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.