A View from the Pew: Abuse and Messing with Young Minds

How the church’s hierarchy has provided sanctuary for abusive priests.

Posted Aug 28, 2018

 Kai Pilger/Pexels
Source: Kai Pilger/Pexels

The dictionary defines evil as profoundly immoral and malevolent, and offers such synonyms as foul, vile, corrupt, depraved, vicious, monstrous and demonic.

Sounds like a billboard to the gateway of hell.

Yet sadly, if one digs deep below the catacombs and further into the history of the Roman Catholic Church, it’s a word picture of the abhorrent behavior of priests abusing children and the church’s hierarchy providing sanctuary for these demons. Yet this is not just today’s news; it has gone on for centuries, along with other corruptions, malfeasance, violence, fictitious and un-biblical invention of places like Limbo and Purgatory, papal purges, sinful arrogance to the point of depravity, and early on, raucous parties at the Vatican—the papal palace at times seemed more like a brothel.

Simon Peter, the rock upon which Jesus built the church, must be shuddering; the gates of hell have prevailed against it. It is time to hear loudly from the pew, from a congregation worldwide of 1.2 billion, rocked by these scandals, to stand up as one, along with a remnant devoted ministry, willing to speak out against all fears of retribution, and harken the days of Saint Peter.

Clerical celibacy, as a command for all, has proven to be an abomination. A driving force behind this discipline was the protection of church property in the event of a breakup of a marriage or death, and over the years, celibacy gave sacred shelter to thousands of the misfits. It is time for priests to be allowed to marry and for women to be ordained. Scriptural precedence for this dates back to the time of Jesus when women held key leadership positions in the ministry, presided at Eucharistic meals, and many of the disciples were married (in Matthew 8:14, Jesus heals Peter’s mother-in-law of a high fever).

The Catholic Church today needs an exorcist, a top-to-bottom purging of predator priests, bishops and cardinals, and those who have looked the other way in cover-up to protect church assets—modern Pharisees. Without such a wholesale cleansing, without an honest acknowledgment of the full scope of all sins of the past, and without fundamental, Christ-like reform, not just the promise of it, but the execution of it, the Catholic Church isn’t likely to survive the next few generations. The evil within will topple it.

“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.”—1 Corinthians 13:13.

Where’s the love? History is an indictment.

I was raised Irish Catholic, one of 10 children, in Rye, New York, just outside Manhattan, Resurrection Parish, where I served as an altar boy, climbing the altar boy ecclesiastical ladder to “Master of Ceremonies,” even briefly considering a vocation in high school to the priesthood. I still consider myself Catholic, though, full disclosure, attend Protestant churches as well as the Catholic Church. My wife Mary Catherine was raised Catholic, as was her family, and our three children, Brendan, Colleen and Conor, were all baptized Catholic. And yes, I am a sinner, imperfect as the rest of us. But I’m not throwing the first stone.

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro's recent announcement of a scorching grand jury report, documenting the sexual misconduct of 301 priests in Pennsylvania, involving more than 1,000 victims and condemning several within church hierarchy of protecting predators over 70 years of silence, is seething, and now calls into question many undisclosed pockets of priest perversion worldwide that also should be probed. “We the grand jury need you to hear this,” the report began. “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all…The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid scandal.”

To which, Thomas Groome, Boston College professor of theology and religious education, and a former priest, told The Daily Beast: “How could our institution and its leaders fall so far short in representing what we know to be the Gospel of Jesus Christ?”

The 1,400-page grand jury report detailed ghastly abuse. Among the violence and exploitation, as reported by The Washington Post, a seven-year-old boy who was sexually abused by a priest who then told him to go to confession and confess his “sins,” regarding the sexual encounter.

“Another boy,” The Washington Post reported “was repeatedly raped from ages 13 to 15 by a priest who bore down so hard on the boy’s back that it caused severe spine injuries. The victim later became addicted to painkillers and died of an overdose. One victim in Pittsburgh was forced to pose naked, depicting Christ on the cross, while priests photographed him with a Polaroid camera. Priests gave the boy and others gold cross necklaces to mark them as being ‘groomed’ for abuse.”

You’ve read the horrifying rest, along with the earlier and powerful Boston Globe Pulitzer Prize “Spotlight” coverage of priestly abuse, the in-depth New York Times coverage, and reports from around the world. Evil incarnate. The dire psychological impacts of sexual abuse last a lifetime—the depression, flashbacks, guilt, post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, self-harm, the numbness of the mind, the suicides.

And yet the Vatican keeps circling the wagons, admitting to abuses of the past with no declaration or timetable for concrete reform to stop this abhorrence. It’s textbook crisis communication strategy from the Vatican: concede some mistakes, just say enough to respond at a surface level, work to keep the story off the front page, and eventually it will go away. Business as usual.

“Even though it can be said that most of these cases belong to the past, nonetheless, as time goes on, we have come to know the pain of many of the victims,” Pope Francis recently wrote to the church body. “We have realized these wounds never disappear and that they require us forcefully to condemn these atrocities and join forces in uprooting this culture…”

Initially, Pope Francis declined comment on the grand jury report; instead in an address from the apostolic palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square, he talked about saints and heaven, and praying for victims of a bridge collapse in northern Italy. His public comments on a recent trip to Ireland, a hotbed of priestly abuse, were equally shallow and discouraging.

I’m sorry, Francis, but we’re talking about a church here, established by Jesus to be shepherds, not wolves, to be the body of Christ, not the embodiment of Beelzebub. Why can’t you and fellow cardinals get it? The fact that these atrocities and others worldwide have occurred in a church founded on purity, humility, and love is reason to bolt the doors and start anew. But that will take an army from the pews, a vestige of faithful priests, bishops and cardinals, and forceful public opinion to demand documented change, fully acknowledge the depths of sins of the past, and find the rock that’s missing in Rome. 

I can’t imagine the personal horror of sexual abuse, but I do understand at some level, as millions of others do, a numbness of the mind, as I deal with it. When the brain fails, when the body’s control panel is unhinged, as it is in dementia, the mind and body can’t function properly over time in a series of slow progressions. Put that on truckloads of steroids, and you have some of the horrid, immediate psychological impacts of sexual abuse.

How did the church fall so deep into a black hole from the Chair of St. Peter? Martin Luther had a sense when he posted his 95 Theses of 1517 to the door of Wittenberg Castle church in Germany. Luther, a priest, German professor of theology, and a formative figure in the Protestant Reformation, challenged the Catholic Church on several grounds, including sexual misconduct and the vile selling of plenary indulgences, certificates to reduce temporal punishment for family and loved ones in Purgatory.  

But perversions in the church date back to the early centuries. In the year 836, the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle disclosed that abortions and infanticide took place in convents and monasteries to cover up activities of un-celibate clerics. In the early days of the church when most priests were married, the Council of Elvira in 305 invoked the celibacy rule for priests, those married and single—perfect chastity, to bring the clergy closer to the Lord. But as history demonstrates, it was a grab for church assets, and thus opened the door for pedophiles in the sickest, most vicious ways. The church was a thousand years old when it formally adopted celibacy a discipline at the Second Lateran Council of 1139, and reaffirmed at the Council of Trent in 1563, although church discipline is not dogma and can be reversed by the Pope at any time, including now.

Pope Francis years ago shared his beliefs on celibacy when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, recorded in the book, On Heaven and Earth. He said celibacy “is a matter of discipline, not faith. It can change,” but added, “For the moment, I am in favor of maintaining celibacy.” Saying there were pros and cons of celibacy, he noted there were centuries of good experience, rather than failures.

You can do better, Francis, and you don’t have to work hard to rise above some of your predecessors in the early church who set a serpentine course that continues today. Among the more heinous:

Pope Stephen VI, who came to power in 896, ordering the rotting corpse of Pope Formosus to be exhumed, dressed in papal robes and put on a throne to face trial. Stephen ordered the body then to be dragged through the street and tossed into the Tiber River.

In 1095, Pope Urban II had priests’ wives sold into slavery, children were abandoned.

Pope Alexander VI, who served from 1492 to 1530, a wealthy Spaniard who reportedly bought the papacy, killed off rival cardinals to gain their assets, and in his spare time fathered several children through mistresses.

There are many others. One can Google. Can good come out of evil when evil is embedded? If we knew the answer, we’d all know how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Like many, I had high hopes for significant reform when Pope Francis was chosen, but he seems complicit now in the church power structure. Time will tell, but the white smoke has turned cloudy. In a moment when Catholics need the church most, the church is AWOL. For starters, Pope Francis could draw back the dark curtains of the Vatican, allow priests to marry, and ordain women with the full clerical privileges of ordination. That may not stop abuse in the church, but it would be a significant roadblock.

Writes Margery Eagan, a Catholic, about church reform in a The Boston Globe column, “Getting there means massive reforms. But a church where men and women share power must be among them. Not that women are perfect, of course. But I have no doubt that Catholic women with power in the church would have saved thousands of children from criminal predators all across Pennsylvania, Boston, America, and much of the world. Here’s what women almost never do: rape children.”