What Went Wrong

By Weigel, George | Newsweek, April 12, 2010 | Go to article overview

What Went Wrong


Weigel, George, Newsweek


Byline: George Weigel

Don't blame celibacy. To fight the plague of sexual abuse, the church needs to become more Catholic, not less.

Throughout what U.S. Catholics called the "Long Lent" of 2002, when every week seemed to bring revelations of clerical sexual abuse and its mishandling by the church's bishops, some observers suggested that this crisis was the byproduct of some distinctive features of Catholic life: a celibate priesthood, a church governed by male bishops, a demanding sexual ethic. "Modernize" the church by changing all that, they argued, and these horrible problems would abate, even disappear.

Sexual abuse is indeed horrible, but there is no empirical evidence that it is a uniquely, predominantly, or even strikingly Catholic problem. The sexual abuse of the young is a global plague. In the United States, some 40 to 60 percent of such abuse takes place within families--often at the hands of live-in boyfriends or the second (or third, or fourth) husband of a child's mother; those cases have nothing to do with celibacy. The case of a married Wilmington, Dela., pediatrician charged with 471 counts of sexual abuse in February has nothing to do with celibacy. Neither did the 290,000 cases of sexual abuse in American public schools between 1991 and 2000, estimated by Charol Shakeshaft of Virginia Commonwealth University. And given the significant level of abuse problems in Christian denominations with married clergy, it's hard to accept the notion that marriage is somehow a barrier against sexually abusive clergy. (Indeed, the idea of reducing marriage to an abuse-prevention program ought to be repulsive.) Sexual abusers throughout the world are overwhelmingly noncelibates.

Too many of the church's bishops failed to grasp the drastic measures required to address the sexual abuse of the young--that's obvious, and has been admitted by the bishops of the United States and two popes. Yet it is hard to see what these failures had to do with gender. Like others, many bishops had a misplaced faith in the power of psychiatrists and psychologists to "fix" sexual predators, thinking these men could be "cured" and quietly returned to ministry without damaging the church's reputation. In his recent scathing letter to the Catholic Church in Ireland, Pope Benedict XVI denounced bishops who were more concerned with protecting the church's image than with protecting vulnerable young people. It's a critique that was applicable decades ago in the United States--but the same criticism can be made of teachers-union leaders and state legislators today who ignore or try to bury reports of sexual abuse in America's public schools.

So, yes, aspects of clerical culture in the U.S. and elsewhere contributed to the problem, but that same deplorable circle-the-wagons instinct has warped the response to this plague in other sectors of society. The difference is that the Catholic Church in America has taken more rigorous action since 2002 to protect the young people in its care than any other similarly situated institution, to the point where the church is likely America's safest environment for young people.

There may be a grain of truth in the suggestion that women's perspectives on these issues would have helped mitigate the Catholic crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance: in the past the male clerical culture of Catholicism seems to have blunted in some Catholic clergy a natural and instinctive revulsion at the sexual abuse of the young--a revulsion, it is suggested, that a woman would immediately feel and act upon. …

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