with doing good. This has always been an issue: around 1050, St Peter Damian, a monk, wrote a scathing account of clerical hypocrisy, sexual abuse and cover-up, and begged the pope to do something.

But a problem particular to the contemporary church is a lack of conviction.

Either way, a key element of the church’s rigidity is its polite silence about sex. I
see a parallel
with Islam.

Not only has it been slow to recognise the errors in its midst, but reluctant also to articulate one obvious answer: Catholic moral theology. It’s hard to live up to (I’m not going to pretend to have succeeded), but I look upon its rules as helpful common sense, written in awareness of what a creative and destructive force sex is.

This year happens to be the 50th anniversary of Humane Vitae, a letter published by Pope Paul VI in 1968, which predicted that the sexual revolution would lead to infidelity, a loss of respect for the individual and abuse of power.

All of this is true. All of this is as relevant to the clergy as to the laity. All of this is pertinent right now. And yet the anniversary has been greeted anxiously by parts of the church, nervous perhaps about how its forthright morality will sound to modern audiences.

Maybe that timidity is itself a product of the abuse crisis: the church is embarrassed about lecturing to others when its own house is a mess.

Either way, a key element of the church’s rigidity is its polite silence about sex. I see a parallel with Islam. We often hear that Islam encourages violence, and that’s inaccurate. Muslims who kill are inevitably the most ignorant of their own religion, twisting it to suit personal fantasies about power. Likewise, what the Catholic Church needs is not less dogma but better understanding of it, and better attention to what it has to offer. Namely justice for the hurt, sackcloth and ashes for the guilty.

© The Daily Telegraph

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