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Penn State, Sandusky, and the Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis

This past week every Catholic moral theologian has been reminded of a recent crisis in our Church that some of us may well want to put behind us. I hope that if any good can possibly come out of the Sandusky criminal investigation, it is to remind us that this is a societal-wide problem, and it is one that is never going to go away. As a society we can sanction it, report it, try to limit it, and so on, but it not going to go away. Hence vigilence about potential child abuse must become part of our ongoing ecclesial and societal psyche.

What we’ve read about is how Jerry Sandusky, the former defensive coordinator of the Penn State football team, has been charged with sexual abuse of 8 boys between the ages of about 8 and 13, over more than a ten year period. All of these seem to have been boys from underprivileged backgrounds and/or difficult family situations, and whom Sandusky got to know through the charity he had founded in 1977 to aid such troubled children.

The grand jury report that lead to Sandusky’s arrest unfortunately was released to the public. Although Sandusky’s 8 victims are not named, unfortunately it won’t be long before their identities become more or less publicly known, which may well serve to further traumatize them. If their privacy is to be sacrificed in this way, then the least we can do is read the graphic details of the grand jury report, if only to sear into our consciences what some sinsick people do to children, and hence heighten our sensitivities to certain kinds of situations about which we might not otherwise notice.

But for those of us who love our Church, we have a particular responsibility to work for our Church to be the kind of place where that is even less likely to happen. Towards that end, we need to really understand what went on, and to that end we do well to begin by reading the John Jay Report.

A few days ago, while looking up some older articles on nutrition and hydration, I was looking at the Pope John XXII Medical-Moral Research and Education Centre’s (now the National Catholic Bioethics Centre’s) 1989 Proceedings of the Bishop’s Workshop. This is the proceedings from a week-long conference where experts in medical ethics present papers and discuss them with Bishops from throughout North America, Central America and the Philippines. One of the topics was the health of priests, and 25 pages is devoted to the psychosexual health of priests. Benedict Groeschel preents on it, and then has a question and answer session with a number of Bishops, including Adam Cardinal Maida. What is striking about this discussion – in 1989 – is that in those 25 pages, albeit the focus is on how to deal with pedophile priests, there is never one sentence even referring to concern for or the responsibility of the Church to the victims, the sexually abused children. There is concern expressed about due process for priests, concern about how such priests negatively affect other priests, concern about prosecuation from civil authorities, concern about Rome’s demand for due process, and how this impact’s the Bishop’s ability to remove such priests. In the midst of all these concerns, the omission of ANY expressed concern for the sexually abused children might possibly defensible considering the topic was the health of priests, except that Fr. Groeschel takes two paragraphs to discuss potential psychopathic children and the very rare ‘black widow’ child who entice priests in order to destroy them (325-26). Now, it very well may be true that there are the occasional psychopathic children or even ‘black widows,’ the fact that such children are referred to, but that there is no reference to all the innocent victims, is rather shocking.

Furthermore, in an exchange between Groeschel and a Bishop, we get one kind of explanation as to why priests were moved to another diocese. It is because “other priests” would know of the pedophile or otherwise sexually problematic priest, and they would make it difficult for that priest, or they would be uncomfortable working with and/or overseeing/monitoring that priest. Again, no reference whatsoever to the future potential victims of sexual abuse as a reason not to reassign them.

I am by no means claiming that this exchange was standard at that time, and I acknowledge it was a different time. Furthermore, as the John Jay Report notes, in 1989 the number of reports of sexual abuse was less than 1/3 of the reports received by 2002, so the understood scope of the problem was certainly less. Despite all that, the difference in consciousness regarding the issue is extremely jarring and deeply morally disappointing.

One of the big question for us now, in light of the John Jay Report, is how the training of seminarians and perhaps the social situation of priests will change in the light of what has been learned. Let me give just one example of what I believe we the Church have to wrestle with from the report. One fact out of the John Jay Report is that the rate of sexual abuse among diocesan clergy was almost twice as high as that among those in religious orders. Presumably, one would then think that there must be something either in the training of typical form of life of diocesan clergy that accounts for that striking difference. What is it, and how should the priestly life for diocesan clergy be adapted to respond to that? I don’t have any answers, but I certainly hope that our Church, and hopefully some of our Church’s moral theologians are thinking about that and calling perhaps for new forms of communal life in our dioceses.



  1. John,
    Thanks for the honesty about the omission of child concern in the 1989 meeting. To cite ideas of Richard Rohr, we are so doctrine-liturgy oriented that morals in new situations fail. If we were morals first and not doctrine- liturgy first, Benedict would tax each Catholic one dollar for East Africa….and would send the resultant 1 billion there and the deaths from starvation would end quickly. Numbers and ad hoc tax… are the unused Catholic advantage.

    To your final comments, I think such men are primarily carnal not spiritual so that a vow of poverty is not something many of them want. Similarly as diocesan clergy, with their own car, they can lead an unmonitored life more so than religious. Take an extreme case, I doubt that the contemplative orders had more than a minimal encounter with these people.

  2. John– Thanks for this – the Penn State incident is truly a reminder. Your post pushes us to reflect further on the mentality – one that I can never grasp – behind why this was tolerated.
    But I think we can also see some sense of this, in a different form, in the Penn State situation. Obviously for many students, the firing of Joe Paterno was seen as an attack on the meaning of the community, of what Penn State “is.” What was created was a not-entirely-unreal mythology about Penn State football, which was seen as attacked when Paterno was fired.
    Much has been written about how the Church needs to become less hierarchical and more accountable. But your account here, along with the Penn State situation, indicates to me that there is a kind of mythology of the organization that is particularly problematic. In particular, the discussion of psychopathic children and “black widows” indicates a focus entirely on threats to the mythological character of the institution. I think this is “clericalism” in the bad sense. An inflated sense of power may be a symptom of the problem. But the real problem is the failure to understand the servant character of the institution itself – that is, the service is not ultimately to the institutional mythology, but to Christ and to the world.

  3. John, thanks for this review and analysis. Your willingness to write about this is to be commended. As you certainly know—the care with which you word the claims of your final paragraph gives it away—when it comes to matters relating to seminary culture and priestly formation, few voices count. Perhaps this is one of the issues that moral theologians might think about.

  4. Frankly,I am of the opinion that one of the primary stumbling blocks plaguing the institutional church is that it’s too…institutional.The so-called heirarchy has over the centuries become so encrusted,so weighted down with the flotsam and jetsam of useless religiosity,so concerned with getting the rites,rituals,and ceremony correct and just right,so enamored with pomp and circumstance,so personality-driven,that the healing and delivering power of the Risen Christ is of no effect,buried under the accumulated centuries of dead religion.I think it’s too often forgotten that authentic Christian faith is not a religion or some manufactured tradition;no,our faith is a Person,one who is largely marginalized,if not missing outright in much that proclaims itself”christian”nowadays,be it Catholic,Protestant,Orthodox,whatever.We all of us need to get back to the too-long forgotten”basics”,to wit:”Repent ye,and believe the Gospel!”-Peace and Love in Christ.

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