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My Heart Goes Out to the Girls and the Women

The results of the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse are as stark as they are staggering. They may also be surprising, because while we have long wrung our hands over the tragedy of priestly abuse, seeing the report’s statistics in aggregate may be the first time many Catholics fully understand just how many female victims have been preyed upon over the years by priests. While the first image of a victim may be a choir boy or altar boy, just shy of a quarter of victims in the cases studied were females: girls, teens and women, suffering at the hands of men they trusted as pastors, teachers, counselors, family friends.

That single statistic should dramatically change the way we talk about clergy sexual abuse. For too long, the conversation has been held hostage by those with a homophobic agenda, those on the right who see the tragedy as a convenient excuse to purge the church of gay priests. Overly simplistic, thoroughly unscientific, opportunistic, this response is also offensive, because it imposes a harsh and unjust sentence on thousands of good men serving the church faithfully — and lawfully.

Even more toxic, though, is the reality that the focus on gay men ignores the trauma of female victims abused by heterosexual priests. In a church long criticized for its marginalization of women, ignoring the plight of females in this instance is nothing short of re-victimization. We have long known that sexual violence is not about desire, but about power and control. It’s also a crime that prompts a deep sense of isolation for the victim. If we don’t reference the female victims, acknowledging their unique experiences, we only serve to buy into that systemic marginalization and become part of the problem. But as things now stand, even though we can safely expect thousands of female victims to come to light as grand jury investigations roll out in state after state, no one anticipates a rallying cry to rid the church of heterosexual priests.

When the Pennsylvania report was released this past August, it showed that 6 percent of the thousand cases examined involved prepubescent girls, while 16 percent of victims were female adolescents. Women represented another 1 percent of victims. The resulting indicator of 23 percent of all victims translates to about 250 female victims out of the 1,000 studied, a number that falls in line with the 2004 John Jay College Report, commissioned by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which indicated that 19 percent of clergy abuse victims are female.

After the release of the Pennsylvania report, First Things rushed in with a piece headlined “Why Men Like Me Should Not be Priests,” authored by a gay man, while one of Lifesite News’ first stories on the report ran with the headline “Accused Pennsylvania Priest Predators Preyed Mostly on Teen Boys: Analysis.” Overlooked in this coverage was the voice of the female victims, their suffering ignored. (When I questioned one woman who posted to an alt-right site advocating for a purge of gay priests how this would help all the female victims, her response was cool and brutal: since there are more male victims than female victims, the girls and women would have to wait.)

In the mainstream media’s coverage following the release of the grand jury, references to female victims tended to the particularly salacious or remarkable: the victims who became pregnant or the priest who abused five of eight girls in a family, as if one could quantify the crime and resulting suffering.

As more and more dioceses undergo grand jury investigations, our understanding of how widespread the problem is can only grow. After all, abuse is a crime of opportunity, and up until recently, the young people who priests have come in contact with have overwhelmingly been boys, whether because the local bishop insisted only boys could be altar servers, or because teaching priests were assigned to all-boys’ high schools or because seminarians are, by definition, all male.

A 2011 article by Karen Terry and Joshua Freilich in the Journal of Child Sex Abuse, however, analyzed data indicating that when priests began to gain more access to young females in the 1990s, the number of female victims grew also, offering a perverse twist on women’s desire to find equality in the church.

The John Jay College Report followed the Boston Globe’s explosive 2002 expose on abuse in the church, coverage which, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report notes, inspired people in Pennsylvania to report their own experiences of abuse. No doubt the Pennsylvania report will likely spur others to report as well.

In response to the latest explosive accountings — not only from the U.S. but from around the world — Rome has arranged the meeting on the protection of minors this coming February at the Vatican. The first of its kind, it’s an important step. But while women and abuse victims are involved in the preparatory work, and lay men and women experts in abuse will attend as advisers, as of this writing the people with the power around the table at this meeting are all men.

The Vatican Press Office notes that “Pope Francis wants Church leaders to have a full understanding of the devastating impact that clerical sexual abuse has on victims.” We must remain hopeful that experts in the field will move the discussion away from a simplistic, knee-jerk understanding of who abusers are and why they abuse to a more comprehensive understanding of why the church is vulnerable, how to end the problem and how to heal the victims.

As the women victims look on and view a sea of black and scarlet collars at the decision-making table, I wonder how hopeful they will feel that change is coming anytime soon.

Catherine Mulroney is programs coordinator at the faculty of theology at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

U.S. Bishops’ Conference: An Exercise in Incompetence

In 2000, Monsignor David Malloy left his work in the papal household and returned to the United States to become an associate general secretary at the U.S. bishops’ conference. In 2006, he was elected general secretary, defeating Monsignor John Strynkowski of Brooklyn. In 2010, then-Archbishop Timothy Dolan was elected President of the U.S. bishops’ conference, defeating the sitting vice president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas. Traditionally, the vice president almost always assumed the top spot, but Kicanas was a protégé of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and Dolan’s candidacy was an effort to end what George Weigel dubbed the “the Bernardin Era.”

Weigel characterized that era as embracing a “culturally accommodating Catholicism” in contrast to the culture warrior approach of Weigel’s favored clerics, an approach that forged an understanding of Catholic identity that aligned neatly with the conservative sexual ethics and libertarian economic beliefs common among Republicans.

What actually happened to the conference with these events was the replacement of highly competent prelates with incompetent ones. Now, the president of the conference is Cardinal Daniel DiNardo who could not inspire a mouse to cheese. More importantly, DiNardo is one of those former Vatican curia officials who long disdained bishops’ conferences, so now the leadership of the conference is in the hands of people who do not believe in the conference. It is akin to what happens when the anti-government GOP takes the reins of governance. You end up with a director of the Environmental Protection Agency who does not actually believe the environment needs protecting.

The ideological challenges are as enormous as the core competency issues. They wanted to fight culture wars, and they did, but what have they achieved? The Church is as polarized as the culture. A multi-year religious freedom campaign pursued a highly tendentious and legally expansive understanding of the concept that went far beyond what the Second Vatican Council’s Dignitatis humanae had prescribed. The bishops’ conference launched an annual “Fortnight for Freedom,” with themes like “Freedom to Serve” and “Freedom for Mission.” Next year’s theme? “Freedom from Attorneys-General.”

Because, while pursuing extremist legal strategies and aligning the Catholic hierarchy almost exclusively with Republican party politics, the conference ignored the need to enforce the norms for child protection enacted at Dallas in 2002. We learned that Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri had failed to report a priest who produced child pornography. We learned that Archbishop John Nienstedt failed to act against a priest he appears to have had a crush on. We learned that Bishop Richard Malone may have as many as nine priests currently serving who should have been removed from ministry under the terms of the Dallas charter.

The bishops gathered in Baltimore this week and DiNardo and his team presented proposals to confront the clergy sex abuse crisis. The Vatican ordered that no vote be taken on the proposals until a February meeting of the presidents of all the world’s episcopal conferences. DiNardo expressed his disappointment. Other bishops mumbled their anger at the Vatican. But, when the proposals were actually discussed over the next few days, it quickly became clear that they were poorly conceived, filled with ambiguities, unnecessarily expensive and bureaucratically cumbersome. They never would have received the necessary two-thirds approval of the body.       

The deeper problem with the proposals, and the reason the pope pulled them before a vote could be taken, is that they only aimed at cleaning the outside of the cup, not the inside. They aimed to introduce greater accountability and transparency into prosecution of sex abuse but they did not strike at the clerical culture that first caused the crimes of sex abuse to be covered up. Only a Jansenist – and I fear there are several who work at the USCCB – would fail to realize that the sex abuse crisis was about sex the way Watergate was about a burglary. It was the cover-up that disgusted the people of God, a cover-up that epitomized the moral rot in the clerical culture.

When Cardinal Bernardin and his friends ran the bishops’ conference, things got done. One of his auxiliaries, then-Bishop Wilton Gregory, led the 2002 meeting in Dallas that enacted the essential norms for fighting sex abuse, norms that effectively introduced zero tolerance policies for abusers and ended episcopal cover-ups when followed. In the 1980s, the bishops passed pastoral letters on peace and the economy that shaped the public debate for years.

Everything about this week’s USCCB meeting was amateurish. Pope Francis pulled the proposals because they were woefully inadequate. He has ordered the bishops to take a group retreat in January and is sending the preacher of the papal household to lead it, encouraging them to pray and discern how to move forward, instead of trying to win a news cycle or pursue a particular legal strategy. The pope recognizes that this crisis raises profound issues about what it means to lead the Christian community as a bishop. He is trying to teach them how to be bishops. Will it work? Who knows. As Dorothy Parker once said, you can lead a whore to culture, but you can’t make her think.

Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.

Catholicism Under Siege.

One could be forgiven for thinking that it has never been as bad as this—church authority assailed from within and from without, the episcopate in so many jurisdictions discredited, the papacy under siege from schismatic factions, the non-Catholic world appalled by a level of corruption the magnitude of which seems incomprehensible and, of course, the Catholic laity dispirited and demoralized to an unprecedented degree.

For sure, there have been scandals before—their number legion, in fact—and the wounds inflicted on the church have been  many, but never have there been so many that were self-inflicted. 

American Catholicism will be reeling from the Ted McCarrick Affair and the Grand Jury Report from Pennsylvania for generations and not because the laity are easily scandalized—they have been living with daily scandals for years now—but because they thought, naively, that it was stanched. But the hemorrhaging of revelation after revelation of sexual abuse has become a sickening cascade seeming without end. It is the betrayal of trust, the lack of firm leadership, the spinelessness that produced inaction rather than reforming zeal that has come to define American lay response to the latest iteration of scandals.

Add to this the failure of many of the U.S. bishops to rigorously defend Pope Francis against his detractors, to hedge their bets on the future and durability of this troublesome, to them, pontificate.  At best, he receives tepid support from them when, like his immediate predecessors, he should be able to count on their fervent loyalty.

It’s a church riven in a country riven; a church suffering from intense polarization in a country burdened with the weight of a visceral partisanship. It all makes for a very unhealthy environment—temporal and spiritual.

But just as many young people in the political arena, who have grown tired of the status quo and are energized to do things differently in the face of a lethargic officialdom, are beginning to shape things differently on the ground, so too many young Catholics are motivated to “save” their church.

At a recent colloquium held at Sacred Heart University designed to engage a panel of experts around the current ecclesial malaise, students milling around the dais before the arrival of the panelists overheard a professor muse aloud whether the students would actually be interested in a “conversation” around the current crisis.

She was astounded to have one of them approach her and respectfully declare that indeed they were aroused to hear what can be done to heal their church.  A teaching moment for the teacher and indeed for us all.

Calls for reform, however, have been made before when a cynical hierarchy simply decided to wait it out, to let the outrage spend itself, before all resorted back to normal.

But that is not going to happen this time.  Righteous fury over the scandals must translate into meaningful reform; efforts to tinker with structural change must give way to radical change; simple denunciations of the curse of clericalism, a mantra trotted out by all sides on the Catholic spectrum of opinion, must result in a strategy of enlightened insight.

For instance, the formation of priests is lamentably unsuited to modernity—the candidates for priestly ministry shaped in a hothouse of archaic sensibility and arrested emotional growth; healthy social intercourse hampered by a quasi-cloistered way of living; a culture of exceptionalism encouraged in a rarefied environment of pathetic irrelevancy; exaggerated notions of vocational uniqueness with bizarre talk of ontological differentiation, fatherly emanations and a distorted sacramentalism ensuring that the priest-in-formation understands his sacred identity.

The presbyterate, the priesthood, a precious gift of the church, must no longer be held hostage to clericalism. There are ways to train priests, ways to enhance ministry, to render credible again the witness and indispensable contribution of the ministerial priesthood. A fearful attachment to the old  conventions, the tired beliefs that often sustain us—these have not served us well in our contemporary upheaval.

New visioning is called for—time to translate the rhetoric of reform into a pastoral dream rooted in the Second Vatican Council, time to face the rapid and painful dissolution of the old structures with a robust imagination and faith.

The American Catholic Church may well be in massive meltdown, but it can generate new hope, marshal its energies to scour the vessel that is the church, rid the community of believers of the scourge of clerical deceit and privilege.

It is a Kairos moment.

Michael W. Higgins is a distinguished professor of Catholic thought at Sacred Heart University.