By Frank Wessling
Get to know a Catholic priest and you’re likely to find a man very much like any other.
Better educated and better with words than most men, perhaps. And less likely than most to talk as if he knows much about women — even though he might be among the most knowing because he hears the confessions of women.
Other than that, priests as a group are as healthy and unhealthy as the rest of us, as integrated and neurotic, as contented and restless, as happy and sad. They are, simply, human, looking for and needing love as much as any of us. This needs to be said.
After years of suspicion about priests because of the sex abuse scandal there should be a point where the smoke of that story blows away. We need the air cleared in order to see the good all around us in what these men mean to us in our faith life and what they do to maintain roots for the Church.
They are worthy of the trust they ask for.
Last week’s release of the report on “Causes and Context” of the sex abuse crisis should be that turning point. As a study of why a small percentage of priests went wrong in this way when they did, it is both deep and broad. Also, it is probably unprecedented as an examination of a vast institution’s leadership group.
The John Jay College of Criminal Justice spent almost five years gathering and studying information on the training and living situations of priests, on cultural influences affecting them, and the expectations placed on them by the Church. The result is a book-length report with no simple answers, no magic bullet that ends all wondering and soothes all pain.
For that reason, as well as the study’s thoroughness, “Causes and Context” should be enough evidence even for the most skeptical that the Church is serious about rooting out whatever went wrong in the latter half of the 20th century.
There will be complaints that the bishops as a group still escape their share of responsibility for the scandal. That may be true in the sense that punishment for their part came in a different way than that of priests. Both priests and bishops suffered a loss of respect and heightened suspicion, but only priests were ousted for a single offensive act, whether that act was part of a depraved pattern or a one-time loss of balance and judgment. Bishops could hide risky and mistaken judgments about acceptance and assignment of personnel in the multiple uncertainties that go into any decisions about people. But they now face constant scrutiny, along with the chore of overseeing the new bureaucratic apparatus required for insuring that children are safe and Church personnel are healthy enough for their ministries.
The “peak of the crisis has passed,” the report says. That’s the good news, although it should not be news for anyone paying attention. Most sexual molesting of children by Catholic clergy happened from the 1960s into the ‘80s and diminished rapidly as the Church reacted to dramatic stories of abuse by a few notorious predators. We have known this. The new report confirms it.
The Causes and Context study also concludes that neither celibacy nor homosexuality is a significant factor explaining sexual abuse of children. Lack of psychosexual maturity, a poor seminary environment for attaining maturity, lack of preparation for the loneliness of priestly life and inadequate support in times of loneliness explain it better. Most men who came out of seminaries in the mid-20th century had the psychological strength to minister well enough. They found their own support with colleagues, made healthy friendships with parishioners and kept up family relationships. But they now face constant scrutiny, along with the chore of overseeing the new bureaucratic apparatus required for ensuring that children are safe and church personnel are healthy enough for their ministries.That’s the other good news.
Finally, the study notes that there is no way to predict who might be an abuser. Screening of candidates for the priesthood can find a few risk factors, such as a history of being sexually molested as a child, trouble with alcohol, or notable difficulty relating with adults. But men with these “vulnerabilities” don’t necessarily abuse and can become good priests. Their formation and support in ministry is crucial.
Now let’s accept the new reality of a Church chastened by scandal and humbled so that its ministry can now be seen more clearly as service and not so much as judgment. Let’s allow ourselves to rise and carry on with that new life.