Given its intensely male-dominated hierarchy and extreme anti-woman, anti-sex culture, the sex abuse scandal rocking the American Catholic Church is no surprise. Nor is the church’s record of cover-up, lies, and hypocrisy on the subject, which resembles that of any mega-corporation anxious to avoid prosecution, safeguard its considerable assets, and calm its stockholders.
The church’s implacable secrecy has imperilled children and youth by entrusting them to priests with long histories as molesters and rapists, moving such men from parish to parish rather than letting accusations come to light. Denial has also caused those who suffered abuse to endure lifelong pain and confusion — a double victimization. And the church’s attempt to blame homosexuals for this sordid situation constitutes a blatant, self-serving lie.
Transgressions of power and opportunity. Countless studies demonstrate that nearly all pedophiles, defined as people who desire sex with pre-adolescent children, are heterosexuals. Both the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Psychiatric Association attest that fewer than one percent of homosexuals are pedophiles. Simply stated, homosexual men desire sex with men; pedophiles desire sex with children without restriction to gender.
Gary Schoener, a Minneapolis psychologist with experience in more than 2,000 cases of sexual abuse by clergy, challenges the church to show that priests exploit more boys than girls. “There are far more heterosexual cases than homosexual,” says Schoener. “The Vatican damn well knows that, and the leadership in the American church knows that.”
The cases of girls “are just not getting the visibility,” Schoener explains. “The sexual abuse of a boy is treated far more seriously, and is considered a far worse offense than girls or women.” Schoener says he sees six times more female victims than male.
Psychotherapist and former priest A.W. Richard Sipe has also found that predatory priests mostly target females, primarily adult women. But he believes the majority of children and teenagers who suffer abuse are male, probably because of the sexist exclusion of girls from church roles that bring boys and young men into close contact with priests. He feels strongly that it is opportunity, not sexual orientation, that creates more young male victims, comparing the situation to sex between heterosexual men in prison.
Power is also a major part of the equation. Children are easier to intimidate than adults and not as likely to be believed; adolescents fear public humiliation and hysteria.
Church patriarchy vs. gays and women. Rather than examine its internal social/sexual dynamics, however, the church hypocritically scapegoats homosexuals. The church depends on a large gay workforce, but condemns their very existence and forces them to remain closeted. (Estimates of the proportion of gays in the priesthood range from 15 percent to more than 50 percent. This may be because joining the church is a socially sanctioned alternative to marriage or because some devout gays think celibacy is preferable to a lifestyle their religion deems “intrinsically evil.”) By castigating homosexuals, the church paints itself as the injured party, avoids responsibility, and justifies a purge of internal critics, progressives, and radicals under the guise of clearing out misfits.
The ideology of Christian patriarchy, so intrinsic to Western culture, is fundamentally the problem: Maleness is next to godliness. A woman is valued for her womb and subservience; she is either “madonna” or “whore.” Sex not aimed at procreation is a sin; contraception and abortion are outlawed. The solution to AIDS is abstinence. Hellfire awaits those outside the flock of the “saved.” The Catholic hierarchy should listen to its parishioners, the majority of whom have much more enlightened views on contraception, celibacy, lesbian/gay rights, and female priests.
Demanding restitution and accountability. Children deserve society’s protection, respectful attention when they raise concerns, and recognition of their right to be sexually active on their own terms. Priests who are alleged sexual offenders must face a full investigation and be given a fair trial just like other criminal defendants — no cover-ups and no witchhunts!
The church must take full responsibility for past mistakes and pay monetary damages to those who have been mistreated by its representatives. Church members, parents, seminarians, and parochial school students should assert their right to democratic procedures and oversight of this institution, which claims such power over their lives.
If confession is good for the soul, the Catholic Church has a great deal of talking to do.