Church Responses to Pedophilia

By Rigali, Norbert J. | Theological Studies, March 1994 | Go to article overview

Church Responses to Pedophilia


Rigali, Norbert J., Theological Studies


When the first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language was published a quarter of a century ago,(1) the key word in the title of this note was not in its lexicon. Nor was it listed even in the revision of the mid-1970s. But in the third edition of the dictionary, from the early 1990s, "pedophilia" finally appears and is defined as a sexual attraction felt by an adult toward a child or children.(2)

The late entry of "pedophilia" into an American dictionary is indicative of recent social change in North America and elsewhere. In the last decade or so, much has been learned about the sexual abuse of children. There have emerged an awareness of its far higher incidence than had hitherto been generally presupposed(3) and heightened understanding of both its perpetrators' aberration and the trauma and lasting damage caused to its Victims.(4) After a brief, introductory reflection on the problem's coming into public view in society and the Church, this note reviews official responses to the problem on the part of the Church in Canada and the United States.

The Emergence of the Problem

Lois Gehr Livezey suggests that the coming to light of the sexual abuse of children is linked with another social development, the feminist movement.(5) Relying on studies that show rape to be on the increase and coercive sex to be considered acceptable behavior by a high percentage of male high school and college students, Livezey argues that the sexual revolution was neither a revolution against coercive sexual activity nor a revolution for equality in male-female relations. It is the feminist revolution that broke the silence about sexual and family violence by exposing, first of all, the plight of battered wives.

A decade after a 1974 magazine article told of the founding of a shelter for battered women in England,(6) 500 shelters had been established in the United States. Society, Livezey adds, has gone on to acknowledge that "family violence" includes not only spouse abuse but also the abuse of children by parents and other relatives, abuse in other family relations and, more recently, coercive sexual relations in the form of marital rape and the sexual abuse of children. Even more unsecured in androcentric culture than women's rights, children's rights could become a matter of concern, Livezey suggests, only after the former had turned into a public issue. While Livezey's focus remains pretty much within the family, there is only one step between social concern about sexual abuse of children within the family and social concern about it outside the family.

As attention has been drawn increasingly in recent years to the sexual abuse of children, officials of the Catholic Church in both Canada and the United States have had to deal publicly with abuse committed by priests or male religious.(7) In this country the Church and society as a whole were made aware of the problem by the National Catholic Reporter, whereas the Canadian Church's problem surfaced in the secular press of Canada.(8)

Official Church Responses in Canada

As the problem of child sexual abuse in the Church began to lose its invisibility in Canada, the Canadian bishops established guidelines for themselves in 1987. But these were not enough. After public disclosures and accusations concerning brothers at Mount Cashel Orphanage and priests of the archdiocese, the Archdiocese of St. John's, Newfoundland, established a commission of inquiry in 1989. Since a government commission had been set up to investigate matters at the orphanage, the archdiocesan commission focused on accusations concerning the priests and, more than a year later, submitted its long report on them.(9)

Among its findings the commission reported that because the archbishop had not acted vigorously on complaints and concerns brought to him, children continued to be abused by priests, even while the latter were under criminal investigation. …

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