Catholic Abuse Scandals: Why?

The Pope has been in the news this week, embarrassed by another sexual scandal exposed in his Church. This time it doesn’t involve children, thank God, but it’s hardly much better. Male priests have been molesting nuns, the women who have taken vows of celibacy to serve the Roman Church. Yet this is a part of a far wider problem. 

The Church’s own report in 2004 said more than 4,000 American priests had faced sexual abuse allegations in the last 50 years, in cases involving more than 10,000 children, most of whom were boys. Another report five years later found that sexual and psychological abuse was ‘endemic’ in Catholic-run ‘industrial schools’ and orphanages in Ireland for most of the 20th Century.

I take no sectarian satisfaction is reeling off these figures. I know several Catholic clergy and although we disagree on fundamental differences of theology, we cannot tar all priests with the same brush. It cannot be denied, however, that many of them have jumped into the tar barrel voluntarily, standing up to their heads in pitch. We also ought to acknowledge that other religious groups are not immune from infiltration by predatory perverts. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church seems to have far, far more than its fair share. Furthermore, it’s nothing new. The Pope issued an ‘instruction’ in 1917, aimed at preventing priests from soliciting sex with children when they were in the confessional. It’s a pity its remit did not extend beyond that wooden box.

Is it because the Church insists of clerical celibacy? These pent-up and frustrated men have needs like everyone else; deny them a legitimate outlet, and they’ll seek illegitimate ones. And yet others manage to be celibate. Indeed, married men (and women) are also required to control sexual urges every single day. So I think there’s more to it than this, though it might be an aggravating factor.

The Roman priesthood conveys on its members a supernatural authority that gives them a feeling of being above the law. They are addressed by all as Father or Monsignor; some bishops insist on courtly salutations such as Excellency or Eminence. They have the power to call down Christ into the wafer and transform wine into his blood. Their power to confer God’s sacraments and bestow divine blessing gives them an authority over the faithful that is hard to resist. They hear confessions and choose whether to forgive on God’s behalf. The fact that they are ordained sets them apart from the congregations, giving them immunity and privilege that ordinary Catholics dare not question. Set someone up as a spiritual prince-cum-wizard-cum-prophet and you’ll give him a sense of incredible power and authority; put him in charge of children or unmarried virgins sworn to obedience, and he may well exercise that terrifying authority to his own, wicked advantage.

I suspect children and nuns have been abused by priests for two millennia; only with a free press and rejection of dogma does such practice now come to light. I thank God we have only one High Priest, Jesus Himself, who warns abusers of children:

But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.