Friday, March 19, 2010

Sex abuse and the priesthood

The recent revelations of sex abuse among the clergy in Germany and elsewhere, coming on top of the exhaustive report on the subject in Ireland, and the long-running crisis in the United States, has whipped the secular press up into a characteristic frenzy. They are right to be outraged at the betrayal of trust by priests, and the failure of religious superiors and bishops to deal with the matter appropriately. A systematic attempt is being made, however, to link the scandals to the Holy Father, and to the celibate priesthood.

Neither of these attempts stand up to scrutiny. On the first, Pope Benedict had only the most remote connection with a sex offender priest from the diocese of Essen who stayed in Munich for treatment when Joseph Ratzinger was Archbishop. It is not clear that the details of this priest's offenses were even given to the Munich authorities. The attempt to involve the Pope's brother Georg is equally tenuous: he taught at a school where sex abuse was going on--no one has a shred of evidence he either perpetrated it or covered it up. These kinds of attacks are inevitable, perhaps, but they leave the reputation of the journalists and newspapers involved looking more battered than that of the Holy Father.

John Allen has written a fascinating article on how the Holy Father was in fact personally responsible, when Prefect of the CDF, for a massive shift in attitude at the Vatican towards taking the sex abuse crisis seriously. This really deserves to be read.

On the question of clerical celibacy, this is the most long-running theme of the media's take on the abuse crisis. The secular media can't understand celibacy, and the notion of a clergy set apart by celibacy, like all holy things, worries them. But the argument simply doesn't work. Most sex offenders are not bound by any rule of celibacy. Some are. Some are unmarried, plenty are married. Some are not interested in the opposite sex. Since the possibility of marriage doesn't solve the problem of lay sex abuse, why is it imagined it would solve the problem of clerical sex abuse?

What is true is that clerical status affords special opportunities for abuse. So does the teaching profession. So one sees abusers specially attracted to those professions, and it is up to those in charge of their training to weed them out. This is something liberals, both inside and outside the Church, have been unwilling to do over the last forty years, and we are reaping the consequences.

The problem of priests and teachers who lack a genuine vocation and lack moral fibre goes back a long way, but before the 1960s it seems to have manifested itself in brutality more than in sexual predation. Sexual predation has come to the fore as the taboos against it have weakened--at exactly the same time as taboos against physical brutality have become established. The same people who say you shouldn't touch a child to control or chastise him defended the possibility of having a mutually rewarding consensual sexual relationship with him. (New Labour starlets Hewitt and Harman were talking about such things back in the early 1980s.)

That kind of talk has, to a remarkable extent, been silenced by the sex abuse revelations. One must not forget how common it was, from the 1960s to the 1990s. A series of attempts were made to gain UN recognition for groups campaigning for the legalisation of paedophilia, well into the present century. The imposition of 'non judgemental' sex education on our schools even today is left over from this general movement. Specifically, the 'let it all hang out' approach to counselling was actually imposed on many religious orders and dioceses in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, with priests preaching on sexual morality and wanting to say the Traditional Mass alike being condemned as too 'rigid'. (And seminarians showing signs of 'rigidity' being ruthlessly ejected.)

If you want it from the horse's mouth, listen to this fascinating talk by Dr William Coulson (alternatively, here's a short article), who took the psycho-analytic techniques of Carl Rogers to religious communities ion the 1970s, and is convinced that sexual abuse followed. Rogers' approach is to say 'follow your bliss' - 'do what feels right'. It turned out that some of the clergy who had been stopping themselves from following their natural urges, and stopped bothering after listening to this, had been following the norms of Natural Law which protect the innocent. Carl Rogers had forgotten about Original Sin.

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